American Airlines using technology to make its people the competitive advantage

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Nearly six years ago, American Airlines embarked on a company-wide transformation, sparked by the merger it underwent with US Airways in 2013.

According to Mark Mitchell, managing director HR Shared Services at American Airlines, since the merger, the organisation has shifted its focus from mostly customer and operations to become “one for the customer”.

Speaking on a panel at SAP Sapphire in Orlando this week, Mitchell said specifically, the last 2-3 years have seen the company focus on a digital and business transformation around employee experience. American Airlines boasts around 130,000 employees.

“We were excited that the merger created the largest airline in the world; but our aspiration is not to be the largest, it’s to be the greatest,” he said.

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“We know that everything that we do is matchable by our competition with one exception — you can buy the same plane, you can put on a cool on-board experience, but in the end, our people will be the differentiation and that’s where we needed to start and drive forward for the future.”

Key to this, Mitchell said, was creating a “seamless, unified employee experience” that showed employees it was easy to do business with the company.

“Recognising we have some work to do, we have a foundation … sets of goals that will get us there, one is to build that people-centred culture, people-first that will drive and help us to create the world class customer experience,” Mitchell said.

“We have to find a way using technology … to make sure that we are differentiating what’s important to [customers] through the technology, so they can do business with us.

“Customers want to do business with us in a way that’s seamless and simplified and feels light … we have tonnes of data, we have plenty of data, but the technology is how that data comes to life and delivering it to our employees [as well].”

Mitchell said the airline has made a “major” commitment to the cloud.

“I think the first word that describes us is learning, continuous learning about what operating in the cloud means, what changes operating in the cloud, do you have to make changes as a customer of SAP, to be a good partner?,” he said.

“Secondly, evolving our business model, how we operate by bringing technical skills into HR that traditionally may have sat in IT with a systems administrator team … and thirdly it’s about enabling. How do I make sure that all the capabilities of all of those [SAP] products are available to the business to make sure we’re delivering all that we possibly can to them to drive that forward.”

According to Mitchell, staff have had to undertake a shift in mindset, with teams “retooling” to an operating model that is successful in the cloud.

“As we’ve gone to the cloud, roles and responsibilities have shifted from IT to business — and I think IT is scared as well. I think the unknown of what operating in a cloud environment — it changes the roles and responsibilities,” he explained.

“At American Airlines we have a fully functional sysadmin team, very technical, skillsets that traditionally would sit in IT, so those roles and responsibilities have shifted to the HR team.”

He also said turning to SAP for managed service arrangements also redefined the role for IT. However, he said there is still 150 interfaces that internally need to be maintained and operated and evolved over time.

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