Qantas, REA Group on what it takes to ride the digital transformation wave

Two Aussie iconic brands share how they're tackling digital transformation and importantly, the people and culture changes required


Digital transformation has to be the combination of continuous business improvement and driving customer value with talent and people management, Qantas’s digital and mechandising lead, Sheerien Salindera, says.

Speaking on a panel at the recent Optimizely event in Sydney, Salindera said the Australian ASX-listed airline has anchored digital transformation around continuous improvement to drive value. She described a “holy trinity” of factors contributing to this: Ever-higher expectations from customers of brands; delivering more for less and improving productivity; and people and talent acquisition and retention.

“Being in a small market where digital and data skills are hard to find, digital transformation has become so important to attracting and retaining talent - your IP is your people,” she told attendees. “It’s an important and underplayed reason as to why we need to reorganise and constantly be able to adapt.

“There are also macro reasons. Brands are not isolated experiences or interactions anymore. They’re all digital connected and fluid, and that fluidity means you have to be in lots of place you weren’t in previously.”  

Brands that aren’t trying to build a bridge connecting between digital and physical worlds don’t have much runway to work with, REA Group head of behavioural communications and analytics, Bronwyn Smedley, said.

“Experiences people are having today often aren’t shaped by your own brand,” she pointed out. “You have to think about experiences people are having with Qantas, realestate.com.au, plus those large digital players like Google and Facebook. They are shaping the way people interact, the way they live, and for any brand, you have to be part of that world.”  

Like Salindera, Smedley said tackling core people, process and data pillars of digital transformation is vital. At REA, this has required teams to work at different paces and attack problems both at a bottom-line level, through tactical initiatives, but also to make the case from the top down.

“We have looked to work at a pace where we are constantly testing, learning and optimising,” Smedley explained. “We put people together in teams to work cross-functionally and that builds momentum around really transforming what is now a 20-year old business.”

Some areas are more self-contained, generally by design, Smedley said. “What we have tried to develop is a line-of-business operating model where all people needed to bring a product to market and service a particular customer set, sit and work together cross-functionally,” she continued.

“As well as that, we have centralised teams, such as mine, which focuses on the consumer side of the business. These teams monitor projects and coordinate in and that plays a big role in being able to cross-pollinate these ideas and do these initiatives ideally by design.”

Related: How REA Group uses adtech to deepen customer reach, engagement

Related: How REA Group is creating an enhanced digital playground

It’s the interweaving of people and relationships in the organisation and moving from one project to another that work, Smedley said. “They carry with them the relationships they formed previously and this cross-functional collaboration occurs more organically as a result.”  

Fostering iterative thinking

Salindera portrayed digital in two ways. Innovation and technology, for instance, are pervading the entire Qantas organisation, from cabin crew to air traffic control and loyalty. Within the digital direct team, meanwhile, change has truly been driven by customers and seen staff reskill and adapt accordingly.

“We had large-scale contact centres teams as people like to call people up. Now people talk to devices, or scan wearables, so a significant amount of our digital team were reservations staff and they have adapted as tech changed, and they’re learning new technology and applying their customer service knowledge in new ways,” she said.

Smedley agreed there’s a lot to be said for learning as you go. When it comes to people management and career progression, Salindera also noted the shift from building experience and importance through an organisation, to the need to master specific skills and expertise.

“In digital, your career progression tends to be based on mastery of your craft as opposed to sticking it out somewhere and working your way up the hierarchy,” she commented. “This means high turnover and breadth of experiences. Mastery of craft means you’re going to have a talent brain drain to go through.”  

Panellists also touched on the importance of framework and strategy around technology adoption.

“It’s not the technology that’s the problem, it’s capability, and that framework is very clear,” Salindera argued. “You need architects, engineers, thinkers, data users, doers, and to be insights driven.

“At Qantas specifically, we have spent lot of time learning from the best-in-breed and digital natives…We talk about the Spotify model, Amazon pizza model, we hired experts, did our research, asked questions, but importantly we have tested it.”  

This has included setting up skunkworks and moving teams to Agile practices. “We experiment to find what will work for the culture at Qantas. We do it small scale, then use it as case study to drive a broader transformation,” Salindera said.   

Smedly called the approach “somewhat opportunistic”. “Hone in on single problem you can solve, or look at something that’s not working in the customer journey. You want to pick something where you won’t come up against a lot of resistance first – an area that’s ripe for transformation or is really calling out for it,” she advised.

“The key areas we’ve had success is when we’ve got all those lines and people keen for change bringing some skills to the table. It doesn’t really matter what it is. Having all those perspectives in the room is important. And don’t expect to lead through authority. Give power to people in the room to create the transformation.”

And if you are leader driving and creating change, you have to change yourself, because running a highly matrixed team where you don’t have direct control of some of your teams is increasingly a reality, Salindera said.  

“If your organisation is going through change… don’t wait for structure and reorganisation. You are in charge of your own career. Think hard about that craft, and you to master and what you want to offer,” she added.   

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu

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