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Interview: Tim Graham, Technology Innovation and Development Manager at Virgin Atlantic

As part of our Future Architects of Innovation initiative, we’ll be speaking to those already working to drive change within large organisations, to find out about their background, day-to-day role and the challenges that they face in exploring and implementing new ideas.

These people are critical to the future success of their organisations and hopefully their stories will inspire you to become a Future Architect of Innovation. First up, we spoke to Tim Graham, Technology Innovation Manager at Virgin Atlantic, about making and implementing changes for the future internally, any challenges surrounding this and everything that has him excited for the future.


M – Tell us a bit about your background and role

T – Many people tell me that being the Technology Innovation Manager at Virgin Atlantic is a pretty cool role and I guess that it is! After all, I get to play with some of the latest technology and run trials to identify possible uses for it within the airline. But there is a serious side to it as well – whatever we do in this space needs to either enhance customer experience or drive operational efficiency.

I’ve worked in various IT roles for 18 years now and have been with Virgin for 14 of those. In the last few years, I’ve been responsible for using technology to solve specific business problems before taking on a broader innovation role almost two years ago.


M – So, how important is innovation to your brand?

T – Virgin Atlantic was built on an entrepreneurial spirit and innovation is at our core. We were the first airline to offer individual TVs to business class passengers and then all classes of passenger on wide-bodied aircraft, as well as being one of the pioneers of the premium economy cabin and the first airline to introduce a snooze zone in business class. We also operated the world’s first biofuel flight from London Heathrow to Amsterdam.

As technology begins to play an ever more important role in the world around us, both our customers’ and staff’s expectations have also changed and we need to ensure that we push boundaries with technology and the latest digital channels to retain a competitive advantage.


M – How do you encourage people to think outside the box within your organisation?

T – Everybody within the airline has a role to play in suggesting ideas where we could make improvements. The vast majority of our staff are customer-facing, so they are best placed to tell us about areas where we could improve.

We try to make it as easy as possible for them to surface those ideas through our Ideas Lab – an open forum where staff can discuss ideas that they’ve had or something they’ve seen another airline or industry do that they think could work well at Virgin Atlantic. We have a small in-house team that can try out the most popular ones quickly and easily to see if they fly (excuse the pun!).

In addition, we work with other companies, hardware manufacturers and software developers to bring ideas and technologies into the airline that we can showcase to staff and spark discussion about how they could be adapted and/or utilised within the airline’s operation. Again, small trials can help us to better understand possibilities and limitations and fuel imagination.


M – What challenges do you face and how can you overcome them?

T –  Running innovation trials isn’t easy. Our primary role is to fly customers safely, securely and on-time to destinations around the world with a great customer experience. Sometimes, people are too busy to dedicate a lot of time to innovation. But keeping trials simple, small and short means that we can try things out with minimal disruption.

That also helps to keep our costs down as we don’t have a huge amount of money to spend on technology innovation. In addition, I find that working in partnership with suppliers or other organisations can help minimise costs whilst at the same time provide something of value to all those involved. For example, we get to find out how our customers or staff react or benefit from a technology and a supplier may get vital feedback that they can use to refine their product.


M – What are you hoping to achieve this year?

T – My main aim is to continue to make lives easier for our customers and employees through the smart use of technology. Specifically this year, we’re going to be focusing on wearable and smart devices, but the great thing about technology is you never know what disruptions might change my thinking as the year progresses. If, by the end of the year, two or three innovation initiatives make it in to production then I’ll be a happy man.


M – What does successful innovation look like to you?

T – Success for me is not defined by the number of initiatives that make it into production, rather how much we learn from each initiative. So long as we carry out our tests in a real-world environment and get honest feedback from our staff and customers along with the actual benefits and limitations of the technology, then we’ve succeeded.

If that leads to us being able to build a business case for deployment then that’s great, but it’s equally acceptable to say that it’s not right for us at the moment and take what we’ve learnt forward when we carry out future initiatives or projects.


M – Factors that don’t correlate with success

T – What is perhaps just as interesting from the studies of new product development success are the factors which – it turns out – do not directly influence product success.


M – What advice would you give to people who want to make positive changes within their organisation?

T – If you want to make a positive change then you need to be willing to take some risks. By that I don’t mean that you should jeopardise your day-to-day operation, but don’t be scared to try things out. Start small and get it in front of real people in a real environment as quickly as possible. Don’t worry if it’s not fully functional or polished. But do listen to what people have to say and record what limitations the technology has. If it works, build on it. If it fails, change it and try again or ditch it and move on.

It’s also important to realise that you may not have all the answers – so bring in your staff, suppliers or other companies to offer a different perspective. Be open to learning something new from unexpected sources!


M – What’s got you really excited recently in the world of innovation?

T – Keeping track of everything that’s happening in technology is almost a full time job in itself, but I think we’re in for another interesting year. The things that excite me the most are smart devices (the Internet of Things) which could potentially transform the airports and airline cabins of the future to respond to the people around them. Imagine an airline seat of the future that knew when the passenger was thirsty, hungry or needed rest/sleep and was able to alert crew members to provide service or adjust lighting or temperature in the cabin accordingly.

Augmented and virtual reality are also really exciting areas for us. They could be used as a replacement or addition to existing inflight entertainment offerings where we could create a truly immersive movie or gaming experience. Or additionally it could be used for training crews in a variety of different scenarios, or allowing passengers to explore the service on board our aircraft or a destination they’re interested in travelling to.

I’m also excited by the prospect of using 3D printing to manufacture non-critical replacement parts for planes, reducing the need for airlines to ship or keep expensive stock around the world. What’s more, I think we’ll see more technology-based services emerging that will disrupt whole industries like Uber has done with taxis. It means we have to be on our toes to ensure that we are ready to respond to any challenges that might come from left-field!

All in all, there’s never been a better time to be in technology innovation at an airline – maybe I do have a cool job after all!

M – We couldn’t agree more!

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