The pandemic has provided an unprecedented opportunity for risk managers to “seize the day” in conversations with the board and the business about the use of technology.
That’s the message from Raj Singh-Dehal, chief corporate officer at Center Parcs, who addressed a live-stream Technology Forum event hosted by Airmic on 13 May.
The virtual forum brought together risk professionals to discuss the fast-changing roles that technology is playing for managing risk within organisations as they continue to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The message really is ‘Carpe Diem’ for risk managers, to seize the opportunities we have at present for relevant and timely conversations for how we can use digital in new ways,” Singh-Dehal tells Airmic News.
The pandemic has put risk professionals in a prime position and provided a window of opportunity to improve risk management and the use of technology, he says, before business begins to reopen as the pandemic hopefully continues to recede.
“When the pandemic struck, risk management suddenly took centre stage. Everyone was asking us the most important questions, wanting us to work out the risks of the pandemic situation, how to address it, and how we might work through it,” says Singh-Dehal.
“Risk management became the number one topic in the boardroom, which to be honest has been fantastic, particularly after years of grind, when it has often been hard to demonstrate tangible benefits to the work we do,” he adds.
His role at Center Parcs is a broad one, Singh-Dehal, explains, encompassing overlapping functions that include IT, with responsibility for digital projects, HR, with responsibility for people, and the risk function, which includes insurance as well as health and safety.
Center Parcs operates six holiday villages set in forest environments, five in the UK and one in the Republic of Ireland. These include accommodation, sports and leisure facilities, such as spas and swimming pools, with an emphasis on outdoor and adventurous activities.
“The pandemic has completely shifted how we do things,” he says. “Prior to the pandemic, we had some consumer facing digital, so that the parts the consumers sees looked polished, but our internal facing digital simply didn’t match up to it. When you went inside the business, many processes were based on legacy systems or manual processes, with a reliance on paper, spreadsheets and ‘do-it-yourself’ projects.
That situation wasn’t unique to Center Parcs, he stresses, but compounded in the leisure sector by the lack of a digital disruptor “to wake up” the sector. Consumers expect high-quality digital journeys, such as they find on online-orientated businesses such as Amazon, Uber or Deliveroo, he notes.
“Pre pandemic, we were only just beginning this journey on the consumer side, to be more coherent in how our systems talk to each other and provide business intelligence. However, in too many cases this was simply not the case,” Singh-Dehal says.
Technology spending has traditionally faced a “monetisation challenge”, he suggests, with the board wanting a reliable return on investment before spending on digital projects.
However, a lack of reliable intellignce, due to a lack of data and analytics simply not coming out of legacy systems or manual processes, has made such figures hard to quantify. “The problem arises that you don’t know what you don’t know,” Singh-Dehal adds.
Internal digital transformation, particularly for risk management purposes, has lagged far behind customer-facing digital, he acknowledges. However, when Covid-19 suddenly shut the business down, a period without customers provided a window of opportunity to reform internal uses of technology.
Like many other businesses in the UK and across the globe, the pandemic suddenly shut down the company’s head office, with its staff of 400 switching overnight to remote working and in many cases using their own electronic devices to continue working from home.
To manage this unprecedented situation, the usual, IT department-led ways of doing things would have taken too long, he emphasises. Instead, like many firms, the company adopted a more ad hoc approach, with many employees quickly bought dongles and other equipment to work at home. For example, IT had previously envisaged an internal rollout of Microsoft Teams that would have taken 18 months. Instead, Teams was deployed across the business in three days.
“The entire thesis has been about deploying digital on a limited basis, making sure it works, and then expanding its rollout to the next group, scaling step by step. However, we’ve all got used to using Zoom and Whatsapp for video calls and chat. There was a wakeup moment, to deploy at pace, overnight,” Singh-Dehal says.
The company also had a call centre with a team of staff handling customer calls on site, with the usual policies concerning data privacy and fraud protection focused on working from the physical venue.
“Within a week, all of those contact centre agents were working from home. As a result, our appetite for digital, and our appetite for risk, had to rapidly change, says Singh-Dehal.
New remote working technology was implemented and staff trained to receive credit card payments in a secure and GDPR-compliant manner using an encrypted online service.
“You might never have a fully remote contact centre because of remaining issues, but in fact you can work through the bulk of issues, so that only a small fraction of your staff need to be there at the contact centre in person, which means that those people can go to work and maintain social distancing,” he adds.
At the Technology Forum, Singh-Dehal plans to share a number of short case studies for introducing a digital or automated approach where once there were physical or manual ways of working.
These include going cashless, order and pay, capacity management, disclaimers, the use of drones, thermal imaging technology, video tours, an electronic audit.
thermal imaging technology is now being used to check hotspots within buildings and key infrastructure, to reduce the risk of such hotspots causing fires. Similarly, drones are being used to survey the parks’ outdoor activity areas to ensure health and safety standards are maintained, including tall structures designed for customers to climb and confined spaces to explore.
“We started use of drones to survey hard to reach areas, which has been a real win for us as a surveying tool. That requires only the drone operator to be physically there and someone working remotely to watch the footage, which might be recorded but ideally live so that they can give instructions.”
Disclaimers are another example of using technology to make a manual process much more efficient, in this case the paper-based chits that are used to confirm, for example, that customers do not suffer from an allergy or health condition that could make a certain activity dangerous.
“Finding that chit of paper was very problematic, worse than a needle in a haystack, because we didn’t even know which barn in which to look. Now we are using Microsoft forms, using a QR code linked to the booking,” he says.
“If an issue arises, we can find it quickly and if a customer said they didn’t have a condition they later claim to have, we can check easily and reliably. Not only that but it now fulfils the job a disclaimer is supposed to do, rather than functioning as a tick on a compliance check-list.”
For many of these case studies, Singh-Dehal underlines the value of sharing knowledge and experience on implementing technology. Competition can make information sharing problematic, but technology cross-over between sectors can make competitive barriers less of an issue. “Information sharing and knowledge sharing has been fantastic over the past year and I hope it continues in future,” he adds.