Jennifer Sepull - Part 2

Chief Digital Officer at Air New Zealand

In part two of our interview with Air New Zealand CDO, Jennifer Sepull, she shares her thoughts with Deloitte Digital lead Grant Frear on innovating in a regulated industry and her experience of purpose-led organisations at military financial firm USAA. For the initial half of this conversation, catch up on part one here

One aspect that comes up often in the topic of innovation is ecosystems. What has been your impression of the innovation ecosystem here in New Zealand?

There's such an innovative mindset here. When I first got to New Zealand, I was invited to an entrepreneurial event for start-ups. It struck me that we should be listening more to these businesses and potentially working with them. That is also something we’ve been focusing on this year. The digital innovation team will be leading the efforts to leverage innovation at our company for years to come. It’s pretty exciting!

I’d like to get your views on just how important the dimensions of speed and scale are in innovation. How do you go about achieving both and finding a balance between them?  

I think when you have a digital organisation that only measures itself on speed, it's not good. There must be a respect for core technology, and balance for speed, governance and enterprise investment.

To achieve that, anything that's enterprise-wide that we can leverage to boost innovation is useful. One way that we're going to do that is by creating efficiencies through digital automation and optimisation. That way we can invest more resources into big strategic moves.

A good digital organisation has a respect for the core essentials. So if your primary digital platform is unstable, or it hasn't been cared for properly, you’ll just be adding innovative features onto a platform that is rotting away. You have to respect the importance of that core technology and be prepared to change it if needed. 

I'm curious about some of the challenges you see in a regulated industry, when the regulator wants system stability but the rise of new platforms and business models promotes change and risk. Now you’re someone who is in a regulated industry…

Yes, and I have been my whole career.

How do you manage that?

I don't see regulation as a limitation for innovation in digital. For instance, banks are some of the most regulated companies I've ever worked for, but if you have the right mindset, you can still be innovative and customer focused while maintaining compliance. It comes down to a willingness to work within regulatory requirements while being creative and still thinking ‘outside of the box’ with digital solutions.

Were there any specific capabilities that allowed that to happen?

One factor was making sure that the digital team have a tight working relationship with the person who understands the regulations. This has been a common factor both at previous companies and here at Air New Zealand, where we work in close partnership with experts and subject matter experts.

Not only that, but it’s important that the person taking care of your regulatory compliance is actively helping you find good outcomes. Rather than telling you why you can’t do something, they present the parameters you have to work with and help you brainstorm ways to comply.

The right people are obviously crucial in a digital organisation and now our global ecosystem means that the world is our talent pool. Based on what you've experienced here, what would you hope New Zealand starts producing in our talent community?

Digital innovations like robotics are going to become the norm, so a really good understanding of robotics, data, analytics and digital problem solving are still going to be necessary.

On the flip side, I think as digital integrates more and more into our lives, it creates opportunities for less personal experiences. So, talent in personalisation and sensitivity will become even more important. What people need to have is a really high EQ because unless we factor in personalisation and humanity, everything we create is going to become cold.

Over the last few years, we've seen the emergence of purpose-driven businesses and I would say that your previous workplace, USAA, is one of the best examples of that. What do you think being purpose-led will mean for businesses in the future?

I think it's going to be necessary criteria because young people today will not work at a company unless it is purpose driven and stands for something bigger than them. I hear that from young people all the time – they're not tied to a brand as much as they are tied to a way of thinking, a passion, and a purpose.