By Mary Skordia, Doctoral Researcher, Sheffield University Management School

With the pandemic causing major disruptions in the travel industry globally, airline companies have experienced an unforeseen pause in their operations. The ways in which some airlines have been dealing with huge income losses portray remarkable creativity and innovation at the organisational level.

Such examples include the introduction of “flights to nowhere”, with the aircraft leaving and returning to the same airport. EVA air (Taiwan-based) was the first to launch a special flight to nowhere in August 2020, to celebrate Father’s Day. Passengers boarded on a “Hello Kitty” plane at Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) with the company’s president hosting the event and welcoming passengers, while a costumed Hello Kitty made a special appearance and greeted passengers. All services during the flight were Hello Kitty-themed and all 309 passengers (30 in business class) received gift bags and discounts on duty-free pre-orders and selected items. Tickets for this special flight were sold out immediately after booking was open and passengers’ feedback was very positive after the flight.

Shortly after EVA’s innovation, Singapore Airlines, and Air India launched flights to nowhere over iconic domestic destinations, with tickets again being sold-out within a few hours after booking was open. ANA (Japan-based), launched Hawaii-themed flights when the company’s service to Honolulu was cancelled. Thai Air launched “sacred” flights to nowhere, cruising over 99 holy sites in 31 provinces. EVA also launched a night-flight during the Asian Mid-Autumn Festival, with pilots manoeuvring the aircrafts to give passengers astonishing views of the full moon, as well as the ‘Fly! Love is in the Air’ flights during the 2020 Christmas season: passengers’ speed-dating during the flight was followed by a date over tea in the airport on Christmas Day, over dinner on New Year’s Eve, and over breakfast on New Year’s Day.

Newly introduced activities enabled the generation of revenues on the ground, as well; Thai has been selling bags made from life vests and slide rafts, while it receives customers at its new airline-themed café in Bangkok! Moreover, the company made its Airbus and Boeing flight simulators available to the public- a service that was enthusiastically welcomed. Similarly, Garuda (Indonesia-based) is selling in-flight meals as takeaways and Singapore Airlines offers luxurious dinners on stationary planes for up to £360 per person.

The aforementioned innovations created by Asian companies lead to a question that needs further investigation: what is it that enables Asian companies to respond to the pandemic through these different types of novel service innovations?

One possible explanation could be related to cultural characteristics of Asian leaders and employees, which are reflected in their companies’ social capital. Hofstede’s (1980) cultural analysis identified collectivism as a top cultural characteristic in Asian countries. Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia were found to have a strong collective culture, whereas India and Japan are countries with intermediate scores, reflecting both a collectivistic and an individualist character. Nevertheless, India’s individualistic traits are related to religion (Hinduism), whereas collectivistic ones are linked with other aspects of life, including work. Similarly, Japanese people demonstrate a culture of loyalty and collectivism in their work life. Thus, collectivism is what seems to be characterising the work environment in India and Japan as well, and both countries are considered more collectivistic compared to western countries.

Organizational social capital reflects the “character of social relationships within the firm” (Leanna & van Buren, 1999, p.38). Shared trust and collective goal orientation enhance organizational social capital, setting the ground for collective action. Further, organisational social capital positively affects a firm’s internal coordination, creation and sharing of knowledge, innovation (Maurer Bartsch, & Ebers, 2011) and creativity (Leana & Pil, 2006; Han, Han & Brass, 2014). So, it could be that Asian airlines’ capacity to innovate is supported by their collectivistic culture. Is it that their organisational social capital makes their employees more willing to put in the effort required in order to support their colleagues and address the collective issue of revenue losses? Does their collectivism orientation in the workplace provide the necessary context for knowledge creation and sharing, enhancing coordination of internal activities that lead to innovation?

While reflecting on those questions, it is noteworthy to consider Gorodnichenko and Roland’s (2011) suggestions that countries with an individualistic culture experience higher innovation. However, Gorodnichenko and Roland conducted their research at a different time; they used the gross domestic product (GDP) per worker in 2000 and the number of patents per million population as outputs in their model. Is it the case that their argument that individualism enhances innovation due to the social status reward and prestige connected to it, may be relevant when there is stability in the environment (like in the year 2000), but may not be valid – or may not be enough of a motivation – at times when there is very high turbulence and uncertainty, like during a pandemic? One potential explanation could be that during a pandemic, individuals are less interested in their prestige, and are more worried about dealing with everyday life issues. Could it be that collectivism unites people against common threats, like Covid-19?

The answers to all these questions are yet to be explored. Further research is required concerning whether a collectivistic culture is beneficial under atypical environmental circumstances and leads to better cooperative action, problem-solving, creativity and innovation, and what the effects of individualism are under such conditions.


References

Gorodnichenko, Y., and Roland, G. (2000). Individualism, Innovation, and Long-run Growth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS, 108 (4): 21316–1319.

Han, J., Han, J. and Brass, D.J. (2014). Human capital diversity in the creation of social capital for team creativity. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35(1): 54–71.

Hofstede, G. (1980). Cultures’ consequences: international differences in work-related values. London/Beverly Hills: SAGE.

Leana, C.R. and Pil, F.K. (2006). Social capital and organizational performance: evidence from urban “public schools”. Organization Science, 17(3): 353–366.

Leana, C.R. and Van Buren, H.J. (1999). Organizational social capital and employment practices. Academy of Management Review, 24(3): 538–555.

Maurer, I., Bartsch, V. and Ebers, M. (2011). The value of intra-organizational social capital: how it fosters knowledge transfer, innovation performance, and growth. Organization Studies, 32(2): 157–185.