Critiquing the Travel Technology Ecosystem

Aligning business operational models with ecological terms has become a popular pastime, especially in technology. Almost 20 years ago, Harvard academic James F. Moore developed the idea in his business strategy book, The Death of Competition.i

Refinements and corrections continue to the present day, but some of his fundamental premises have become part of the business landscape. The travel industry is no exception–albeit most people espousing the concept deviate significantly from the standard definitions and describe the ecosystem to meet their unique business objectives.

Travel Ecosystem 20140626.GIFEssentially, the basic theories say that businesses can best succeed when they consider their business environment, and not just their competition, or even meeting the needs of their customers. Various businesses and their services can contribute not only to delivering products and services that customers find valuable, but also toward making the business environment positive.

These disparate entities are often themselves suppliers and customers of each other, and hence form part of the ecosystem in multiple ways. Moore suggests that enlightened companies will enhance the ecosystem by creating mutually beneficial relationships not only with customers and suppliers but also with their competitors.

The accompanying graphic shows a simplified view of how the major components of the travel management process conceptually work together and reinforce both each other and the business environment.ii

Moore’s book also says that there is something called an “ecosystem leader,” which is a company that creates a shared vision that others can use to, for instance, align their investments. Much of the book is devoted to examples of how this sort of leadership has occurred.

Business Leadership Examined


The travel industry has never been in want of companies anxious to lead the ecosystem–almost always in directions and ways that they created and find beneficial. This is not a new idea, nor did it originate with Moore–much of whose work the travel industry amends so as to be unrecognizable.

Forty years ago a few large airlines with technology assets began projects that became CRS and later GDS. These represented the most tightly integrated ecosystems the industry has ever seen.

They were managed along the business strategies their owners desired to pursue, and they carried the industry to new levels of productivity that would not have been otherwise possible. Collectively, most of the CRS/GDS industry was also part of a larger ecosystem lead by IBM–which provided the tools that made them work.iii

The leadership position of the GDS has collapsed over the last 15 years, which most observers conclude was probably positive. Yet, some of our industry colleagues advocate assembling new ecosystems, of course organized around new leaders, as the best way to ensure innovation and proper attention to customer priorities.

Are they right? What can we learn from prior experiences in an industry organized in this way?

Ideas Aren’t Real


I’ve wondered why business ecosystems are such popular discussion points. Once you understand how they are supposed to work, and put the business school jargon aside, most examples are seriously flawed.

Ideas aren’t real, in that they are abstractions of how people think things should work, not how the do work. A few lessons from experience are in order:

  1. No one can guarantee that the vision held by the ecosystem leader is correct, or that the leader executes it properly. More often, that vision is deficient and in pursuing it, the ecosystem leader and its followers succeed in repressing competition and innovation.
  2. Remember, while the early advances of CRS/GDS brought undeniable benefits, innovation quickly became difficult, and usually grudging, especially elsewhere within the ecosystem. It encouraged that type of behavior and it was not until it partly collapsed that the broad product and service industry innovation we see today became practical.
  3. Most examples of ecosystem leaders and supporting business systems impose costs on the participants that would not otherwise be there. This is particularly true in the travel industry, where suppliers have complained about the costs of the GDS ecosystem for decades.iv
  4. Not all participants in ecosystems add value In travel, some companies that are assumed participants in fact detract from the value realized by other businesses and consumers.
  5. It is unnatural for a tightly-controlled business ecosystem to encourage the type of broad, aggressive competition that focuses on meeting customer needs, eliminating unnecessary costs, and by-passing non-contributors. The symbiotic business relationships ecosystems envision tend to perpetuate channels, intermediaries, and processes that competition would discard.
  6. Ecosystem abuses are frequent. Leaders inhibit or reject inconvenient innovations and competitors in favor of perpetuating the ecosystem they control.


Ecosystems Aren’t the Same As Progress


Despite the fairly infrequent examples of where ecosystems have benefited industries and their participants, the reverse is more common and more compelling: there are almost no commercially successful desktop operating systems apart from Windows because the Microsoft ecosystem is successful, not because Windows is better. Almost all TMCs use a GDS in some form, despite its limitations and costs to suppliers, not because there are no other ways to make reservations (many have been proposed) but because the remnants of the GDS ecosystem are with us still.

Travel management and technology needs more innovation, aggressive competition, and precise focus on real customer needs, not the artifices and limitations imposed by more business ecosystems. There are costs imposed by pursuing all of these things, but leader-based business ecosystems have never proven themselves to be cheaper or faster short-cuts, or effective hedges against inevitable business mistakes.

Notes:

i The Death of Competition: Leadership and Strategy in the Age of Business Ecosystems, HarperBusiness, 1996, ISBN 0-88730-850-3.

ii This example is simplified to illustrate the concept and is not designed to be comprehensive. Contemporary illustrations of the travel ecosystem would be much more complicated and include lines of business with sometimes dubious contributions.

iii The extent to which IBM influenced the technological direction of the travel industry has never been fully appreciated.

iv There are other industry examples; this is just the most obvious and compelling.

Questions About the GSA’s Travel Data Challenge

On February 19, 2014 the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) announced whatThe Beat calls a “first of its kind” competition to develop travel data analysis technology. The formal announcement posted by the GSA says:

“In this GSA Travel Data Challenge, the public is asked to develop a technology-driven solution using GSA travel data that allows an agency to identify opportunities to reduce costs.  As such, GSA challenges the public to create a tool using GSA travel data that could be replicated across government to every agency, using their own travel data.”

This exercise is described as “crowdsourcing” in other publications that usually pay little attention to how the GSA administers its travel programs or analyzes travel data–one supposes because the novelty of the approach somehow makes it important.

The Travel Data Challenge raises a number of questions that are equally worthy of some attention. Here are some of the most obvious:

  1. The competition offers $35,000 for a winning submission; lesser amounts to other categories totally $90,000 in all. This is but a fraction of what such a solution would likely earn in the open market, which makes one wonder why any established developer would want to participate.
  2.  

    Participants grant the government a perpetual, royalty-free license to any and all intellectual property comprising the winning entry. A good deal for government, but a bad deal for a truly innovative developer. While the terms of the contest go on to say that “All other rights of the winning entrant will be retained by the winner of the competition,” since the rules also say that “The final tool should be in Open Source Code,” we are left to ponder how little those remaining rights might be worth.

  3. The GSA has existing contracts-holders for a variety of travel management and analysis products. Why isn’t the innovation and creativity the agency desires forthcoming from these presumably well-funded and well-compensated sources? Perhaps the agency should be questioning whether its procurement and program management practices are truly adequate to deliver the sustained innovation it seeks, or if that is not the problem, then whether the incumbent vendors are up to the job?
  4. The Organization and operation of the event give the impression that many aspiring participants are unprepared for the task. Travel data analysis and interpretation is a complex and highly specialized field. The agency has provided only the sketch of what it wants to accomplish, and many of the online questions posted on the event site indicate that an understanding of the sources, tools, and objectives of successful travel management are equally barren within the community of interest developers. A much more thorough developer briefing is needed if all sides of the contest are to avoid wasting their time.

 

What Would A Proof of Open Booking Look Like?

One can spend considerable time and energy developing specific and detailed reviews of flawed theories and business proposals. Although appreciative comments and note are often the result, it’s important to recognize that this isn’t how business strategies should be developed.

The burden of proof rests with the proponents of new strategies and theories to use adequate and appropriate reasoning, and specific proofs to show that these are valid–not with everyone else to show why they are not.

Open Booking, as presently announced, is an ill-conceived business strategy that rests upon faulty logic, inadequate data, poor research, and a suspension of belief in how the real world operates. Its proponents have, or should have, certain obligations to correct these errors and show how Open Booking then remains a valid business premise.

Absent a much improved business case, the travel community is justified in rejecting Open Booking’s imaginary benefits without further argument. The disinclination of others to spend time refuting unsupported theories gives them no credence whatever.

Here’s a concise outline of how Open Booking must be proven. It’s not unrealistic and doesn’t assume more that a correct application of available evidence.

I’ve also attached a “conclusion” as to how likely we are to ever see any of these points addressed.

1)    Assume the Burden of Proof

Advocates of any theory, business or otherwise, carry the burden of proof which requires them to adequate demonstrate why their ideas are valid.

Statements about Open Booking such as “travelers are booking directly with suppliers and often times spending less money than if they go through a managed program,” or “there have been studies that have validated this but unfortunately, the status quo has swept them under the rug” are irrelevant commentary and establish nothing.
When you make such claims, it’s your job to substantiate them. Produce your evidence or abandon your claims.

Conclusion: The Burden of Proof is troublesome and inconvenient. It’s much more fun to make random, unsupported claims and suggest that people who disbelieve you should know better. The logical basis for Open Booking is so shaky that were unlikely to see a rush to defend it with more that opinion and speculation.

2)    Clearly and Comprehensively State the Proposition

Any business theory requires a detailed, comprehensive statement of what it is and how its proponents expect it to work. For Open Booking, that means more than the vague statements about how everyone is doing it so the result is therefore inevitable. The business proposition needs to be positively defended in order to be valid. Simply because flaws can be identified in the travel management process does nothing to advance the cause of Open Booking–there are other equally choices available.

The case for Open Booking also needs to consider business operations in the real world in detail and discuss how Open Booking affects each of them. A few short PowerPoint presentations do little to advance this discussion.

Conclusion: Building a correct business case is a lot of work, and Open Booking is a moving target that seems to evolve along a new line as soon as someone points out its shortcomings. It’s unlikely that anyone will expend the effort to improve this picture.

3)    Define Specific, Unambiguous Proofs That Your Assertions Are Correct

Once you’ve explained the business case for Open Booking, show us the clear proof-points that demonstrate the theory is valid and worth the effort. Not travelers are booking directly with suppliers and often times spending less money than if they go through a managed program” but how much, how often, under what conditions, and to what degree does this have to be so to offset costs and business risks?

Conclusion: If Open Booking could be substantiated in this way, someone would have tried to do so by now. The fact that proofs and evidence are abandoned in favor of opinion and anecdote is itself a demonstration of Open Booking’s failure.

4)    Use Objective, Comprehensive, Accurate, and Scientifically Correct Data

Forget self-selected surveys, tiny samples, biased questions, and the general lack of controls that infests almost all travel industry research. Produce data that can be defended, use it to establish your proofs, and then your Open Booking business proposition might have some validity.

Conclusion: Almost all travel research is useless and contrived to establish the preconceptions its authors want to perpetuate. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. As best (and this is conceding a great deal) the data in support of Open Booking are ambiguous.

Open Booking’s proofs and research should be straightforward and, if correct, should silence critics when accompanies by a comprehensive business proposition. It’s time this evidence is forthcoming.

5)    Comprehensively Describe How You Did Your Research

What precisely was your sampling methodology? How are your conclusions sustained by the raw data? What is an alternate interpretation of the data and how do you answer that interpretation? What would researchers have to do to replicate your research? Who sponsored your research and what are their and your predispositions?

Conclusion: Real research is transparent, fully explained and disclosed, and replicable. Spurious research sustains one-time conclusions or hides behind a proprietary cloak. This type of transparency and disclosure is very rare in the travel industry and non-existent as concerns Open Booking.

6)    State What You Cannot Yet Prove and How This Affects Your Conclusions

Scientific research acknowledges its shortcomings and identifies what cannot yet be proven as well as what can. It also admits areas where future evidence might disprove the theory. The quality of your interpretation of the evidence in support of your claims is as important as what that evidence specifically shows.

Open Booking lacks a real statement of its comprehensive business case, real proof-points that are offered to establish its validity, scientific evidence sufficient to establish the vague claims made in behalf of it, and a rational analysis of its very real deficiencies.

Conclusion: Open Booking’s proponents are no more likely to improve their process or develop their evidence in this area than they are in any other. Remember, if you are an advocate of Open Booking, you have the responsibility to develop and present your adequate evidence before anyone is obliged to give your ideas credence.

It’s not up to me or anyone else to disprove Open Booking–the burden rests with you. The six areas discussed here should be a minimum expectation.