AirAsia embraces big data in digital revamp, staff management

The largest budget carrier in the region by fleet size announced its plan to embark on a digital transformation journey last year


AIRASIA Bhd is set to have another round of transformation. Yes, it is opting for that heavyweight big data analytics in its quest for reinvention and expansion, in line with its digital transformation journey and a well known knack for taking risks.

All the “technical changes”, however, are not expected to affect the solid trademark character of the airline’s “happy family of staff”, better known as the “Allstars”.

The largest budget carrier in the region by fleet size, which announced its plan to embark on a digital transformation journey last year, will be using big data that would enhance areas — namely operations, commercial and people.

The whole process would in turn aid the company’s growth while fulfilling all its ambitions.

Varun says AirAsia is constantly reorganising and it is his challenge to make sure the company is managing the change well

In a recent interview with The Malaysian Reserve, AirAsia Bhd chief people and culture officer Varun Bhatia said the group has recently entered into collaboration with a San Francisco- based big data company, with the aim of conducting predictive analytics to help in plane maintenance works.

“We already have a process where we look at data to do preventive and predictive maintenance. So this partnership is a bigger step towards things like machine learning and artificial intelligence, both of which are already used at AirAsia.

“It’s not only one partnership — there are multiple companies that we’re talking to and working with on this,” Varun said.

For commercial matters, big data will help the group make better-informed decisions on matters such as which routes to fly, route flying frequency and pricing mix.

As for human capital, the budget carrier will be using data to hire new talents as well as manage current employees and their development.

“All of this is coming in 2018, as we roll out Workday (a cloud-based financial management and human capital management software vendor) and we get a better handle on our people and information,” Varun said.

The company last year also began utilising a more structured approach to hiring people, one dubbed “the interview architect”, which assesses talents based on values, learning agility and technical skills.

“When you grow very fast, hiring becomes ad hoc, on the need to fill positions. Sometimes it pays dividends and sometimes it doesn’t because you haven’t gone through a thorough process,” Varun explained.

Thus, the use of data in hiring will make the process smarter as it combines intuition with data analytics to make the right hiring decisions.

It is also expected to improve internal promotions by providing a calibrated view on talents.

While some might embrace such technological advancements in a more cautious manner, it is only natural for AirAsia to take risks, as a company that was built on sizeable risk-taking.

“AirAsia continuously changes and reinvents itself. We’ve been around for some 16 years and things are changing very fast, so we also have to continuously be relevant to our customers.

“We also behave like a startup as we continuously experiment,” Varun said.

Failure is not a problem as long as the people learn from it and move on, he said, adding that the company constantly changes its direction in order to find “the right direction”.

“Many companies will choose a path and stay with it, irrespective of whether it’s the right direction or not because of the egos involved. We don’t have that kind of hang-up.

“We make a decision, we try it out, if it doesn’t work, we change direction. That’s what is unique about this company, and the founders have instilled that culture of risk-taking.

That’s the kind of courageous leadership we’ve had and we want to continue to promote that,” he said.

However, the company doesn’t just take risks. It takes what Varun would dub as “smart risks”, which is a “good balance between data and intuition, between the head and the heart”.

“Risk is part of our DNA. In today’s world, the most important thing is how to take smart risks. Risk-taking is a given. But people can use data and digital technologies to make risktaking smarter,” he stated.

Notably, the carrier is undergoing a massive restructuring exercise which includes the consolidation of its various affiliates and businesses under one roof, with the aim of creating a leaner and more streamlined group structure.

“We are constantly reorganising. Companies that say they’re very stable and don’t go through too many restructurings and changes are not going to survive. You have to reorganise in line with the needs of the business on a continuous basis.

“So, this reorganisation is going to help people focus better, which in turn will help us focus on building our capabilities and acquire talent from outside, while retraining and re-skilling people,” Varun said.

As chief of AirAsia’s employees, Varun works to promote the “home away from home” concept that is on display for all to see at RedQ, Air- Asia’s headquarters in Sepang.

The six-storey block comprises three office levels totalling some 240,000 sq ft and integrating all operational and administrative functions of the group.

It also houses a hair salon, a physiotherapy area, a crèche for young children, a clinic, various exercise and aerobics classes, as well as free lunch for employees.

Yet, for all its bells and whistles, it isn’t just about the facilities. Varun said it’s also about the love and care one receives there too.

He added that AirAsia practices an open, transparent culture with open seating whereby all employees are free to engage each other, including senior management officials.

Is the concept working? Do employees really feel it’s a home away from home?

“Definitely they do. You may be living in a beautiful home but if you don’t have love and care, it’s a house, not a home. So, it’s definitely a home because there’s love and care and access to senior management,” he said.

The group, which has some 22,000 employees, filled 4,500 openings last year to meet the operational demands of new planes being added and commercial areas being strengthened, as well as regular attrition and turnover.

Varun said the budget carrier is constantly reorganising itself in line with the needs of the business, as well as in response to customers and changes in technology and processes.

“Companies that say they’re very stable and don’t go through too many restructurings and changes are not going to survive. “We are constantly reorganising.

My challenge is to make sure we’re managing the change well. We’re stabilising it without making it stale,” the AirAsia people chief said.

The group will continue to hire new talents to fit the operational demands of its expansion plans, which include adding close to 30 new planes in 2018.

As the airline employs anywhere between 50 to 100 people per plane, the new vehicles should result in some 2,500 to 3,000 new hires.

It may sound like a sizeable number, but for a company that has grown from having two planes in 2001 to now owning over 150 aircraft and flying some 130 routes, it’s largely necessary.

And if working at AirAsia really feels like a home away from home, expanding the family by the thousands, while taking on the digital transformation journey should feel like the journey of a lifetime with the airline that has made it possible for everyone to fly.