by Divina Paredes

CIO50 2019 #17: Mark Leadbetter, House of Travel

Mar 28, 2019
Artificial Intelligence Augmented Reality Business Continuity

Over the past year, Mark Leadbetter and his team tackled an increasing source of disruption for their customers.

This was the increase in traveller disruptions through disasters, terrorism and weather events, says the IT director at House of Travel (HOT).

“We have a duty of care to all our customers, but it has historically been challenging,” he says.

The single incident managers across their businesses were responsible for monitoring news feeds for incidents and then manually running reports to determine if they have travellers in the affected areas.

“This was often an issue if incidents occurred during the night,” he says.

He and his team developed a system to manage and react to these global incidents.

The system’s main function is to provide all of their businesses with a list of affected travellers and a means to communicate to them within five minutes of an event occurring.

This solution uses a robot that monitors a variety of news feeds, primarily through news services such as Intelliguide.

“It polls every minute. We receive about 700 incidents from around the globe every day. We use AI algorithms to triage each incident that is received by this robot. This triage includes whether we have affected travellers in the location,” he says.

The system uses geo-mapping – including travellers due at the location in the next seven days, the type of event (weather, terrorism, natural disaster, etc) and the severity of the incident.

When an incident matches predefined criteria that they have deemed requires action, an engine sends the incident along with a list of affected travellers to the incident manager of each of their 90 businesses.

“If it is a severe incident, then we also accompany this with an SMS message to the designated number for the incident manager of that business,” says Leadbetter.

“The incident email allows the incident manager to notify and respond via SMS or email to each of the affected travellers. We can customise the AI logic to respond differently depending on the customer. For example, we will offer a different type of response algorithm for a corporate traveller as opposed to a leisure traveller,” he says.

HOT had just launched a second release of this system for corporate travellers.

He explains this is designed to provide a visual self-management tool for larger organisations. This is achieved via an integration with their corporate travel platform Orbit Enterprise.

From within this platform, a travel arranger or business manager can see the geo-mapped location for their employees on a world map, and countries are also colour coded as to risk.

This risk is determined by the government status report or through the incidents being picked up by the duty of care robot, he explains.

The company can then contact the travellers using email or text directly from the platform and can also be notified by the duty of care robot in the same way that the internal teams are notified. This gives ultimate visibility for these businesses of their travellers’ status and risk.

API layer

Another project, meanwhile, focuses on strengthening their relationship with their business partners across the globe.

Leadbetter says the House of Travel (HOT) group currently has 10 different companies.

They consume content from several third party organisations such as airlines, hotels, rental cars and cruise lines.

Traditionally, there have been bespoke connections for each business. This has been difficult to maintain as these connectors and content providers change rapidly, he says.

So the HOT team re-engineered their connections to create a HOT API layer. “This allows us to create catalogues of standard APIs that can be consumed in different ways by different divisions of the organisation,” he explains.

The team is researching a trial blockchain traveller profile database that they can connect to via this API layer.

“The principal behind this is every travel provider maintains unique profile records for a traveller. We believe this should be the property of a traveller and should move with the traveller,” says Leadbetter.

“Blockchain allows the perfect platform to achieve this. The travel history, profile updates etc can be added as blocks in the chain and accessed/updated by travel arranger via our API layer.”

“We believe the use of blockchain for managing profiles this way is unique,” says Leadbetter.

Moreover, their API layer has reduced cost and time to market within their businesses.

“We have been able to expose new content, routes and suppliers across multiple businesses simultaneously.”

Critical focus and collaboration

Leadbetter says a key focus for him is working with teams across the HOT group.

“We work to ensure technology is enabling their business, differentiating them from their competitors and allowing us to win,” he explains.

This can be a challenge, he admits, because HOT has a partnership of eight different divisions, with 90 different business partnerships.

Every one of our businesses is unique and each one may vary in size from five staff to 400 staff.

“The strength of our business is that we provide them with the same focus and support regardless of their size,” he states.

Thus, Leadbetter attends quarterly regional meetings with all of the retail stores. This allows him to share what they are doing within IT, get their feedback and what is working in the region. “This also allows us to look at how we can meet some of the specific business challenges that they face.”

The IT team also sends out a IT newsletters with hints, tips and updates that goes to all users.

He runs quarterly meetings with their corporate business partners and joins their fortnightly agile planning sectors. He also coordinate the quarterly executive committee and digital strategy meetings that discuss their high level plans for the next 12 months.

“My focus at the board level is to provide clear, uncomplicated information on IT project and system performance,” he says.

For this, he uses a traffic light system to update the monthly board papers with project information and system statuses. This reduces the size in board papers and immediately highlights any areas of focus for them.

“Within the business we have a philosophy that culture eats strategy,” he says.

He notes how for the last seven years, HOT has been in the top 10 of the annual Randstad Awards which recognises the most attractive employers in New Zealand.

HOT hosts an annual awards weekend to recognise the achievement of all their staff across their businesses. For the last three years, the IT team has received awards for their projects.

A key focus for Leadbetter is diversity. “It is important we have a strong representation of women within the IT team,” he says.

Our business is 70 per cent female but traditionally within IT we have been much lower, and we are working towards balancing that ratio, he says.

Leadbetter says the IT team is represented by 15 different nationalities, and is composed of 52 per cent women and 48 per cent men. Half of the management team are women.

He says HOT recently launched videos on their careers website.

The development manager and operations manager, both women, shared their experiences within the organisation as encouragement for getting more women in the IT team.

HOT is also part of the University of Auckland internship programme, and some of the students have worked with the ICT function.

“We provide world industry experience for the next generation of IT professionals and this has led to full time placements within our team,” says Leadbetter.

We introduced a new agile based structure in January 2017 that positively changed the culture of the IT team, he adds.

“We customised this to our business and we call it HOT agile,” says Leadbetter.

“Since moving to agile, we have delivered 37 percent more work so not only is this benefitting my team but the entire business.”

We have focused on Agile Streams orientated by business units, he says.

The aim is to work closely with key stakeholders in each business channel.

Each stream is managed within IT by a stream coordinator – this is not a functional manager; the stream coordinator is responsible for IT work delivery, says Leadbetter.

Each stream is made-up of a mix of all roles including application support, business analysis, testing and development.

Every agile team has a social contract in place allows us to check each other’s behaviour when we feel it is inconsistent with what we aim to be – a social contract provides the mechanism to do this without it feeling personal, he states.

This model has facilitated cultural change in that the streams have developed their own identity focused on how each delivers work. The stream coordinators have come from diverse functional backgrounds such as application support and have risen to become great leaders within the business.

The result is measured by both internal staff satisfaction surveys and stakeholder satisfaction surveys,’ he says. “The results speak for themselves, our stakeholder satisfaction is 100 per cent and internal employee satisfaction is at 96 per cent.”

These key metrics further reinforce Leadbetter’s views on how today’s business leaders need to manage the impact of any technology-driven initiative with the staff.

“Whenever you deliver IT projects or enhancements to a business you are delivering a change,” he says.

“You should never lose focus on who is impacted by this change and how the change affects them. Even if you think it is a relatively small change it can have major effects on an end user.”

He learned this the hard way when he was working in a different sector, health.

He was then working with a team deploying patient management systems.

We consulted nurses, doctors and health professionals on the features for the system but the administrators who used the systems were often an afterthought, he says.

The result would be requirements being missed, functionality not being available and inefficient workflows.

“At ‘go live’ as these users were so critical in most processes, the various units ground to a halt,” he states. There were also a high turnover of administrative staff that had a long term effect on their business and significant rework had to be done to meet the project goals.”

He carried this important lesson through to HOT.

Thus, the House of Travel IT function has a dedicated change team.

“Every member of IT has been on change management training and we conduct change management coaching as a follow-up to this training,”he says.

We have created personas to represent the different roles within the business, he further explains.

Each of these personas helps us to understand how these roles react to change.

Every business case within House of Travel now has a change management component, we include the persona impact as part of this business case.

“As part of every project kick-off we have developed a change readiness assessment that needs to be completed before the project can be started,” he states. “We have also introduced change checkpoints throughout larger projects to ensure that we many any impacts to the change readiness assessment due to scope changes.”

He says they extended the change management training to owner operators. “I believe this was a critical final step in creating a culture that embraces and manages change well.”