In the most recent edition of McKinsey Quarterly there is an article titled A better way to automate service operations. It got me thinking about how many airline direct channel back office environments I have seen, and the number of times I have sold solutions to not only increase automation, but probably just as importantly to give management detailed visibility. That is, visibility on costs by job function or type of task performed, where previously such information did not exist.

I’ve reproduced part of the McKinsey article below as it is an important topic that sometimes gets left behind as we focus instead on the seductive topic of how to add more bells and whistles to an airline website.

More and more service operations are turning to IT to reach the next level of efficiency and quality across all service venues—distributed, mobile workforces; centralized workforces; service supply chains; and back-office workflows (see sidebar “Examples of workflows that can be automated effectively”). One telecom call center, for example, achieved results matching those described above with a similar strategy of simulation, pilot tests, and process change.

We recommend that companies take a disciplined approach (see sidebar “A checklist for service executives”) before committing themselves to significant technology investments. As we have indicated, that kind of approach requires companies to align their working practices with the strengths of automation. To do so, they will have to gain a clear understanding of the expected improvements by modeling and piloting new processes with light IT and by changing behavior with effective training that highlights the interrelationship between work practices and IT.

A checklist for service executives

Investments in automation across service operations can raise productivity and quality a good deal. However, CIOs, COOs, and other service executives should have a clear game plan to avoid wasteful investments in technology. Before they act, they should consider the following:

  1. Identify value drivers. Determine the areas—across service supply chains, back-office workflows, mobile workforces, and centralized workforces—where IT automation is likely to produce marked improvements.
  2. Form a sharp perspective. Determine how automation will help capture enhancements in productivity and service levels in these areas, as well as what changes in working processes will be needed to make that happen.
  3. Model the impact of change. Admittedly, the sheer number of factors affecting the impact of changes can be large. However, state-of-the-art computing systems and software can evaluate millions of options quickly. Develop the ability to model the impact of all these factors, with the goal of producing one to three scenarios for piloting.
  4. Pilot carefully with IT. Use field tests to mirror your proposed end state accurately. To enable your pilot, take advantage of inexpensive IT, supported by rapid-development teams for fast application development and by solutions based on software as a service (SaaS).
  5. Go light on IT. In the move to full implementation, more features and functions are not automatically desirable. Use only those that have demonstrated benefits in your pilot.
  6. Phase in the IT implementation. Embed the new work processes and policies through robust training. Make sure employees understand that the system is meant to optimize results across the entire organization. Once the changes are accepted in the workplace, roll out the IT implementation. This approach will capture the benefits more quickly and effectively than any other.

There is not too much I can argue with there. I’ve been involved in so many of these projects, and whilst all have been successful from an ROI perspective for each airline, a small number have been wildly successful beyond all expectations. It is interesting to sit back and think sometimes about what made the latter so different from the rest. Most of the points in the McKinsey article are pretty close to what I would have written, so obviously the same principles apply pretty well across many industries and are not airline specific in this case.