by gordon_feller

How real-time operational insights drive superior tech platform development

Case Study
Jul 21, 20239 mins
CIOData CenterData Management

As organizations manage the complexities of digital transformation, in employee transportation in particular, SaaS and SaaS-based service solutions can offer several strategic advantages to streamline complex and evolving business operations.

Credit: Getty

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and SaaS-based service solutions have emerged as powerful tools. They address increasingly complex business processes, tackling anything from specific single functions to entire client-vendor relationship networks.

SaaS is quickly evolving, and specialization has led to sophisticated, industry-specific or process-specific solutions, which can come to represent industry best practices. So as organizations face evolving challenges and digitally transform, they offer advantages to make complex business operations more efficient, including flexibility and scalability, as well as advanced automation, collaborative communication, analytics, security, and compliance features. 

As SaaS solutions gain greater market share, and build mindshare, operational know-how is becoming critical to both their development and evolution. One of the biggest issues for any development team is obtaining real and timely user feedback. Traditional methods of soliciting this feedback, such as focus groups and beta testing programs, apart from being expensive, often result in poor results. Likewise, adapting to changing requirements (at an ever-increasing pace), influenced by factors such as evolving regulations or user demands, poses another difficulty.

Traditional development approaches can also cause lengthy release cycles. Development teams may spend months building what they believe to be a comprehensive solution, only to discover upon release that it fails to meet user needs. The “one size fits all” approach often employed leads to inadequacies due to inabilities to account for the demands of a broad range of users.

Cost overruns have been another significant concern. Unanticipated complexities, changes in scope, and issues discovered late in the development process can rapidly escalate costs, straining budgetary resources and undermining the overall efficiency of a project.

Therefore, while tech-driven solutions are promising, they require an approach that’s mindful of these pitfalls. Agile methodologies, customer-centric design thinking, and continuous, iterative feedback mechanisms must be incorporated to ensure the successful development of a truly effective and user-aligned solution.

Employee shuttle transportation sponsored by corporations is a prime example of a highly specialized, complex business process that illustrates this point. Without the enablement of cutting-edge technology, providing employee transportation can rapidly devolve into a logistical nightmare fraught with hidden costs, administrative strain, and an unsatisfactory rider experiences. When an organization arranges employee transportation, perhaps across multiple sites with multiple suppliers, it can often find itself ensnared in myriad challenges that extend far beyond simply getting staff from A to B.

A predominant pain point is the rider experience. Without a system designed to optimize routes, times, and rider capacity, employees may face inconvenient pick-up times, long routes, crowded vehicles, and delays, all of which can detract from productivity and satisfaction. This suboptimal service design, while aimed at providing a benefit, can ultimately become a source of great frustration and dissatisfaction for employees.

For the sponsoring organization, or the one with employees who commute, the administrative effort to manage such a service is crucial. Responding to rider questions, keeping track of schedules, handling changes, and managing the daily run of operations without the aid of technology can prove to be just as much of an administrative nightmare. The sheer volume of manual work involved can pull human resources away from more strategic, value-adding activities. The hidden cost of transportation services can be a big ticket item, and the logistical challenges inherent in employee transportation are also formidable. Coordinating vehicle availability, managing traffic and route changes, responding to unexpected incidents such as vehicle breakdowns or emergencies—all these factors can add up and lead to disruptions, inefficiencies, and safety concerns.

But a few solutions have very recently emerged, which attempt to address the manifold challenges of employee transportation.

Unsurprisingly, sponsoring organizations, shuttle operators, and software companies have sought technology solutions to manage the complexities of employee shuttle transportation. A real understanding of all the elements—operations, regulations, and underlying processes—are vital for those who’ve sought to develop effective tech platforms.

While many solutions address specific aspects of employee transportation, only a few have emerged that attempt to comprehensively address the challenges faced by various constituents. At the forefront of these solutions is the development of advanced software and mobile applications, designed for real-time tracking, streamlined booking, and effective data-driven management of transportation services.

The technology stack required is multilayered and versatile. It needs to incorporate a back end capable of handling complex logistics and routing algorithms, a front end that provides an intuitive and user-friendly interface, and a robust data layer to manage and interpret valuable user information. Mobile technologies like native iOS and Android apps would be essential, alongside a reliable cloud infrastructure for scalable and resilient services. Tools like GPS and AI for route optimization, alongside machine learning (ML) algorithms for predictive analytics, complete the stack.

On the move for better data-driven outcomes

The significant advantage of adopting a tech-driven solution for employee transportation lies in its relative affordability. The initial investment in technology can lead to substantial long-term savings by streamlining operations, increasing employee satisfaction and utilization, as well as reducing administrative overhead and environmental impact.

Of note, the most advanced, comprehensive technology platforms have been developed by organizations deeply rooted in the operations of employee shuttle transportation, leveraging the continuous access to real-time feedback from all user groups: riders, drivers, operators, and clients.

Rather than working in a vacuum, the development team can be immersed in the flow of live operations. This ongoing dialogue with users provides invaluable insights and immediate responses to new features or adjustments, leading to more refined, user-centric conversations and solutions.

This approach also fosters an environment of continuous improvement. Direct, real-time input from the operational front lines enables developers to iteratively refine the system. They can identify issues, implement solutions, and immediately assess the impact of changes. This leads to a tech platform that’s not just a static product, but a dynamic tool that evolves along with the operation it supports on a daily basis.

In addition, real-world feedback helps developers discern the relevance and priority of potential improvements. They can more effectively allocate resources to enhancements that will provide the most benefit to users, thus ensuring the efficiency of development efforts and the overall value of the tech platform.

This approach, in essence, transforms the operational environment into a ‘live’ development space. Daily operations become a real-world testing ground where improvements can be trialed, adjustments can be made, and the impacts of changes can be assessed in real-time. In this way, tech platform development offers a promising pathway to create solutions that are finely tuned to the needs of the organization, and can flex and evolve along with it. The difference between good and great software is often found in the subtle details hard won in practical experience.

As an example of this approach, consider the story of Boston-based Zeelo, a global provider of software and managed services that enable shuttle-based commuter transport programs, primarily serving blue chip companies with complex corporate employee transportation networks.

Zeelo began as an operations business and developed its software platform primarily to meet its own day-to-day needs. From an operator’s viewpoint, it was able to pragmatically apply cutting-edge technology, such as advanced ML algorithms, to data-driven route optimization, or self-service web systems for operator partner procurement and journey safety. 

“The difference between good and great software is often found in the subtle details hard won in practical experience,” says Chris Hall, Zeelo’s CIO. “As organizations strive for digital transformation, it’s crucial to develop tech platforms grounded in real-world experience. By integrating advanced tracking and monitoring systems, we can provide controlled visibility into operations, enabling effective decision-making and optimized resource allocation. This approach fosters continuous improvement, with real-time feedback shaping the evolution of the technology.”

One element Zeelo has leveraged to foster technology development is the collocation of its operations and product teams. The physical proximity enables a rapid flow of information and facilitates seamless collaboration. As a result, the company can process and implement fast releases of product features, with the product team promptly acting on user feedback so it can incorporate it into the product roadmap. This close interaction ensures Zeelo can respond to consumer needs in a timely manner and continuously improve its offerings.

Applying its tech stack to its contact center environment, which monitors every shuttle trip in real-time, provides controlled visibility, and deployment of enhancements and new features into Zeelo’s operations.

“Our company doesn’t attempt to build everything itself, and embraces off-the-shelf tools and automation whenever great solutions already exist,” says Zeelo CEO, Sam Ryan. “Through the implementation of carefully tailored automated chatbots, for instance, the company has reduced the time its care team spends replying to user inquiries, which allows it to focus on more complex or critical issues, while enhancing the overall customer experience.”

Collaboration is key

By aligning and closely linking technology development with operational needs, and continuously refining the solution based on user feedback, organizations can create cohesive, efficient, and sustainable operational environments. But it’s essential to recognize the limitations of a purely tech- or operator-focused approach. The value of operational expertise to run operations concurrently with tech platform development also allows organizations to prioritize upgrades and enhancements based on their relevance and impact on user experience.

By actively involving users and incorporating real-time feedback, developers can refine and improve the solution based on operational insights. This approach transforms the environment into a live development space, enabling dynamic tech platforms that evolve alongside the organization.

by gordon_feller
CSO contributor

Gordon is The Smithsonian Institution’s Wilson Center Global Fellow. He’s worked at many of the world’s leading organizations: UN headquarters, World Bank headquarters, IBM, Cisco headquarters, and more. Since 1983, when he landed in Silicon Valley, Gordon’s published 400+ magazine articles about technology’s impacts on society, business, and government.