Subtle but seismic: Thomas Cook and its digital journey

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Pamela Whitby chats to Marco Ryan, Thomas Cook’s chief digital officer, about charting new digital waters in 2015

Less than two weeks before Thomas Cook announced the departure of CEO Harriet Green in November last year, the group had announced a shake up of its digital team.

Previous ‘guru’ John Straw was leaving, so at the helm now was Marco Ryan, a digital and ecommerce expert, who for the past year had been managing director for Thomas Cook in central Europe.

This move was likely part of a plan to reassure the market, when the bombshell dropped, that Thomas Cook remained firmly committed to its digital transformation agenda. And it’s crucial that they – and others for that matter – get this right, not least because customers are increasingly actively turned off by a poor digital experience.

With his new title of chief digital officer. Ryan, who stepped into the role this month, claims that the impact of Green’s departure on his work is “zero”.

He may have more accountability for the end-to-end digital process, rather than just innovation, but also has “unequivocal understanding and support from Peter [Fankhauser, the new CEO] and the board”.

So it’s apparently business as usual for Ryan who in 2015 is keen to make his mark on a company operating in an industry that has arguably reached tipping point. Mirroring market trends, only this week Thomas Cook’s mobile traffic – and that includes smartphones and tablets – overtook desktop traffic for the first time in the UK.

So the work is anything but over.

A year into the programme and with the widely publicised cross-market, group-wide cultural change programme coined “Let’s Go Digital” bedding down, Thomas Cook has laid some of the groundwork. But as Green herself previously argued, this is a six-year transformation process – the time the market expected her to stay. She left after two.

With substantial pay packets and public scrutiny there is undeniable pressure on Thomas Cook’s senior management to perform. As The Guardian reported last week, the departure of Green, who was widely credited with rescuing the firm that twice made it into a listing of Britain’s Least Admired Top 10, was down to her missing financial targets.

In a senior role, one would expect pressure but Ryan comes across as calm, focused and ready for the job. It’s not rocket science, he says, but by breaking down barriers, empowering people, and building trust through innovative technology and ways and working Thomas Cook will continue to see “subtle but seismic shifts in ways of working in the digital team”.

Here Ryan shares what he sees as the core achievements of the past year, and insights into where one of the UK’s biggest tour operators is headed in 2015.

Dismantled silos, less hierarchy, shared accountability

“One of my 2015 goals is to give the digital organisation more velocity,” says Ryan. To this end, Ryan says he has already broken down the functional silos that used to exist, brought development into the digital organisation, created an innovation function and introduced a process where everybody in the team has shared accountabilities for commercial goals.

One of my 2015 goals is to give the digital organisation more velocity

As a practical example, from next month developers will be co-located with the product owners. Historically, a review of a feature like the check out and payment experience would see product development sending a requirements document over to developers, who would code and release.

Often, however, there was a mismatch between what the product owners meant and what the developers delivered. Now the, product owner, user experience experts, developers, project managers, user testers and so on are seated together in a single team.

The aim is to achieve better understanding, more alignment on the commercial benefits of any new functionality and accountability across the development lifecycle.

Meetings with purpose

In the loosely titled “war room”, a mechanism rather than a meeting, the head of product and web, developers, marketers and technologists – all the key role players – come to solve a commercial problem in a digital and agile way.

Data and insight is used to inform participants of problems and potential benefits, and external market factors and internal processes are considered. In the meeting, done standing, participants discuss and plan.

At the end of the meeting, the aim is to “do” what’s been committed to.

Then they reconvene – perhaps the same day, perhaps in a week, depending on the type of problem– and review to assess what worked, to then optimise and focus on measurable outcomes.

“It’s brought collaboration and expertise into a room that is focused on problem solving and in doing so has broken down functional silos and removed politics,” says Ryan.

In other senior management meetings, whereas previously a 120-page deck was circulated 48 hours earlier, now the there is a maximum of five pages in PDF format. The focus is on these being short and sharp, there are tighter rules, and far less preparation.

Says Ryan: “If you can’t summarise what your issue is in five pages, you are dealing in wrong level of detail.”

A new digital asset management system and a pragmatic approach to content – the new crown jewels

Until recently Thomas had multiple different legacy content systems in each of the markets. Using the “war room” approach to talk about the-end-to-end process (from where and how content is created to where it sits), Thomas Cook has been able to look at areas where the system was broken and to try and create efficiencies.

The result is that now they are able to prioritise how content is created, managed and used across the group. As part of this a digital asset management system is being implemented to create, manage, archive and distribute rich content to all markets across all platforms.

In a concerted move away from outsourcing – except where there is no value-add – the group is doing this in house. “Digital understanding of innovation and content is the new crown jewels and so we don’t want to outsource those,” says Ryan.

The most advanced technology stack in the business but with a ruthless focus on customer experience

In the UK this year, where people have been less satisfied because the user-experience had been so shocking, Thomas Cook has launched a new website. Currently in the middle of a peak trading period it’s still early days, but Ryan says they are seeing an encouraging rise in conversions since it’s been live.

By deploying “the most advanced technology stack in the business – Angular and Node js”, Ryan says they are outpacing the competition, still stuck with legacy systems, by re-architecting technology around micro-services that allow them to be more agile and cost effective.

There is a still plenty to do on the user experience front and especially around omnichannel, but the use of Occulus Rift headsets in stores across UK and Europe is a step in the right direction to extend the digital footprint across the booking journey.

We’re focusing ruthlessly on the customer experience and not on the technology – that’s a big shift for us

“We’re focusing ruthlessly on the customer experience and not on the technology – that’s a big shift for us,” Ryan says.

A focus on data and analytics

When it comes to data and analytics, Ryan uses the word ‘ruthless’ again to show his purpose.

“Since there are far more devices providing data sources, brands will have the opportunity to be ruthlessly data driven, and as a result far more likely to deliver a return,” he says.

It’s quite simple, today Thomas Cook doesn’t make marketing decisions or prioritise new functionality in any market until it has both customer insight and proof from analytics that there is a benefit to be had.

Of course, different markets are at different levels of maturity, but 2015 will see a number themes accelerate especially from a digital marketing perspective where we can expect to see a change in things how big data is applied.

The companies that embrace and understand and reengineer themselves around insight driven marketing – to provide relevant and personal offers to the customer – will exit the year ahead of the competition.

In an intensely competitive market, let’s see how Thomas Cook gets on.

Marco Ryan will be at EyeforTravel@MobileWorldCongress on March 2 2014

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