Photo: CEO of ILUNION, Alejandro Oñoro. Credit: Courtesy of the interviewee.

When companies implement technology in internal processes, they tend to pursue objectives such as increasing efficiency, personalized customer service or improving the quality of their services. But when ILUNION, the company’s brand of the ONCE Social Group, does so, its goals go beyond. For its CEO, Alejandro Oñoro, innovation is also a way of promoting its social objectives and he points out: “Technology breaks down barriers and brings us all closer together”.

With a staff of 38 000 people, of which 40.5% have disabilities, and five business divisions (services, tourism, health care, marketing and consulting), the pillars of ILUNION are focused on “people, constant transformation and excellence, in order to bring value and opportunities to people who have it a little harder,” he adds.

Within the framework of ILUNION's Corporate Reputation, it is highlighted that one of the company's challenges is to contribute to several Sustainable Development Objectives, such as the adoption of measures to combat climate change. What is the role of innovation in an organization like ILUNION to achieve its social objectives?

It plays a key role. For example, in our industrial laundries, we constantly fight to achieve energy efficiencies and eliminate all the waste generated by these processes.

In normal conditions, to wash one kilo of clothes you need 10 liters of water and just in ILUNION 200 million kilos of clothes are washed. We are innovating with systems to recover that water, to make our discharges more sustainable and our energy consumption cleaner. We try to create green plants from an economic, social and environmental point of view.

We also have a firm commitment to the recycling sector where we recover all the electronic material that may have a second use. We collect the waste, we treat it and we give it value again in the market. We have a strong commitment to this circular economy.

The Services division is one of the divisions that generates more sales volume. How does ILUNION apply technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to improve its services?

In the hotel sector we are promoting the big data a lot. We have 26 hotels all over Spain and we have an exhaustive knowledge of what is going on in our competition. In the past, prices were changed once a week. Now, they need to be changed immediately depending on how the price of the competition or the different online portals evolves.

For this, we have a platform, which works like a dashboard. It allows us to see at every moment how is the price and the occupations of each zone. This way, we can mark the price of the hotel at different times automatically.

“We are promoting a lot the big data in the hotel sector”

With AI we are trying several things, for example, in the laundry. We work for the big hotels and hospitals in Spain and we are taking advantage of the whole data structure to know the level of consumption of the customer, how many beds he has and his location. With all this information we can automatically launch orders since we know, for example, that a customer in March will need clothes in stock.

For the health field they have also developed actions in the lines of hotels, laundry service and contact center to support the health sector during the pandemic. How can these advanced technologies help to contribute to the health field from now on?

Technologies allow processes to be carried out more efficiently and at a lower cost and to offer a much more optimal service. Thanks to them, for example, hospitals can now have absolute control over what happens when they do their laundry. Through chips installed in the sheets, it is possible to know exactly when and where the laundry is sent or how much is consumed in each area. It may seem like a simple process, but you can't imagine how many sheets are in circulation at the same time in a hospital.

With regard to areas where presence is crucial, such as security, how do you think the digital transformation can help to provide a quality service while respecting the security measures that are essential in the wake of the pandemic?

The field of security is going to innovate and change a lot in the next few years. How is technology going to impact physical security? It's going to be tremendous. There are going to be controls and mechanisms capable of knowing who you are and what you are carrying. The great challenge will be to combine the best of technology with the great value we bring to a key sector such as services.

These systems involve the automation of processes. Is this trend compatible with job creation, one of your objectives as an organization?

The basis of our group is to create jobs and thus transform society through integration. Two years ago, we did not think that we could replace very manual and routine jobs with machines that would perform them more efficiently. We have a very clear commitment to implement technology that allows us maximum efficiency and we already have a large number of our backoffice processes automated with RPA technology.

What we want to do is fulfill our first objective by offering our customers the best service and with all the efficiency possible. To do this, we relocate people to do things differently. The reality is that it is the teams that ask us to keep moving forward and sometimes we can't get enough to implement new processes.

How is technology helping to know the customer, to identify friction points and to know how to offer a better service?

The pandemic has made one thing very clear to us: we put our employees at the center of what we do, but also our customers. The interaction with them has changed. We're a fortunate provider because many share our social focus and others come because they feel safe with the brand. We are working on a new 360 customer platform and want to transform that customer experience. For many we are still a young brand, they know what the ONCE Social Group is all about, but we still have some way to go. We want the customer to understand well who we are and why we do what we do. We are becoming a customer obsessed company.

Do you think that the business landscape is sufficiently socially aware? Are the areas of corporate responsibility (CSR) being worked on correctly?

In the coming months we will see how much image is and how much is real awareness. In our case I do not consider that we do CSR, but it is the core of our business. There are companies that have already jumped on this bandwagon some time ago. At the Once Foundation we have the Inserta agreements with large companies that are committed to creating a certain number of jobs for people with disabilities, and that is just one example of the goodwill of the business sector.

“A real company bets on equality”

There may still be companies that find it hard to believe that a real company is committed to equal conditions for all, regardless of gender, sex, disability, religion… When we tell them that they are going to work with a special employment center, which are those that have more than 70% of their staff with disabilities, they are often still surprised.

But we are going to enter a time when we will see how many companies bet on these people just to increase their market share and how many do it because they consider them to be professionals like any other, with an optimum performance, who add value and who make their colleagues see that we are all equal. We are convinced that true social integration is achieved through employment.

Innovation is already a duty for any company and a deep transformation is needed, from the mission, vision, values, spaces to the way of working and processes. As a CEO, what advice would you give to your peers?

Living in the moment. The past remains in the past. The past has allowed us to learn, to gain experience, to get here and every day we face a different challenge to be open to change. I can't be the same CEO I was in March, I have to be something different. I always comment that transformation begins with oneself. I cannot lead a transformation if I am not the one who is transformed and that message is key for all teams to have it internalized.

Published by OPINNO © 2022 MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW spanish edition