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Improving customer focus with intelligent systems

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In this contriibuted article, Mindtree's Suman Nambiar, europe head of travel and hospitality industry group, and Ranjith Kutty, senior director and head of solutions and new business / travel, transportation and hospitality vertical in North America, discuss how the future of technology will change the travel industry.

Think Iron Man, think Jarvis, the "Just A Rather Very Intelligent System". When the first Iron Man film came out, Jarvis was science fiction, but by the time the third film was released, we were already familiar with Siri, Cortana and the snappily named Android voice commands - suddenly, a virtual personal assistant that you could talk to was in our pockets. 

From being a fun party trick at first, these assistants have been ingesting billions of queries and getting sharper and more useful every day - more and more of us use them as interfaces to our smartphones and tablets, to check the weather, to listen to text messages and reply whilst driving, to plan our schedules, to open apps and to remind us to feed the cat. 

As these assistants get better, so does their strength in handling complex natural language queries that cut across applications, which is a perfect fit for travel planning and management. This begs the obvious question - how will enterprises respond to the new digitally enabled consumer? How can the travel industry use intelligent systems to serve the customer better? 

The travel industry has unprecedented opportunities to sell better and serve better, but given the investments that technology companies like Google, Apple and IBM Watson Labs (to name just three of many) are making in the travel sector, the industry needs to respond quickly before the consumer gets used to dealing with a completely different class of intermediary who offers them a more intelligent, better targeted, more intuitive model of interaction. And it is not the technologies that stand in the way of the industry doing this today, as they all exist; as the travel industry shifts to being more customer focused and understanding what they can and cannot do with data, this future is already within reach. 

Consider someone driving along the M25 on her way to a meeting one morning in the near future - a grey January's giving way to a grey February and she wants some sunshine. She asks her smartphone to look for a sunny break for a week in March, travelling on her preferred airline. 

Based on her preferences, the airline knows that she's been to Santorini before and has given it excellent ratings for a sunny break in winter - the airline system interfaces with her phone to create a completely customised package, departing on a Friday afternoon from the nearest airport after the last meeting in her calendar, with a cab picking her up from the office (and a cab to take her to work that morning, since she will not be driving).  

A poolside room is chosen at one of the hotels where she has loyalty points; these points are then used for a free upgrade to a higher class of room. Also booked are a rental car from her preferred company, optional excursions to places she has not been yet (based on information she has shared on a variety of social media) and suggestions for hikes, as well as two reservations at restaurants, again based on information she has shared with the airline as well as on social media.

The offer sounds good to her, so she asks her virtual assistant for a quick scan of her current and credit card accounts and then chooses a card to pay with, still using voice commands. The airline then confirms the bookings and sends the itinerary to her online travel planner as well as her calendar. 

On the day of travel, before her last meeting, she gets a message from the airline, saying that they will send the cab 15 minutes earlier as the security lines are longer than usual for a Friday evening. She is checked in online and takes less than a minute to drop off her bag, which already has an electronic bag tag.

Since security now has biometric systems, it proceeds faster than usual and she gets a text message from the airline with a 20% voucher for a drink and a snack at two of the restaurants she prefers. 

By the time she lands in Frankfurt 20 minutes later than scheduled, she is relaxed because she has already seen a message with a revision to her itinerary to a slightly later interconnecting flight, because the airline has been able to predict a delay to the inbound flight ahead of time thanks to predictive analytics, and a confirmation that her preferred choice of rental car will still be held for her. 

We could go on, but this is an illustration of what is already possible today. 

Intelligent systems that have the ability to "learn" and adapt will help companies focus on the customer better. A combination of supervised and unsupervised learning enables these systems to be more context aware and this combined with predictive analytics applied to a wealth of data provides a very powerful platform for customer engagement. 

This enables enterprises to make the much needed shift from serving requests that customers make, to anticipating the request and acting on it ahead of time. An ecosystem of such enterprises that effectively engage intelligent systems across industries such as retail, banking and travel to name just a few, will be able to sell to the customer not just want they need, but also what they want. 

Why lack of flexibility cost London businesses 1.5 million working hours during tube strikes

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This guest post from Steve Gandy, CEO of MeetingZone, describes how businesses were hit by loss of working hours during the tube strikes due to lack of flexibility.  

Anyone of London's 4 million commuters who struggled into work during the recent meltdown of the UK Underground system will understand only too well the chaos the tube strikes caused to travellers and other transport links. Our recent survey has revealed there's also been a huge cost to London businesses too.


Those London strikes were part of an ongoing dispute with the Unions (which represent Tube employees), over plans to introduce 24-hour tube services at weekends. The launch of the 24-hour tube service has now been pushed back due to this, but not before the entire London Underground network came to a standstill on 8-9 July and 5-6 August 2015.


The survey of 1000 London commuters, estimated that businesses lost a total of over 1.5 million working hours during the London tube strikes from employees being late into work. What's more, we calculated that London's commuters wasted an extra three million hours just getting to and from the office. These are staggering figures especially when you consider that much of it is really unnecessary. But this was made even worse by the fact the research also showed that only 9% of bosses let employees work from home during this time. 72% of employees feel bosses are still failing to offer flexible working options during travel disruptions.


Sure, not everyone can work from home or remotely, but most office based jobs don't actually require people to sit at their desk. Technology like Unified Communications (UC) means that users can fire up a presentation, edit it with a colleague over IM or jump on a video chat instead - so it seems daft to ask employees to face travel hell.


As I've mentioned before, part of the problem is cultural. Many managers and business owners aren't opening their eyes to how technology could change the way people work and drive efficiencies. They're happy to think 'if they can't see them working they can't be working', which is of course nonsense. You can just as easily sit at your desk and do nothing. Even where companies do have access to UC technology, you see a lot of them assume a couple of training sessions mean staff are confident enough to use it when an unplanned event occurs. They aren't. What's required is a culture of adoption driven by senior managers who embrace the technology and lead the way, not only offering continuous training but also through post roll-out support.


I feel sorry for all the commuters that had to set their alarms early.  Forget the trains running on time - UK business should run on time too. The lost hours during the recent London tube strikes should be the turning point for companies to start thinking about flexible working options to reduce the amount time commuters waste.


A new lesson in coding?

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In this guest blog post, Naomi Hewitt, director of HR, The NET-A-PORTER GROUP, writes about why it is time to teach tech at schools.

The founder of a new after school coding club for 10-11 year olds recently claimed that"We're teaching our kids to be secretaries rather than programmers." I can understand her concerns as they echo those of the Corporate IT Forum's Education and Skills Commission, which recently called for ICT education to be replaced with "IT in business" lessons. I do believe that more could be done in schools and universities to encourage and inspire young people in learning about technology and the essential role it plays in business today.


In the UK specifically there seems to be a disconnect between Academia and 'the real world' with many of the computer-related courses on offer bearing little relevance to the exciting technology roles available in the business world.  This may be symptomatic of a legacy of both free higher education and the pursuit of traditional liberal arts subjects, but it is certainly not helping to make the transition to the job market any smoother for young people.

As a fast growing ecommerce business, The NET-A-PORTER GROUP, whose brands include NET-A-PORTER, THE OUTNET and MR PORTER, is as much a technology as a fashion company. Recent new technology launches include the development of new shopping platforms for tablet, mobile and TV, NET-A-PORTER LIVE, an interactive shopping experience and an augmented reality shopping app. To ensure we continue to stay at the forefront of technical development we require cutting-edge tech talent and find ourselves competing fiercely for the UK's top notch developers and programmers, who are very much in demand. To address this, we recently launched an e-commerce academy, training tech-savvy graduates in vital programming skills alongside developing a commercial awareness with a view to further enhancing our in-house team, who continue to create and develop innovative ideas to benefit our business and customers.

Initiatives such as our graduate technology scheme are a direct result of the UK's broader digital skills gap. Earlier this month figures were released from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC). showing that while the job market shrinks and graduate opportunities decrease, permanent IT staff placements have increased for the third consecutive month.

This reflects the fact that online and mobile are two of the fastest growing sectors - the interest in London's Silicon Roundabout, the Government's training to help "Web Fuelled" businesses and the advent of 4G promising lightning fast mobile broadband are just some of the indicators of the burgeoning potential of this market and the increasing demand for digital talent in the UK. As an example of this, our own business has grown from 0 to over 2000 employees over the last twelve years. And we're not the only ones on the lookout for digital talent. There are many companies now which have digital elements at the heart of their organisation, beyond businesses traditionally associated with business technology. 

It's also worth noting that often those who go into young, modern, digital organisations will have more opportunity to inform its direction and make their mark than they would if they worked in a traditional back office IT role. Without inspiring young people to recognise these growing opportunities we may not meet the demand for digital talent. 

That's why businesses and educational establishments need to take responsibility for showing young people that careers in technology such as web development and design can be commercially relevant, exciting and incredibly rewarding and adapt their courses appropriately.

As the cost of higher education continues to rise, so too will the expectation for concrete outputs from the education system.  Other countries are already addressing this. US colleges, for instance, have a much greater appetite for partnering with employers to tailor their academic programmes to get students 'job ready' and look to lure students based on the percentage of alumni that matriculate into jobs with Fortune 500 companies. Britain must follow suit, and fast. If that means updating some of the processes and techniques young people are learning in school and university in favour of new, more exciting and empowering digital activities then we're all for it.

Video interview: Skills upgrade

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It has been a few weeks since the last post. We have been busy at Computer Weekly working on a series of video podcasts on IT skills and training.

Simon May, previously worked in financial institutes, He has been a technical evangelist at Microsoft for a year. In this video May says that previously, there was a lot of stability in IT skills. However, things like cloud and consumerisation means that people have to upgrade their skills.

Given the state of the economy, he believes that businesses will need to reduce costs, while at the same time, grow. IT is one of the ways to achieve this, and so IT training is key.

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IT sector must speak in skills to bridge gaps in capability and boost IT workforce

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Kevin Streater is executive director for IT employer engagement at The Open University. The Open University will be contributing a series of articles for ITWorks over the coming weeks breaking down the skills requirements for making your way in the IT profession. First in the series looks how the problems the IT sector faces in plugging its skills gaps

Whatever the uncertainties around the economic climate one thing that is increasingly clear is that the fate of the IT sector will be central to the UK's economic recovery.

E-Skills UK's Technology Insights report for 2011 calculates the ICT sector to be worth £100bn to the UK economy - a figure they predict could grow by £50bn over the next decade causing employment in the industry to grow nearly five times faster than the UK average.

But as we have seen from concerns over imminent skills shortages and falling numbers of IT and computer science graduates, it is not safe to assume that we have the workforce to fill a widening job market.

The crisis in UK IT centres on the development of new professionals and the system that supports their development through to senior management. The future of the sector is being harmed by graduates who are frustrated at the standard and relevance of their personal development - and employers that are concerned that the graduates they take on lack the skills and experience to transfer their understanding of IT into the workplace.

It's a challenge that requires a brand new approach from educators, dispensing with the traditional course brochures and starting to speak in the industry language of IT skills and competency.

The fact is a lot the difficulties facing the IT sector at present come down to barriers, both perceived and real, that have cast doubt on the public's views of IT as an affordable and accessible profession with a traversable route up to well paid senior management roles.

If companies want to attract and retain the best talent coming out of university into entry-level positions (which often can't compete financially with those offered by the City and law firms), they need to demonstrate clearer career pathways supported by intuitive and strategic staff learning.

At the Open University we are looking to untangle the multitude of job roles and skills requirements which we hope will help kick start a new openness in IT and see the numbers return to an industry that desperately needs them.

Over the coming weeks The Open University will publish a series of articles aiming to introduce Computer Weekly readers to a new approach to IT education and professional development throughout their sector.

This new model is based on intensive research and industry engagement by the University, encompassing skills mapping and job profiling that together meet the capability requirements of modern business. By breaking down the business driven competencies for each role into a selection of skills elements these articles will demonstrate the change in skills demand as you work your way up the IT ladder and guide you through the education tools available to help you make this transition.

This approach will help CIOs and IT managers create a skills development path that will put in motion a conveyer belt, turning entry-level staff into the company's future senior management.

Throughout these articles we will be encouraging Computer Weekly readers to ask questions via the ITWorks hash tag #ITworksCW, the Facebook page and the comment sections under each article. These questions will be collated and the most popular ones will form the basis of final article with answers provided by The Open University's expert careers advisors.

"I can't do that" - Are you sure?

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Gary Kildare, IBM VP for Human Resources previously wrote about apprenticeships. This week he blogs about career changes.

At IBM, it is important to us that our workforce reflects the markets we serve. Leaders, who surround themselves with like-minded employees, can't compete in today's world of global business. This means we aim to recruit the best people regardless of age, gender, disability, ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

It also means we take on experienced hires who may not have IT backgrounds.

For instance, one of our managing consultants has a background in teaching. He now works with our clients to embed advanced learning technologies and solutions into their business processes.

For a candidate who doesn't tick all the boxes, demonstrating transferable skills and expertise that will benefit the role they are applying for is important. Once hired, you can work to up-skill and re-skill to further your career.  

For people keen to move into the technical side of IT, you can go straight for official qualifications, but there are also many free resources available for you to gauge if a field is right for you. For instance, the IBM DeveloperWorks site offers free of charge tutorials, demonstrations and access to social networking with thousands of developers across the world.

Breaking new ground

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Last week Gary Kildare, IBM VP for Human Resources, discussed how to recruit graduates . Today's guest post looks at  the benefits of apprenticeship programmes.

More and more companies are recognising that university isn't for everyone. Apprenticeship schemes are a way for employers to tap into talent which they may otherwise overlook. Increasingly apprenticeship positions are cropping up in the services industries - including IT.

Working closely with e-Skills and the National Apprenticeship Service, we opened the IBM Apprenticeship scheme last year. Our apprentices work while attaining a recognised qualification in ICT over two years. This has proven so successful that we are expanding the programme this year.

While most applicants had just finished their A-Levels, we had older applicants as well. One of the apprentices we took on is 30. He demonstrated the seven transferable skills we look for as well as a deep level of commitment which made him an excellent candidate for us.  

In our experience, apprentices are enthusiastic and embrace a culture of learning new skills and self-motivation. Bespoke training on the job means they do it 'right' from the start. An apprenticeship can be a great choice for people who want to dive straight into the world of work while at the same time gaining access to support, training and a career path.