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Emirates airline outlines its strategy for innovation at Cisco's IoT World Forum

The impressive airline aims to embrace digitization and innovation to stay ahead of the competition.

Emirate airlines Internet of Things Cisco IoT World Forum 2015
Credit: Emirates

This week, Cisco is holding its third annual Internet of Things World Forum in Dubai. One of the keynote speakers on the first day was Neetan Chopra, Senior Vice President of IT Strategic Services for Emirates Airlines, and he discussed how he and the company think about innovation to stay on top of its industry.

Emirates is a fascinating case study in innovation. In 1985, only 30 years ago, the government of Dubai invested about $10 million to launch a small airline to fly a few routes around the Middle East. Since then, Emirates, like Dubai, has gone through a hyper-growth phase, and it is now the world's fourth-largest airline by international traffic.

If you ask anyone who has flown the airline, they will all rave about how great it is. What makes it so great, you may ask? Emirates has studied the passengers experience and has attempted to make it the best across the entire journey. Prior to flying, elite passengers can enjoy a free, chauffeured ride to the airport. Emirates lounges are over-the-top nice and include full buffets and showers. During the flight, passengers can connect over Wi-Fi, receive text messages and emails, and even make cellphone calls. Emirates provides all of its passengers, even those in economy class, wine and cocktails with their meals.

During his presentation, Chopra gave us a bit of a hint into other things the airline was planning, such as an application that allows passengers determine exactly where their bag is.

Also in his presentation, Chopra discussed Emirates' desire to be the best airline and to stay on top for a long time. He used Kodak as an example of a company that was a leader, didn't have the guts to disrupt their own business when the digital era emerged, and is now paying the price for that.

Staying on top requires constant attention to the business, a willingness to ask if there are better ways to do things, and challenging itself to continually innovate and improve. I've heard this from many organizations, but Chopra outlined the process that Emirates uses to disrupt a market before they are disrupted. The steps in this as are as follows:

  • Design thinking: This involves designers thinking through complex problems and finding optimal solutions. Typically a wide variety of solutions to explore what's possible before a solution is chosen.
  • Velocity: The speed at which a plan comes to completion. In the digital era, speed can determine the winners and losers of markets.
  • Co-creation: The process of developing solutions jointly with customers. This is something I believe all companies should embrace, but very few do.
  • Business models: With every new service or product, the business model needs to be looked at. One-time fee, freemium, monthly subscription, sponsorship, partner-driven, etc., are all viable options.
  • Transparency: This involves operating in a way to make it easy for other stakeholders to see what is planned and the actions performed.
  • Platform: Emirates takes a platform approach to digitization. This enables it to better control changes and makes future initiatives easier.
  • Predictability: Having the ability to predict how customers will react to changes to the experience. Emirates does a significant number of focus groups and surveys to understand what degrades the traveling experience. This helps with the accuracy of the ability to predict how changes will be perceived.

In this era, digital innovation is disrupting markets with unprecedented speed. We've seen many companies, like Emirates, come out of nowhere to lead a market. The question that we don't know the answer to yet is how many of these “digital-native” organizations can stay on top. But it does appear that Emirates Airlines has a strategy that can turn innovation into long-term market leadership.

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