By Peter High, published on Forbes
When Mike Giresi joined Royal Caribbean Cruises as its chief information officer 18 months ago, he did so after having been a CIO three times over, at Tory Burch, Direct Brands, and Godiva Chocolatier. He had depth of knowledge in retail, but not as much depth of experience in travel and hospitality, except as a customer of that industry. That said, he had been exposed to and even driven digital innovations in his prior experiences, especially at Tory Burch, where he saw first hand as the eponymous founder and CEO of the company mastered social media as a driver of growth.
Royal Caribbean introduced its “smart ship,” Quantum of the Seas prior to Giresi’s arrival, but it set a template that he and his team could use as a launching point for further innovation. A key hypothesis of his is that digital is a team sport, touching each part of the company. The CIO and the IT team is well positioned to be a driver of the change given its many touch-points across the enterprise. Giresi shares more specifics on this topic among others in this interview.
Peter High: I thought we would begin with the digital transformation that Royal Caribbean introduced a couple of years ago, with the inception of the Quantum of the Sea as the world’s first “smart ship” with features like faster than ever Wi-Fi, robotic bartenders, virtual balconies, and RFID luggage tags, just to name a few. I am curious to know about where the journey stands now and as you continue to build upon this platform that you created.
Mike Giresi: We are incredibly proud of the progress we made on the Quantum class of ships, where we introduced several technologies that were groundbreaking in the cruise industry. To be completely transparent, I was not part of the company at that point. This was a challenge put forth by our chairman and CEO to the organization to come out with a class of ships that would enable the guest to experience a more immersive and frictionless type of vacation, and that would change the whole aspect of what being on a ship is.
The lessons learned from that are invaluable. We have understood what technologies worked well, which were less well received, and what it means to continuously evolve. Much like anything that is digitally led, there is constant iteration; there should be a consistent learning feedback loop. The entire organization must properly understand how to take the organization forward. Unfortunately, a lot of organizations look at digital as one and done. They think they now have a mobile app, so they are now digital.
I think that Quantum enables this organization to learn where we had digital capabilities, where we were lacking some capabilities, and how we build that into the DNA of the organization. As we evolve it and continue to iterate our solutions forward, it becomes more meaningful to our guests and hopefully productive for our business.
High: Digital, as you mentioned, is a comprehensive topic, and it is a team sport. How is the topic organized within the organization? Who are your primary interlocuters as you think about topics related to digital both internally and externally?
Giresi: Within our organization it starts with our Chairman and CEO. He is completely committed to us being a digital-first business. I think for a lot of organizations, if the senior leadership team is not committed, digital becomes much like other enterprise transformation programs. It either becomes an IT project, which means it is probably going to be sub-optimal at best, or it becomes a bright shiny object that shines bright for a brief period and then disappears into the recesses when something else takes the mantle.
When I joined the company in September 2015, I found an organization that was hungry and had a tremendous passion for technology. If you think about our business, we are a shipbuilding business along with being a hospitality business. We create products that are engineering marvels, and we can put things on ships other companies have not considered or did not think was possible. Because of that, we have tremendous aspirations for what technology should be and how it should work within our organization.
My focus was on harnessing that passion and interconnecting with all the different aspects of the business so that we are starting to talk a common language and think strategically and cross-functionally. Digital here is not an IT project. This is a program led out of the office of our CEO. We have multiple partners throughout the organization to drive it. I think that is the only way it could be successful. When you look at an organization that is undergoing a digital transformation, in most cases the IT function is either not part of the normal business cadence or, if they are, they are not able to transform the organization by themselves.
We have a Digital group. We have a Marketing group. We have multiple Operations groups that work both on the ship and on the shore. All those groups together must work in complete concert. If they do not they will not deliver a solution that is capable of scaling, iterative, and delivering the expected results.
I look at my role as being the inter-connector. It is not for me to own, I do not think anybody owns digital. We must be able to adapt as a cross-functional team to be able to work through the strategies that exist and iterate on those strategies. There is a lot of conflict as you would expect, but that is healthy if you are working towards a common objective. Once you get that objective defined you go after it.
One of the biggest challenges has been creating the DevOps/agile model within the IT organization for a team that was not working that way. It is a huge transformation, and I do not think people understand how impactful it is to the team and the business. Everyone is used to working in a certain way, and now it is completely turned upside down. If you do not put effort into change management and working with people, communicating why we are doing it, and helping to buy their hearts and minds, it is highly unlikely to be successful.
High: This is your fourth role as CIO after turns at Tory Burch, Direct Brands, and Godiva. This is a new industry for you relative to those. In the early days, either in preparation for this role or in the first hundred days upon taking on role, how did you prepare yourself? How did you orient yourself? How did you put yourself in the customer’s shoes? How did you educate yourself as to how technology creates value in this setting?
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