Jerome Thil may have only just landed his first airline job, but he’s perfectly in step with where Singapore Airlines aims to go.
Innovation is a muscle that needs to be exercised to deliver the best results, according to Jerome Thil, vice-president, Digital Innovation, Singapore Airlines (SIA) Group. SIA employees are indeed working every day to fulfill the “Digital Innovation Blueprint,” a lofty ambition set by CEO Goh Choon Phong to become the world’s leading digital airline. Thil, the man tasked with achieving that goal, has only been with SIA – his first airline job – since July 2018. What he brings to the airline is a sense of entrepreneurship and innovation that comes from years of experience working with startups and multinational companies in Europe and Asia.
Born and raised in France and having attended one of the country’s pioneering tech institutions, the University of Technology of Compiègne, Thil has been exercising his innovation muscle throughout his career, having created, grown and ultimately sold a number of startups. Those include Coelis, which provided IT and Internet solutions for real-time information analysis and brokered major deals with leading online travel companies; Neotia, which specialized in business intelligence and big-data solutions and was acquired by Wikio, a social advertising platform; and Sprice.com, which became a leading travel metasearch and IT solutions provider in Europe and Asia, and was later acquired by global distribution system (GDS) Travelport in 2010. That purchase saw Thil become vice-president of Innovation for Singapore-based Travelport, acting as the liaison between marketing, product and technology.
In 2014, Thil was appointed interim CEO and president of Wildfire, a leading software platform in China, successfully selling the company a year later. He then returned to the GDS world with stints at Amadeus and Sabre, driving product personalization and marketing in both roles.
Thil believes his startup experience has prepared him well for his current position. “A startup background certainly helps with having a sense of urgency, speed and agility,” he says. However, Thil acknowledges that his experience is largely on the GDS side of the business – there’s still lots to learn on the airline side. But being unaware of existing limits also helps. “As Mark Twain once said, ‘They did not know it was impossible, so they did it.’” In the meanwhile, Thil says staying humble and listening to others with more experience are vital in his role. “The fact that I don’t have an airline background pushes me to learn, listen more and build more connections and trust over time,” he says, adding that Singapore Airlines is successful because of the people behind it.
If innovation is a muscle, then KrisLab is SIA’s gym, where staff develop ideas and work with external partners, startups, incubators and accelerators to forward the airline’s digital transformation. Launched in January, KrisLab aims to promote and foster the open collaboration of ideas. “KrisLab is open to all internal staff to submit and work on their digitally driven ideas and solutions,” Thil explains. Ideas and solutions are evaluated on various criteria such as the maturity level of a technology, how soon it can be implemented, as well as its potential for success in the market.
The initiative has been widely embraced: About 200 ideas have been submitted by staff to date, with over 50 of these having developed into prototypes and 19 moving on to the proof-of-concept or production stage. The solutions include smart seats, virtual training, predictive maintenance for aircraft and the use of virtual reality to enable SIA’s designers to quickly explore cabin concepts in development.
While the numbers speak for themselves, the most impressive outcome for Thil is the transformational impact KrisLab has had on the staff. “We make it possible for employees, regardless of their digital skills, to move from an idea to a digital solution in just a few weeks. When sharing the result with their colleagues, managers, friends and family, the candid pride in their eyes is truly unique,” Thil says. “The sense of fulfilment and recognition they get through this experience is something they will never forget, and more employees want to join the adventure.”
Thil gives the example of a shy procurement specialist who, while spending her days reviewing clauses and contracts, came up with an idea for a mobile procurement app. Working with a business manager and the innovation team, she saw her idea progress from app design to concept, presenting it in front of 300 people, including the CEO – something she would have never otherwise done on her own. “You can really see her transformation,” Thil says enthusiastically.
So far, 130 employees have enrolled in this program, becoming what Thil calls “digital champions,” and ideas are coming at a steady flow. “We forecast that many digital champions will be mentored through the lab over the next two or three years. It will be decisive to the company’s overall digital transformation,” he says.
INNOVATION, IN PRACTICE
Meanwhile, Digital Innovation Blueprint has resulted in collaborative partnerships with local universities and organizations, including the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and the National University of Singapore (NUS). These partnerships have led to research into predictive maintenance using data analytics with A*STAR and the SIA AppChallenge in conjunction with NUS, which included more than 1,700 participants from 73 countries last year. Some of the startups have progressed to the SIA accelerator program, in which their solutions are tested in airline systems.
Further collaborations, both inside and outside the aviation industry, are on Thil’s agenda. “It is through collaborative and open innovation that impactful innovation can take place,” he says.
“The fact that I don’t have an airline background pushes me to learn, listen more, and build more connections and trust over time.” – Jerome Thil
Among the technologies being explored by SIA are blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics and mixed reality, but these are really just a means to an end, Thil says. “Technology is just an enabler, empowering employees to run operations better, design new products faster, and personalize customer service with more accuracy and quality,” he says, adding that although the capabilities of AI and blockchain are fascinating, “we keep in mind that they serve a purpose, generally around customer experience improvement, cost savings or new revenue opportunities.”
As SIA moves forward with its digital transformation, it’s clear where the airline’s focus remains. “SIA’s driver has always been and will always be delivering excellent customer service and ensuring utmost safety. Our business leaders carry on this heritage very consciously,” Thil says. “Together with them, we ensure that digital never becomes a substitute for service excellence, but enables it.”
“C-Suite: Jerome Thil” was originally published in the 9.3 June/July issue of APEX Experience magazine