One Man's Innovation is Another Man's Adoption.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon
Wednesday, 25th August 2010
Kevin May's post on innovation has got me thinking that maybe one man's innovation just equals another man's adoption.1

See, the biggest lament in the Asian travel space is the slow adoption of technology by traditional travel agents.

Most of these family-run businesses are quite content to run their agencies the way they have always done – after all, "if the wheel ain't broken, why fix it" would be the old Chinese saying.

Talk to any of the major GDSs in the region and they will tell you their biggest headache – they can't get agents to adopt as fast as they can come up with tools and solutions.

So the problem is not the lack of tools, products and services, the hurdle is the mindset.

And as we know, that which we cannot see takes longer to be fixed – another old Chinese saying.

The times, they may be changing though – although Bob Dylan sang that in 1964 and the times, they still are a-changing – but ever so slowly and all the while advancement in technology is outpacing even those who make it or create it.

Reading an interview by Don Tapscott, the author of "Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business And The World", he says, "It's not that we have information overload; it's that we have an under-capacity to filter information better."

Over the past few years, some travel agents have been coming round to the idea that technology may benefit them – it could cut costs, improve productivity and improve revenues – but where do you begin? Could it become a money pit?

I remember an argument surfacing around this time that perhaps to get travel agents to adopt, you not only have to produce a solution, you also have to implement it for them.

After all, in Asia, we do not have a DIY culture like in the US or Europe. Here we have maids to look after our kids, walk our dogs and feed our elderly, and so we don't know how to do things for ourselves.

So for adoption to occur, implementation had to happen first – but we all know how hard it is to implement on behalf of others because eventually we have to remove ourselves from the situation and then what happens? Who carries on?

I was talking to a distribution system provider and the challenges her staff are facing to help a client implement a project. The staff turnover was just so high that by the time she finished training someone, that person was off to another agency.

In Singapore, to encourage innovation and/or adoption, the government has all sorts of carrots.

There's the Media Development Authority with its i.JAM which gives digital media companies S$50,000 to start up. There's the Singapore Tourism Board with its S$10 million Tourism Technology Fund and the recently-launched S$5 million iDigital scheme.

The former is more aimed at automation and the latter, at enabling e-commerce because the STB, given its new branding and digital strategy, needs to get its travel industry partners onboard the digital train.

The TTF's been there for a while but I understand there have not been a lot of grants handed out, although I am told there have been more enquiries of late. Thing is, if you are a small travel company, you can't afford the staff or the time to submit the kind of paperwork that's needed to access such a grant. And if you are a big company, well, you don't need the grant.

And so iDigital was set up and that's supposed to be easier to access. But again, I've had lots of questions about it from budding entrepreneurs who are keen to "innovate". Thing is, most of them don't come from within the travel space and because of that, they don't qualify for the fund because that scheme is only meant for travel and tourism companies. 

This limits the possibility of innovation because, as Kevin noted, true innovation, defined as disruption, in any industry has rarely come from within.

Next month, the STB, together with the National Association of Travel Agents and a few government agencies keen to push the "adoption" agenda, are holding an IT Solution Fair for travel agents.

To be held September 14, the fair will showcase selected IT solutions vendors to the travel agency community. The idea behind this is to try "take the pain out of the evaluation process for travel agents and to aggregate customer demand for the vendors" so that it will facilitate adoption.

In other words, if the vendors manage to find customers who like them enough, the travel agents can apply for the grants and the vendors can then "innovate" so that travel agents can adopt.

Still with me?

Point is, all these schemes have good intentions but I fear they have too many limitations to truly encourage innovation, let alone adoption. Innovation cannot happen within silos, it requires the oxygen of collaboration.

As another old Chinese saying goes, you can lead the horse to water but you can't make it drink it, no matter how many carrots you dangle in front it.

Or is that apples? I get my cultures so mixed up in this global world we live in.

1 - www.webintravel.com/blog/innovation-by-any-other-name-equals-commoditisation_526

Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com . Get your weekly cuppa of news, gossip, humour and opinion at the cafe for travel insiders.

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