3 minute read

Are you a dinosaur manager or digital leader?

If you want a future-ready organisation you need digital leaders, not dinosaur managers, says Varun Bhatia, chief people and culture officer at AirAsia, which aims to build the best digital airline in the world through embedding a high touch, high tech culture

Dinosaur managers

It’s critical that the introduction of workplace technology is accompanied by a focused change management strategy and this means clearly articulating the type of leader you need, according to Varun Bhatia, chief people and culture officer at AirAsia.

In AirAsia’s case, this is achieved by asking people to self-reflect on which of two types of leader they are: the dinosaur manager or digital leader.

The award-winning low-cost airline, which employs 20,000 employees (called Allstars in the business), has articulated the attributes of both leaders. Among other characteristics a dinosaur manager is one that always uses email and copies everyone in, waits for the burning platform rather than taking an active approach to leadership, is not interested in co-creation and does not adopt to new technology.

A digital leader is always connected, collaborative, disruptive, curious and values and outcomes driven.

“When you clearly articulate the types of leadership, people think, ‘I’ve got to change a few things, I don’t want to be seen as a dinosaur manager’,” says Bhatia.

Digital leaders

This approach is part of AirAsia’s strategy of building one of the best digital airlines in the world. It has put digitalisation at the heart of this strategy.

“At AirAsia we see ourselves not only as an airline operator but as a people company running a digital business,” Bhatia told delegates at the CHRO Virtual Summit on Tuesday 29 May 2018, organised by The HR Congress.

Key to this is what it calls a high touch, high tech culture. Bhatia stresses high tech does not replace high touch but rather a higher touch is enabled by high tech.

“In today’s world there is a more and more complex set of interactions between humans and technology. We will continue to have people serving customers and guests, but high technology will support this,” he says.

For example, big data is helping the airline to get a deeper understanding of its guests, which then enables a more personalised customer service from its employees.

“High tech is catalysed by high touch – you cannot use high tech without a change management strategy that uses high touch as a way of introducing this technology,” he adds.

The company has developed a lifecycle model for its employees based on the key touchpoints where it interacts with them, such as attraction, onboarding, learning, recognition and wellbeing. It uses three technology platforms to connect its people and enable a greater high touch workflow: Google cloud computing for productivity and collaboration tools, Workplace by Facebook for collaboration and communication and Workday for human capital management (more detail on AirAsia’s approach will soon be available on our PeopleSpaceLeaders membership site. )

“We are looking at this in terms of how the mindset of a new generation is shifting. It is moving from a profit orientation to a purpose orientation, from hierarchies to networks, it wants less control and more empowerment. For each shift we look at how to change our people practices to realign with that shift,” explains Bhatia.

Five lessons from AirAsia’s digital journey

  1. Tone from the top
    The top from the top is critical if you are introducing any technology, says Bhatia. AirAsia’s CEO Tony Fernandes has been active in using tools such as Workplace to gather ideas, communicate with the business and in combatting bureaucracy.
  2. Fail fast, fail often, adopt fast
    Don’t just stick with one technology and hope it will all work out in the end. AirAsia tested multiple technologies and moved on if it didn’t deliver exactly what the business required
  3. Hybrid model of dedicated talent and external partners
    Building your digital capability completely in house is not easy and is expensive. AirAsia has a hybrid model with its own digital development centres plus multiple strong external partners and crowdsourcing
  4.  Early success stories
    Share human interest stories on social media right from the start to get your employees and leaders to use social media even more. Bhatia says it is important to get people over their resistance to use social media, especially leaders from Generation X and Y
  5. Be clear why the people department is there, every day, every moment
    How do you articulate what is important to you and the organisation? Why does the people department exist? At AirAsia HR’s reason for being is ‘we care and we make it easy’. Every action links back to this
Varun Bhatia, chief people and culture officer at AirAsia, was speaking at the CHRO Virtual Summit 29 May 2018

When you clearly articulate the types of leadership people think, ‘I’ve got to change a few things, I don’t want to be seen as a dinosaur manager’

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