United Airlines CDO: Innovation lessons from a mobile transformation

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United Airlines Executive Vice President, technology, and Chief Digital Officer Linda Jojo (who recently transitioned from the CIO role) led a two-year mobile transformation that changed employee and customer interactions. This included distributing more than 50,000 mobile devices to pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, and ramp employees, and adding thousands of access points, beacons, and radio devices to airports. The result: improved reliability, increased teamwork, and a better customer experience. 

Jojo recently won the Super Global CIO of the Year award from the Chicago CIO Leadership Association. We asked her to share more about United Airlines’ mobile transformation and her thoughts on innovation, hiring, and leadership.

CIO_Q and A

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): What were some of the drivers behind your mobile transformation and what has it enabled?

Jojo: Our customers are mobile; they’re on their way from one place to another. Of the 87,000 employees that we have at United Airlines, more than 60,000 of them don’t work behind a desk – they’re pilots, flight attendants, customer service agents, ramp agents, baggage handlers, etc. Traditionally they received information about operations, like the flight status or customer information, by visiting a central computer system at the gate or in the lobby. But when you think about it, a mobile device is the perfect setup to get real-time information into the hands of all these employees to better serve our customers. 

Some of the early projects included helping flight attendants eliminate a lot of the required paperwork and manuals that they have to carry at all times. Uploading these documents to a mobile device now means they don’t have to carry up to 12 pounds of paper with them. From a compliance perspective, we’re able to ensure that they have all the right paperwork and up-to-date safety manuals on their device.

Mobile capabilities are also helping employees improve customer service. Let’s say, for example, that a gate agent is working a flight that’s been disrupted due to a thunderstorm, and now they have to reroute a bunch of passengers. While long lines might have formed in the past because there was only a few computers available, now we have employees equipped with iPhones and a small, portable printer. We’re able to bring more agents to that gate to assist in rebooking customers, printing out their new boarding passes, and getting them on their way without having to wait in line.

Finally, gate agents traditionally have reported to a central office to receive their next assignment. Sometimes that meant walking from Gate 6 to the office, only to be assigned to Gate 6 again. Now we push their assignments to them on their mobile devices, which has made employees very happy. 

TEP: You’ve talked about balancing “big 'I' and little 'i' innovation” in IT. What is the importance of each, and how do you find the right balance?

Jojo: Innovation doesn’t happen on any kind of schedule, and it doesn’t happen by one group of people who have decided to be innovators. I think there’s a lot more impact in creatively using things in a slightly different way, which I call “little i” innovation. 

Take the chat function on a phone as an example. Mobile chat by itself is not innovative, but a pilot had the idea to use it to better connect the customer service agent at the front of the jetway with the pilot or the flight attendants on the plane. They’re now able to send chats back and forth to relay that the bins are full, that maintenance is still on the plane, or to hold boarding. 

CIOs can keep their eyes peeled for these “little i” opportunities by listening and asking questions. I spend a good part of my time in the airports seeing the technology in action. We bring back ideas and try them. “Little i” projects typically are not two-year, multimillion-dollar projects; they’re things you can try very quickly. 

"We’ve been adopting more agile development and using short sprints to get these ideas out to a subset of customers or employees."

We’ve been adopting more agile development and using short sprints to get these ideas out to a subset of customers or employees to see what they like and don’t like. If it’s not a great idea, we stop without the worry of investing months of time. If it does work, we expand it to more employees or customers by adding more functionality or features.

TEP: Describe your hiring approach: What are some key traits you look for and why?

Jojo: There are a lot of people who have worked their entire career in airlines. But ideas come from everywhere – not just within the airline industry. That’s why I like to make sure that as we hire, we’re doing an equal amount of promoting from within and bringing in people from diverse backgrounds and industries.

On the college hiring side, I think it’s important to keep the pipeline full. New ideas come from new generations of people, too. The digital native thought process is different from those who have grown up as technology has evolved. It’s important for graduates to get a diverse set of experiences as early in their career as they can, and not specialize too quickly. You want to get a broad base before you get deep.

TEP: You’ve called yourself a “modern business leader with responsibility for IT.” Can you explain this and offer advice for other CIOs pursuing this kind of role?

Jojo: Technology has never been more important than it is today. If you think about the large U.S. airlines, we fundamentally fly to all the same places with the same kinds of aircraft, but we differentiate ourselves with our employees and the technology that we give them. I think CIOs need to get out from behind their desks and out of the development operation to see how the technology is going to be used everyday – the technology that exists, the things that you’re trying to replace – and really get deep in the business process and the business strategy around what you’re trying to do. It’s essential to understand not only what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. 

TEP: What is an important leadership lesson you’ve learned?

Jojo: It’s important to do a great job in the job you have. But if you aspire to do something different, make sure that those responsible for the hiring and making those decisions know what you’re interested in. If the constraints or parameters about what you can or can’t do at a different point in your career are changing, make sure people understand when they’re changing and why. 

Kristin Burnham is a reporter and editor covering IT leadership, business technology, and online privacy and security.