CIO Paul Coby: retail can teach airlines about big data

Ex-British Airways CIO and current John Lewis CIO, Paul Coby, has said that retail could take a few lessons from the airline industry when it comes to online services, but he also believes retail has the upper hand when understanding customers through big data analytics.

Coby told Computerworld UK at SITA’s Air Traffic IT Summit this week in Brussels that although John Lewis is experiencing strong growth in online sales, this is growth that airlines embraced a decade ago.

“Retail can learn a lot from the air transport world. In air transport [whilst he was CIO at BA], we went through the digital web revolution between 2002 and 2004. I remember when BA went from five percent to 40 percent in sales volume online in just two years,” said Coby.

He added: “Retail in the UK is now going through that. At John Lewis our sales are at 25 percent online, and it is growing at about 25 percent year on year. Having been through that explosive growth already, I think airlines understand a lot about the fast transition.”

However, Coby was quick to highlight that airlines haven’t harnessed the benefits of big data and don’t understand their customers as well as retailers do.

“That being said, I think it’s noticeable in the air transport world how much everybody is talking about retail and about how a retail approach to customers can operate. I think they have quite a lot to learn,” he said.

“[The industry needs to learn how to] really understand customers, using the data that they have got, by using it more effectively to allow personalisation and customisation.”

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This is something that has also resonated with Virgin Atlantic’s CIO, David Bulman, who explained to Computerworld UK that he is currently in talks with vendors, including Amazon, about how he can harness the benefits of big data in the cloud, and is currently running some proof of concept trials.

“Big data is very much key for us. People often say big data and don’t mean it, or they say big data and just think social media. Airlines are incredibly data rich, but it’s really diverse datasets,” said Bulman.

“How can I take information out of our engineering system? Out of our frequent flyer system? Airport systems? We need to mash it all together to give us some unique customer insights. I think it’s going to be critical for us going forward,” he added.

Bulman explained that he is unlikely to tackle big data by ‘buying his own tin’, but would rather experiment at a low cost point in the cloud.

“I have done some experiments, but now we are talking to vendors about what else we can do. Amazon is a great example, they are doing some great work in this space. If some of these early proof of concepts work out it will be very easy to turn the key and instantly get some insight,” he said.

“That’s the joy of the cloud – you can do a very cheap proof of concept and if it works you can turn it right up. I hope within a year we will see some really interesting stuff coming out of it.”

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