“Whoever wins in IT tends to win” – that was the message delivered to a UK travel agency group by sporting legend Sir Clive Woodward this week.
The former England rugby coach was speaking to a mix of online, offline and call centre agent owners and operators in the Travel Network Group consortium.
He was chosen to speak to the theme of the annual conference – The Power of You – which was meant to empower the people in the room not get them scurrying off to buy technology.
So how did Sir Clive’s mantra chime with these travel agents who continue to demonstrate the effectiveness of people-to-people travel retailing.
He explained that IT in itself is not the answer, but that for the world cup winning squad of 2003 it played a revolutionary role in how they understood and studied the game and drew useful insights.
The technology Sir Clive, in particular, was talking about was Prozone, player tracking software that uses high-powered cameras to plot the movements of each player, including opponents.
He was introduced to this by Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, after being invited in to see him at their Emirates Stadium home.
Putting his life-long Chelsea support aside, Sir Clive said he agreed to meet Wenger and was blown away by what the technology could do.
By way of illustration he showed the opening sequence of an England France game in the annual Six Nations tournament.
The usual TV footage was shown indented into how the Prozone technology saw the action unfold.
What was revelatory was how within seconds of the kick off just about every French player had been attracted to within a few feet of the ball leaving wide open green space in Twickenham Stadium.
Sir Clive said this unique perspective – it was a while before competitors caught up with England’s use of technology – disproved the myth that there is no room on a rugby pitch.
As part of their preparations for becoming the world’s best team, every England player was issued with a lap top.
Sir Clive showed a picture of three of his front row forwards, not usually noted for their intellect, pouring over data on their laptop screens during a training session.
He said talent is just a starting point to creating a great team but a thirst for knowledge and a passion for what you do was how that team goes to succeed.
“You are either a sponge or a rock. You need every individual to have a sponge between their ears,” he said. “It’s a thirst for knowledge, a third for understanding. There is no excuse for not having a thirst for knowledge or understanding.”
Sir Clive admitted that the decision to use technology that left no hiding place for the players was at first greeted with suspicion.
It also led to some rather odd behaviour when World Cup winning centre Will Greenwood spent every break in play during one match doing shuttle run sprints across the pitch to get his Prozone stats up. “He still holds the Prozone world record,” said Sir Clive.
But he said the players soon embraced it when they saw how powerful the data produce by the system was and they were asked to study it and make presentations after each match.
“Game after game, the learning, knowledge and understanding of players started to go through the roof,” he said.
“By 2003 we had great leadership skills. They became great leaders because they leveraged their talent, because they really got into the IT world, really got into the software stuff. It became a real two-way situation. The dynamics of how I coached really changed.”
This approach enabled that England team to prepare for almost every situation imaginable and to go through what they would do so under pressure they would be able to execute.
Illustrating his point he showed Chinese synchronized divers Bo Peng and Kenan Wang’s spectacular fail in the 2004 Athens Olympics when they slumped from first to last on their last dive.
Why? Because they could not cope with a disruption when a Canadian prankster wearing a tutu held up proceedings for two hours by suddenly appearing on the diving board and belly flopping into the pool.
“If you come across anything you have not experienced before, if you have not thought it through the chances of thinking correctly under pressure are really small. Equally if you have thought it through, backed up by data, there is a good chance you will know what to do,” Sir Clive said.
Next year, The Travel Network Group will roll out its own version of Prozone that has been in tests with three members – one call centre and two stores.
It records the conversations agents have with their customers so that, like Prozone, it can derive insight and data on their performance so firms can benchmark, identify best practice and address issues.
Great for agency bosses, but what about their staff? Just like Prozone, it means there will be no hiding places but could it also be used to collect data to power the next generation of virtual travel agents that make the human redundant?
This is possible, of course, but not inevitable. The travel agents who listened enraptured by what Sir Clive had to say will decide if, and crucially why, they would use this technology.
They may take some convincing, but may have been swayed by Sir Clive’s key message: “whoever wins in IT tends to win.” If that’s true in rugby, why not in travel?