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A Tale of Two (Digital) Cities


"It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.  It is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness."  For digital programmes, that time is now.  This was demonstrated to me by two experiences I recently had when travelling back home for Christmas, in two cities, both in their way at the digital cutting edge.

City One - Las Vegas

Just before Christmas, I went to a conference in Las Vegas.  The focus of this was about digital transformation, and all the tools and technology that is available to change businesses; it was hosted by Adobe, one of the leading players in digital marketing technology.  This decade was often described as the biggest opportunity of a generation to impact an entire range of organisations, across a whole range of sectors.

It was a very good conference, with some very interesting presentations, case studies and discussions.  And I left with a renewed sense of interest and vigour about the opportunities in digital marketing and business transformation and the role that we at Station10 play in evolving businesses to become data-driven.

At the end, though, many of us were ready to go home and see our families for the festive period.  So, whilst there were many people staying on for post-conference parties, there was a large number of attendees who were on the first flight back to London.

As we queued to board the plane, the check-in staff encountered a problem with the 4 automatic ticket gates that read the digital and QR boarding cards and then allowed passengers through to the aircraft.  Clearly, these significantly sped up the boarding process, so there was an obvious benefit and desire on behalf of the staff to use them – it was well after dark, and 300 passengers would be much happier if they could board quicker.

However, all of ticket gates simply stopped working; not one of them, suddenly, could read the boarding cards.  There was a pause, and then an awkward 2-3 minutes as the lady by the computer, with an immaculately coiffured hairstyle, frowned at her machine.  The queue, almost as one, sensed a problem; like some newly-evolved sixth sense, we have all become sensitized to when technology starts to go wrong, especially if we might have to wait for it to be fixed!

Finally, a cabin crew lady, with perfect make-up, merely bowed to the inevitable and quietly asked her boss the simple, but suddenly loaded, question – “Switch to manual?”  The queue shuffled from side to side, and whilst not as yet actually disgruntled, was certainly no longer entirely gruntled.

However, the staff member with the beautiful hair had not given up.  As if immediately in response to the question, the gates flashed darkly, and then green lights appeared with a reassuring “bing”.  She had used every IT Manager’s oldest trick in the book – she had turned everything off and on again!

This demonstrates one of the challenges facing digital operations; what do you do when things go wrong?  Consumers are now so well drilled into expecting digital to work seamlessly, they are very intolerant when there is a problem.  This is often exacerbated by organisations thinking that just implementing technology is the sole requirement to be digitally transformed, and not thinking about the process changes, and indeed skills, that are needed alongside.

But, inevitably, things will go wrong.  And that’s when your processes and your people will be tested.  As this example shows; the airline team started working through all of their alternative processes, doubling up as IT managers along the way, and solved a problem that wouldn’t have existed in a non-digital environment.  It had the added advantage of operating as a cautionary tale for many of the digital transformation experts standing just a few feet away!

City Two - London

A further cautionary tale occurred when we reached London.  Passport control at Heathrow has been similarly digitised, with gates with a slot to read your digital passport.  You insert your passport into the reader at just the right angle and depth, it also scans your face and does a facial recognition match, and through you go.  This takes less time, and fewer staff; there was just one Border Control person assisting about 10 gates.

The queue was flowing relatively well, as we approached the gates, and I selected one gate that appeared to have fewer people.  However, I then noticed that the man actually using the gate at the time was struggling.  He had his passport open in the slot reader, but he had been tentative with it, as though he was concerned that the machine would simply eat his passport.  So, his passport was not correctly under the scanner, which meant that the machine couldn’t recognise it.  My instinct to help out a fellow traveller in a moment of trouble with his technical error, and indeed my desire to speed up the queue, was thwarted by the big red line and the very clear instructions to only use the gate one at a time; the last thing you want to do at Passport Control is look like you are trying to break the rules!  He was quite literally on his own as he fiddled nervously with his passport, but still not placing it far enough into the scanner to work.  He then kept moving it around, realising his error, but in his increasing panic not leaving it in one place long enough for the scanner to get a consistent image.

After what felt like an age, but was probably only 30 seconds, the Border Control person manning the gates, having helped out another passenger, came over and assisted him.  She was very calm, although you got the impression that this kind of user error happened quite regularly.  It seemed that the man had spent so long at the gate that the reader on the gate had timed out, so looked at his passport in the old fashioned way, opened the gate for him, and then reset it, so that the reader could work again.

The lady in front of me in the queue approached the gate with some trepidation, but, having been given the lesson on how not to do it, got it right first time by jamming her passport as far as it would go.  10 seconds later it was my turn; I’m happy to report that I got it right first time as well.

But the point of this is that as part of digital transformation, it’s not just your staff that you need to educate on how to use the technology.  Your customers also need to understand how to use it correctly; they will appreciate the benefits of why they should use it, but if they start to have problems with how to do so – old-fashioned user errors – they will get frustrated, or, in the case of the man at the passport gates whose failure was so public, embarrassed.  And you also need a process for them – both to train them on how to use it, and a back-up for when they can’t work it out.

Too often, in our familiarity with how digital systems work, we forget that there are others, whether digitally literate or otherwise, who will find them strange or confusing and so will need help.  It is indeed the best of times in the growth of digital transformation, but we should also remember that for some, it could be the worst of times.