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The Royal Dutch Touring Club (the ANWB) is focused on creating an agile IT department that can use technology to innovate like a startup.
While the organisation has long been seen as quite outdated, the ANWB and its IT department are working to evolve and innovate. “We focus on a flexible IT organisation that can better facilitate innovation and renewal,” said Gregor Abbas, digital innovation strategist at the ANWB.
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The ANWB is the largest motoring club in the Netherlands, with 4.4 million members and 3,500 employees. It was founded in 1883 and today offers a wide range of services for recreation, tourism and mobility.
Having the agility of a small startup is not natural for such a large club, yet innovation is highly valued in the ANWB. New technologies can be rolled out quickly through agile principles and a scrum process, and IT is the engine behind all sorts of innovations in the organisation.
To become more flexible, the company began a transition to agile in 2015, and the most important change is that the various agile teams work together in a value chain. “Whether it involves colleagues from IT, marketing or other departments, if certain questions arise, people must quickly work together to find answers,” said Abbas.
Abbas works for the IT Office, the staff department of the CIO. There are about 10 people in the department engaged in the development of the IT vision and monitoring its progress. “Our goal is to have continuous development to enable the organisation and its members.”
The IT vision of the ANWB covers themes such as omni-channel, data-driven IT as a service and innovation. Abbas is closely involved in the area of innovation. “This is about making it possible to use new technological opportunities, and facilitating and encouraging the culture associated with them,” he said.
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More agile ways of working have made the ANWB more innovative. This is not easy for such a large organisation, but Abbas and his colleagues have developed a process to stimulate innovation and renewal.
“At the IT office, we have a kind of radar with which we follow the emergence of new technologies,” he said. “We look at trend reports from major research firms and major players in the market. Not all trends and developments are equally interesting for us, but once we see opportunities, capabilities and value, we get to work.”
The aim of Abbas and his colleagues is to bring order to the chaos in the rapidly changing IT world and show what practical applications might be useful for the ANWB. Once a promising and impactful new technology or social development is spotted, the IT Office organises a meeting. “We speak to colleagues about the technology, its potential opportunities and where we see added value. Then it’s up to them to devise practical applications for the business.”
The IT office often helps to define potential business cases. “We are trying to look into where in the organisation the new technology we want to focus on can be interesting. That way, we can invite specific people to the meeting. The most promising business case is then translated into a concrete pilot. Such a pilot project may cost up to €20,000 and must be carried out preferably in a quarter,” he said.
“If it appears that a pilot is not successful, it will be stopped immediately. In this way, the costs remain manageable. The pilots are designed to quickly detect whether value can be extracted from the new technology. It takes many traditional companies quite a long time to discover the new or added value. We want to reduce that amount of time.”
A successful pilot is then scaled up. When only one out of 10 pilots yields a multiple of the investment, the initial costs are largely recouped.
Big data pilot
One successful pilot was on the potential of big data. Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, the Roadside Assistance Forecast algorithm was built in three months. This determines how much roadside assistance is needed on any given day, depending on the expected number of incidents.
“We take data and information from the Dutch weather forecasting organisation (KNMI), including records of roadside incidents from the past. That’s a huge amount of data over the past 15 years,” said Abbas.
“The algorithm looks for relationships and connections in the information and from that makes a prediction on the expected number of future roadside incidents.”
In the past, the staff who planned roadside assistance services needed several hours of searching and recording all information necessary for a prediction, but the Roadside Assistance Forecast produces this information in just a few seconds.
“The algorithm is now running parallel to the planning department. We want to continue to improve the system for the time being, so the forecasts are getting better and better. Eventually, there will come a time when the algorithm is leading and forecasters make their predictions in parallel,” he said, whilst adding that planning teams are still essential.
“These are people who have been doing this work for years, and although an algorithm based on factual information goes a long way, it misses the gut feeling that people have through their years of experience. That is something we cannot grasp in a calculation formula.”
Sharing inspiration and knowledge
Following the successful big data pilot, the ANWB purchased a data lake and established its Datalab. “We needed a place to analyse different datasets. Datalab is a multidisciplinary, virtual team that deals with data science activities.” Moreover, Abbas and his colleagues started building a community that must stimulate innovation in the organisation even more.
“We bring people together and want to show that we want to inspire each other with attention to new developments. You cannot tell people, ‘You need to be innovative now’. You might as well kill innovation right there and then,” he said.
The community consists mainly of people from the business who already like innovation and have the enthusiasm to get started with new things.
“From there, we can again share inspiration and knowledge. This way, we get more ideas and we can faster translate those into promising pilots,” said Abbas.
Whatever the future holds, the Royal Dutch Touring Club is ready for it.