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BIG THINKER
“As a measure of the discipline behind our innovation process, we haven’t had a single idea rejected by the board for investment.”
David Bulman, director of information technology at Virgin Atlantic Airways
Fostering impactful innovation across the enterprise
Image: Robin Mellor
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Fostering impactful innovation across the enterprise

January 2015
As ideas spring from within the organization they need to be fed into a clear structure that provides due consideration of their potential business value, argues Virgin Atlantic IT head David Bulman.

We’re a 30-year-old company, but the process for innovation at Virgin Atlantic Airways is really very simple. We’ve built a three-stage process that allows people from all parts of the business to submit ideas.

It requires a degree of discipline. It starts with evaluating the potential impact on the business. The innovation doesn’t necessarily need to increase revenue or cut costs to be considered — we look at ideas that increase employee engagement as a gauge of productivity, and at ideas that might contribute to our Net Promoter Score. Customer engagement sits at the center of our innovation process.

This initial step eliminates a number of ideas, but it allows us at the second stage to look at how we might actually implement the best ones, what resources they’d need and how long it would take. That’s where we really start to test feasibility.

By the third and final stage we’re looking at truly defining the enhanced experience through extensive testing. This leaves us with a handful of ideas, which are then put through to proof of concept; we never go straight from innovation to production.

The budget for the innovation process itself is actually relatively small, but it’s sufficient to allow the team to test ideas out in a small and agile fashion without needing to justify them to the board.
IT-powered innovation

Once a concept is proven and ready to move into production, there’s full investment at board level. At this point the business case is relatively easy to build because there’s been so much testing throughout the process. As a measure of that, to date we haven’t had a single idea rejected at that stage.

The technology team is pretty central to the innovation process. Most innovations will ultimately be run by our technology team in some shape or form, but we don’t necessarily innovate without the direct involvement of the business.

At Virgin Atlantic we have created a dedicated innovation team that involves individuals from the IT group, along with people from all other areas of the business, but none of them work on it full time. That cross-function team focuses on the ideas and early stages of the innovation process, but delivery, appropriately, is then pushed back into the various business divisions.

There are four directors who put the business case forward for any significant business innovation — myself (representing technology), our director of operations (who manages engineering), the director of customer experience (under whom innovation sits overall), and our director of customers (who leads the front line consumer-facing staff). Together, we take joint responsibility for pushing ideas forward and any one of us can make that business case.

• David Bulman was a keynote speaker at Nimbus Ninety Ignite in London.
First published
January 2015
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About: David Bulman
With over 25 years’ experience in IT, David Bulman is director of information technology at Virgin Atlantic Airways. Originally from Canada, he has managed digital teams at media and advertising multinationals, including News International and Aegis Group.

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