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Aircraft IT Operations - February/March 2013

Author: Paul Saunders
This article appears in Issue 8: the February/March 2013 edition of the Aircraft IT Operations eJournal. For your own free subscription to the eJournal - click on 'SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE' for full details.

Are Business Cases Stifling Innovation?

Paul Saunders Column: The World According to IT and me..

…we trust our colleagues to make the right call; and this is happening hundreds of times within our businesses every day. This same level of empowerment is rarely granted to technology departments. Yet, IT expenditure is often governed by the same life cycles as other elements of the business.


The debate is still raging amongst software vendors as to whether mobility is a passing fad or a necessary cost of doing business. Some of the mobility doubters seem to favour the stock answer… ‘What’s the business case?’

Whether or not you support my belief that mobility is a requirement for aviation, it is certainly the case that the traditional way of thinking about business cases is stifling our industry’s ability to embrace emerging technologies.

Most businesses have some kind of formal process for assessing, evaluating and approving capital expenditure. Rules and financial algorithms have been tried and tested over the years for high value asset acquisitions like aircraft and information systems whose normal life cycles are measured in decades.

Thankfully not all costly decision making events are governed by such time consuming exercises. We employ staff to make costly safety and airworthiness decisions as part of their day to day work. It would be ridiculous to suggest that a pilot should have to consult an accountant every time they need to make a diversion on safety grounds.

Likewise, a line engineer doesn’t need a hotline to the finance department in order to decide if a component is airworthy or not. Pilots and engineers quite rightly expect a level of empowerment to make snap judgements based on the best information to which they have access. The cost of technical delays and fuel burn for seemingly mundane operational decisions can amount to vast financial figures, but we trust our colleagues to make the right call; and this is happening hundreds of times within our businesses every day.

This same level of empowerment is rarely granted to technology departments. Yet, IT expenditure is often governed by the same life cycles as other elements of the business. Whilst, at the turn of the century, it was reasonable to expect that a server or a desktop computer would still be in use after ten years, this approach is laughable in 2013 when applied to many hardware and software projects. Consumer technology life cycles are nowadays measured in days not years.

More progressive businesses seek to embrace emerging technologies to gain a strategic advantage over their competition. Waiting until technologies are mature and used by the majority avoids risk, but also means that a competitive advantage is lost. Adoption of ubiquitous technologies only avoids a disadvantage.

I recently heard about a European airline that was looking to equip line engineers with tablet devices to gain access to technical publications and work instructions. The business case was sound. In fact it was a ‘no brainer’. However the time taken to receive the project green light was so long that the selected hardware had been superseded and the business case invalidated.

I also heard about a software vendor who was looking to outsource the development of a mobile solution for their software. Time was of the essence to bring the application to market ahead of the competition. A supplier was chosen, but the contract and commercials took longer than the proposed development project. Furthermore the time spent by the executive team on conference calls, internal meetings and consultations with lawyers came close to exceeding the actual cost of the outsourced work. The vendor lost the advantage of being first to market and their production costs were inflated.

Of course it’s reassuring that our business leaders have a keen interest in technology expenditure, but don’t you think that it would be advantageous to employ technologists who are granted the same level of trust and empowerment as we grant to pilots and engineers? Well, that’s how it seems to me. 

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