Etihad CIO Robert Webb interview - From run the business to change the business

Etihad CIO Robert Webb has helped arrange a tour of one of the airline's A380 aircraft conducted by Nicole Kidman. As the Oscar winner and Hollywood megastar shows us around the first-class apartments including shower and residence - as well as the business-class seats and communal lounge area - the CIO explains that this "360-degree virtual reality experience" we are viewing on Webb's iPad is even more impressive and immersive when using a cardboard VR viewer or the Samsung Gear VR headset.

The Chief Information and Technology Officer for Etihad Aviation Group, the Abu Dhabi-based carrier established in the United Arab Emirates by Royal Decree in 2003 and which now includes Alitalia, Air Berlin and Jet Airways among its alliance, is explaining how digital technologies and an increased focus on the customer are changing the organisation's operations and interaction with its guests, and subsequently on the CIO role.

"The mix is shifting from run the business to change the business," Webb said. "We have more of our people and dollars focused on innovation, growth and productivity.

"The CIO role is to drive growth, innovation and productivity in a company. It's about planning and connecting the dots on how this is all going to come together. And the CIO has to be somebody who can bring it all together; that's a very challenging set of concurrent activities that we are asked to do.

"We need the tools and the communities to help us because the profession has not been asked to do that before - CIOs have to grow together and figure out how they can learn from each other. The beauty of CIO communities is that we can learn the tool sets from each other to improve the chances of success."

The digital airline

With a background in CIO roles at GE and more recently in the hospitality sector as CIO at Hilton Worldwide, Webb is interested in technologies that can increase the personalisation of Etihad's digital service.

And once more mature data and analytics tools have improved the personalisation of the service, Webb believes the next innovation in the area will come in the form of cognitive learning and artificial intelligence.

"We have looked extensively at hospitality for innovation and banking in some cases," he said. "One of the things we are thinking about is reimagining the digital experience.

"We have redeveloped the physical product, redeveloped the service experience with chefs on board and nannies on board and lounges. Now we are reimagining the digital guest experience, but the thing with digital is the expectations for your next digital interaction will be formed by your last best interaction.

"You know the art of the possible because you can experience it in banking and with Uber, so now the expectation is that of travel but travel is very friction filled and there are all kinds of information disconnects."

Artificial intelligence and cognitive computing

Webb explained that with artificial intelligence and cognitive computing, his sense was that organisation would move towards a future of smart digital assistants and cognitive engines that will be able to interrogate a person's calendar, see when that person was available to travel, retrieve their frequent-flyer numbers and credit card details, send bots scurrying around the web to return available dates, airlines, hotels and prices - and subsequently book a trip for a person and their family.

"There are a lot of security and privacy implications but we are very close to that," he said.

This future represented an opportunity for emerging tech companies and some of the larger players in the IT supplier to come together, Webb suggested.

"Innovation will come from a combination," he said. "We will have niche players who develop the next generation of the AI systems, the assistants - and then probably some of the traditional players who have the cognitive learning engine like IBM with Watson. Then there will be data providers who will need to be able to have the data to make all that work..

"There are many use cases in different industries but you are going to need to have somebody to pull that together and you probably don't want that to be a garage project."

Security and privacy

The former Accenture consultant, who sits on the Etihad executive committee as well as the board of directors for air transport IT and comms supplier SITA, believes however that organisations will have to strike the right balance between security and privacy.

Webb said that information security will always be something those whose primary business is air travel will pay strong attention to.

"With cyber security it depends on what your risk appetite is," he said. "The threats are growing; we run mission critical services for the airline group so safety and security are always a top priority.

"We are making continuous investments in ensuring we have a strong information security postern and we protect the information of our guests, that would be an area where I would highlight that we are making very good progress.

"We have an information security leader for the group and each airline has an information security leader and we have established a security council where myself and our head of audit and risk management are part of that. So we ensure security policies are enforced across the group. It's really security, privacy and risk management we think about holistically."

As part of Webb and Etihad's innovation agenda, the organisation has built an innovation centre in Abu Dhabi with one of its key priorities to reinvest in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi under chairman Hamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Indeed, the chairman is a member of the ruling family of the UAE and one of children of the first President of the United Arab Emirates Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and the half-brother of both the current President of the UAE Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the owner of men's soccer outfit Manchester City Football Club.

Internet of Things and data

Following CIO UK's tour from Antipodean A-lister Kidman, Webb said that Etihad was not yet looking at virtual reality in the aircraft. Although with in-flight connectivity and a fleet which is fitted out with large displays and entertainment systems there is a big opportunity for Etihad in the way it interacts with its guests, whether that involves a business passenger's financial planning or how another guest watches their own film or selects their dining preferences using digital technologies.

Recent trends and emerging technologies like the Internet of Things have been discussed and used in the air travel industry now for a number of years, from the aircraft manufacturing process to the sensoring of components that send real-time information to pilots, engineers, and indeed other parts.

While IoT offers a huge amount of opportunity for the industry and CIOs, it also creates a new problem for business and technology leaders in driving value with the new data sets and shaping the aviation organisation of the future.

"We think that the Internet of Things is important, particularly as it relates to being able to monitor and diagnose certain information," Webb explained. "It could be things like engine performance or spare parts availability, and we lots of ground-to-air communication which happens in our aircraft.

"But people are thinking who is going to manage all that data that is being thrown off all these devices. In the new A380 or 787, there's millions and millions of lines of code, millions of sensors and monitors and things that could be monitored and drive real value but you have to build a whole new entire organisational mindset to find out how you are going to take advantage or utilise that kind of data in the future. That's something where IT is just playing catch-up."

IT cost transparency

An area Webb is most enthusiastic about is how through creating greater transparency in IT - particularly relevant to your cost structure - to as a key enabler to drive greater efficiency and effectiveness for CIOs in their roles.

Webb said that as information technology has become an organisation's primary driver of productivity and growth, this transparency and visibility into what CIOs spend money on and are investing in has become an acute need so IT leaders can make better decisions.

"Transparency helps to close the gap between strategy and execution," he said.

This same transparency, together with a set of common standards and taxonomy, will eventually be a boon to CIOs who are in the best possible place to make strategic decisions around technology and IT investments and will have the ammunition they need to cut through the noise and buzzwords thrown at IT decision-makers every day.

"I think there is so much vendor hype that we need to have a fact-based, data driven, financially measured taxonomy to be able to prove what they are saying," Webb said. "Otherwise the CFO can read in their in-flight magazine that the cloud is cheap; and it's not that the cloud is either good or bad but how you use it."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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