Avi Golan joined Air New Zealand as its first chief digital officer (CDO) in 2016 following 18 years working in the world’s tech capital, Silicon Valley.
“I was attracted to the airline because of its long history of innovation and its desire to become a leading organisation in the digital space. Air New Zealand has since been on this journey to embrace digital as key definer of the airline’s future success,” says Golan.
“We are always learning and always experimenting because technology is always changing and we want to continue to provide an experience that surprises and delights our customers at every step of the journey.
“We are re-imagining travel through inspiring experiences. To support this vision, we’re creating an ecosystem of shared, reusable integration services to deliver these inspiring experiences faster and smarter,” says Golan.
You can create an amazing culture but if you don’t have the tools that will enable the people to deliver at speed and scale, it is wasted Avi Golan, Air New Zealand
Air New Zealand was one of the earliest New Zealand companies to recognise the importance of digital by appointing Golan as one of the first chief digital officers in the country and elevating the importance of this role to report directly to the chief executive officer.
Golan has a strong entrepreneurial spirit and spent his career constantly involved in ideation and innovation of new technologies and creative solutions. Since coming onboard, he has worked alongside the digital management team to shape the new strategy.
The digital management team collaborated to create the product operating model and the CDO engaged with them directly so they could collectively translate the current business model into a new product management structure that would deliver to the digital strategy.
Air New Zealand continues to leap ahead not only of its competitors, but other industries, in moving disruptive or emerging technologies beyond pilot projects.
Last year, the airline made its first foray into the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning by unveiling its online chatbot Oscar to assist customers with commonly asked queries.
Golan says the development of Oscar was aligned with Air New Zealand’s goal to become a leading digital company.
“We needed to change our approach and are working hard to foster a culture of customer-led design and collaboration,” he says.
With this in mind, Golan says Air New Zealand took a different approach, launching Oscar as a beta product in the early-development stages allowing customers to play an active role in training him.
“We needed to demonstrate to the business that this is a new way of releasing innovation into the market – it does not need to be 100 per cent perfect. The technology may not work perfectly initially but this approach is now very much part of an experimental culture we are fostering.”
Oscar’s success rate was just 7 per cent on day one and as he’s learnt from customer interactions, his rate is now more than 70 per cent as he handles more than 375 different topics of increasing complexity, says Golan.
We needed to demonstrate to the business that this is a new way of releasing innovation into the market – it does not need to be 100 per cent perfect Avi Golan, Air New Zealand
Since the launch, Golan says other organisations have remarked that their chatbot is one of the most advanced and comprehensive in the market.
Air New Zealand was also the first in Australasia to introduce an offering on Google Assistant which is backed by the same in-house AI technology that powers Oscar. In addition, the airline was a launch partner of Amazon Alexa.
Digital experimentation is actively encouraged at Air New Zealand, and in the past year the airline has embarked on a wide range of trials, including trialling a digital human called Sophie in partnership with Kiwi company Soul Machines, who was designed to help answer customer questions about the carrier’s products and New Zealand as a tourist destination at a campaign launch event in Los Angeles.
The airline also teamed up with CommBank in Australia to explore the role social robotics could play in the future of travel. The airline had the bank’s social humanoid robot called Chip interact with customers in the check-in and gate lounge areas at Sydney Airport, answering common travel questions.
In a partnership with Air New Zealand, CommBank in Australia placed it’s 1.7 metre tall, 100 kg, $300,000 ‘CANdroid’ Chip at a number of locations at the airport to assist and amuse passengers.
Other experiments included exploring how Microsoft’s augmented reality viewer Hololens and Google’s wireless Bluetooth Pixel Buds headphones, which enable live translation of 40 languages via Google’s Pixel handset, could potentially enhance the customer experience.
“We are determined to provide our customers with a fast and personalised experience, so it’s crucial for us to embrace technology solutions and collaborate with like-minded partners so we can be at the cutting edge of change,”
Air New Zealand has also encouraged a greater use of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and accelerated the delivery of reusable APIs, Golan says.
“Reusable APIs provide the flexibility, agility and speed we require to deliver products to market faster and maintain our competitiveness,” says Golan. “We wanted to have a modern responsive technology platform that we could innovate on top of.”
He says this acceleration was delivered through the setup of a new team.
“This dedicated team was not burdened with business as usual activities and so were discouraged from building bespoke APIs with a closed capability that only met the needs of a single channel.”
The team defaulted to sharing capabilities publicly and with partners, rather than automatically locking down access. This forced discussions of customer, privacy and data usage, helping us to implement better governance across our backend technology systems, says Golan.
“This dedicated accelerated delivery led to faster innovation and integration and at a lower cost.”
“One benefit has been around our ability to regularly sign up new loyalty partners. The integration process over the last year has reduced from three weeks to just three days enabling direct ‘Hands Free’ integrations,” he says.
“We have moved from having 10 APIs to more than 50 that are used across a number of channels to deliver value to the business.”
Air New Zealand also launched the ability to book hotels on Expedia. After two months, sales from this service were 46 per cent ahead of target.
“We’re now able to obtain authoritative flight status by leveraging the abstraction layer of the API to merge operational data,” says Golan. This used to be an arduous process across a number of systems and a drain on each channel’s resources.
“Commitment from senior management and strong leadership enabled this programme to exceed its objectives and its success has encouraged API development throughout the company.”
Avi Golan has challenged our way of working across the airline Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon
Today, the digital team is being asked by other parts of the business to help with their own transitions to better ways of working.
Golan says he and the digital leadership team work to increase understanding and awareness of digital with the Board, executive and other senior leaders. He organised the board and executive members to visit leading digital organisations in Silicon Valley, including Apple, Facebook, Buzzfeed and Google.
Ensuring these stakeholders have a better understanding of digital enables the team to gain support for the initiatives they want to drive, says Golan.
With his team, Golan has a fortnightly ‘Digital Talk’ to keep them up to date with what’s happening and give anyone the opportunity to ask questions. These talks have proved popular as they provide a more relaxed forum of discussion.
Golan encourages diversity within the team. He says 40 per cent of the digital management team are women, and the staff belong to the company’s various diversity networks.
He set up a digital internship programme, which is now on its second year. The first batch of interns were all offered jobs at Air New Zealand.
“As part of our reorganisation, we focused initially on getting our talent mix right by growing our design thinking, agile and cloud capabilities through continual training, lunch and learns and so on. Everyone is encouraged to continually review their own personal development plan.”
Air New Zealand chief executive officer Christopher Luxon says Avi Golan plays a critical role in encouraging the senior management team to put digital at the forefront of the business to improve the customer journey and minimise the pain points.
“He has challenged our way of working across the airline,” says Luxon.
“He plays a leading role in the delivery of the company’s strategy ensuring we engage digitally with customers across multiple international markets in a way that is relevant to them through new and emerging channels.”
For Golan, it all comes back to the Maori proverb of valuing what matters most.
‘He Tangata, He Tangata, He Tangata: The People, The People, The People.’
“At the end of the day it’s all about creating the culture that cultivates innovation, inspiration and exploration and the only way to do it is to improve the engagement of our people,” he says.
“We have to provide a fun place of work, give them ‘permission to play’, create a space to innovate and liberate the team to create ideas as much as they can.”
The other is embracing the inevitability of change.
“We need to make sure we enable teams to adopt new environments, new technologies and be ready to address new market indicators as they appear,” says Golan.
“We need to adopt a new way of asking ourselves everyday, ‘What’s new?’ What are the new trends and how will they impact the way we work?
“Creating scale in our technology platform from the start is key to that liberation of our teams to actually deliver at scale.”
“You can create an amazing culture but if you don’t have the tools that will enable the people to deliver at speed and scale, it is wasted,” he says.
“Invest in your technology stack, hire strong technology architects and make sure they drive your platform forward.” Divina Paredes