Finally, an opportunity to examine the substantive choices made in the application of AI solutions, within the same industry, reflecting the cultures and norms of two different countries.
The industry being that of airports. The countries, namely those of the Netherlands versus the United Kingdom.
June/July is the holiday season in Europe. That time of the year that airports overflow with eager visitors from the European Continent and elsewhere. Little surprise therefore that all airports in Europe work hard at creating flawless solutions at check-in, customs and for boarding purposes.
So, it is with those three elements in-mind that I decided to evaluate how the British and the Dutch differ, if at all, in their application of AI and technology solutions in two airports, namely Heathrow at terminal 5 and at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.
The four workforce-directed assumptions are there for everyone to acknowledge:
- AI is coming quickly and will have vast, far-reaching and permanent consequences on jobs, employment and the workplace in-general.
- The primary Employer Value Proposition (EVP) with the introduction of AI, is a streamlining and downscaling of the paid workforce and therefore massive savings in the cost of employment.
- Technology solutions are capable of replacing error-prone workers.
- Of the employee’s remaining, the workplace will be populated by younger and younger employee’s.
A general observation of national differences
Let me start with an obvious comparison which has nothing to do with the application of AI or technology, but bears observing as context for this case study.
For those of you who have travelled to the UK and specifically through Heathrow, you will know that each of those three contact areas, namely check-in, customs or boarding are anything but nerve-wracking, ominous and threatening.
The UK seems to specialise in recruiting dispassionate and unfriendly people to work in those divisions as a right-of-passage.
Personalities more akin to police investigators and interrogation specialists, than to friendly, welcoming and helpful, customer service specialists. The only time any eye contact is made at Heathrow is when there is a need to verify a face against a passport. I am obviously generalising and from time-to-time I have personally met exceptions to those rules.
The reality is however that such exceptions stand out like a sore thumb.
On the other hand Darren, the Netherlands could not be further from the UK in this respect.
Firstly those employed at Schiphol are physically bigger and obviously more able to take care of themselves in a threatening situation than those at Heathrow. Yet, their faces belie their sizes. Miraculously there does not appear to be any shortage of people at Schiphol who smile, talk to you, make eye contact and appear genuinely happy to have you come to visit and sad to see you leave. Were this just one or two I would have put it down to exceptions and sore-thumbs again. However one is able to completely generalise in this regard.
It’s quite unsettling to say the least in the face of such unbridled joy of life and happiness, from a customs official or someone on the other end of a scanner.
The comparative analysis
AI, embodied in technology has long been in development as far as airports are concerned.
Those who have travelled frequently have identified obvious bottlenecks and mismanagement in many areas at our local and international airports that could benefit from the introduction of technology. Seamless technology not dependant on attitude or human error.
So, both Heathrow Terminal 5 and Schiphol have introduced self-check-in technology equipment designed to allow passengers to master the check-in process themselves.
The difference is that whereas Heathrow appears to have cut back dramatically on human check-in personnel, except for one completely overworked and overwhelmed person on a computer for exception-cases for every six machines, Schiphol have retained numerous human check-in counters and especially for families requiring assistance. Passengers at Schiphol obviously appreciate the choice and the vast majority choose the technology route of self-help. However the human element seems to be as appreciated amongst passengers acknowledging their need for assistance.
To generalise for a moment, there is a customer-to-company, and passenger-to-machine compatibility present in Holland, which is plainly absent from the UK’s airports.
It is here where the difference between the two is clear for all to see.
Both airports appear to have precisely the same technology deployed. Equipment which scans at Heathrow Terminal 5, is modern with automated tray returns and scanning facilities for carry on luggage as well as 3D scanners of humans (developed by the South African Mining Sector). The same equipment is present at Schiphol. The difference however in who uses this equipment, how it is used and how you as the passenger are made to feel in the process is worlds apart.
At Schiphol you needn’t take your laptop out of your bag, take your belt off, your watch off or remove your shoes. If you have water or other liquids in your luggage, whereas at Heathrow it is confiscated with a growl from the customs official, at Schiphol it is taken, analysed in an instant with equipment clearly on view at Heathrow, but not used for the same purpose, and then shock and horror, it is returned to you where a friendly customs official warns you to drink it on your travels so that you stay hydrated.
Same equipment, different calibre of personnel. Different training. Different sense of professionalism. As one Dutch official explained it to me “We are properly trained and able to deal with problems where they happen without generalising that every passenger is a would-be terrorist. You can be sure that when we pick up problems we deal with them.”
Heathrow Terminal 5 makes the assumption of guilt until proven otherwise whereas at Schiphol the assumption is that a tourist is worth their weight in gold and shouldn’t be frustrated or terrorised by the system itself. This has little to do with the identical equipment deployed and everything to do with the quality of those selected to use that machinery and technology.
Truth-be-told, these two airports are pretty even when it comes to the ease of technology, self-scanning facilities used to check people onto the planes, except Heathrow still insists on a second human check, friendly nonetheless.
How do these airports compare with the assumptions about the advent of 4IR:
Assumption 1 – AI is coming quickly and will have vast, far-reaching and permanent consequences on jobs, employment and the workplace in-general
Whereas this assumption, is proven true and is evident at Heathrow Terminal 5, it is less evident at Schiphol where despite the deployment of technology there appears to be a melding, an integration of people and technology to a far greater degree than at Heathrow.
People are present to deal with problems, the need for overrides or compromise and work arounds, whereas at Heathrow you are basically on your own.
Assumption 2 – The primary Employer Value Proposition (EVP) with the introduction of AI, is a streamlining and downscaling of the paid workforce and therefore massive savings in the cost of employment
Undoubtedly there has to have been a downscaling of personnel with the advent of the introduction of technology at Schiphol and I am told by a Schiphol manager, that that has been in the area of 12% of the workforce, at Heathrow it is evident that it is closer to 30% of customer service personnel. In this instance it is said to have been a mixture of re-deployment, managing the retirement age downwards, normal and steady attrition and focused retrenchments and severances.
Assumption 3 – Technology solutions are capable of replacing error-prone workers
It appears that with this assumption there is a glaring difference. This is evident with the sense of ease, confidence, articulation and diplomatic assertiveness on-display at Schiphol, particularly with those in-charge of observing the scanning machines, resolving check-in and boarding complications arising, and amongst the quietly confident supervisory and managerial staff circulating at every juncture.
Juxtapose that with the minimal human presence at Heathrow Terminal 5, the continual sense of overload, panic and sour faces and you have an immediate case study of the differences in two institutions which within one united Europe should have far more in common than sets them apart?
Instead of human errors, the quality of training and staff development at Schiphol appears to have turned the problem of human error, to technology error resolved by humans. At Heathrow it is evident that there is little awareness of where the one ends and the other begins. Errors become one big complicated mess which very few humans want to take responsibility for.
Assumption 4 – Of the employee’s remaining, the workplace will be populated by younger and younger employee’s
I am pleased to say that this was one glaring area of commonality in both countries and that this assumption is actively being disproved.
In both countries in-general and not just at the airports what is evident is that there is a higher rate of retention of people over the age of 40 in key positions. Not necessarily those of management, but certainly those of supervision, coaching and mentorship.
I experienced countless occasions in both countries where issues of the application of technology in multiple situations needed the quiet and resolved hand of experienced intervention as opposed to the proficiency and exuberance of youth. A very heartening experience and absolutely counter-intuitive. It seems that you can teach old dogs new tricks and that younger dogs are prepared to integrate to a far greater degree with those older ones than we tend to give either generation credit for.
Conclusions about AI and technology changes
There is undoubtedly a factor of national culture, identity and attitude which effects the successful integration of AI in all countries.
These variances make the difference between a successful and seamless melding of the technological and human forms, for the good of the business and the customer, versus a difficult and problem-prone set of innovations which become costly and unwieldly to manage.
In these instances one would without question, want to be more Dutch than British.