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What should a CIO think about?
Author: Ravinder Pal Singh, Global Chief Information and Technology Officer, Air WorksSubscribe
Ravinder Pal Singh, Global Chief Information and Technology Officer at Air Works, identifies the IT dilemmas and opportunities that faces airlines today and suggests how a business might use them
IT is a wonderful thing: I mean… none of us would be doing the jobs we do in quite the way we do them if it wasn’t for IT. In fact, a lot of what makes the modern world go round and, importantly for us, helps airlines to fly around and over it can be credited to IT with its power to marshal information and help get things done. But, like any strong force, IT can be a power for good or for bad and needs to be handled carefully, not only to leverage the best value out of its capabilities but also because, like any power, mishandled it can bite. That’s a lot of responsibility for those involved. So, it matters what goes on inside the head of a Chief Information Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Architect, Enterprise Architect or anyone who is trying to take IT strategy decisions in today’s world of volatility (business and political) and technology disruption (especially with the two ‘Cs’ – Consumerisation and Cloud – getting into the enterprise zone).
Today we are standing at a crossroad wherein, on the one hand there is a serious threat to legacy but also, on the other hand, a tremendous opportunity to create a simple, beautiful (and low cost) but practical IT which can be a potent business differentiator and confer huge competitive advantage. It’s all down to managing information, as Bill Gates put it: “Virtually everything in business today is an undifferentiated commodity, except how a company manages its information. How you manage information determines whether you win or lose.”
Technology changes the world
Much of what technology achieves is at the behest of its creators but it could be argued that there are two near-natural forces that technology brings to business: disruption and convergence. Disruption occurs where a technology development doesn’t simply replace its legacy predecessor but actually changes the environment in which it operates by changing the way people interact with the function. To use a consumer analogy, when MP3 files arrived they didn’t just do what vinyl, tape and CDs had done before, they changed how, where and through which platforms people accessed music which meant that artists and distributors had to find new ways to attract the public’s attention and sell their products. In a similar way, convergence isn’t simply the coming together of technologies but often the converged result creates a new reality of its own. Again from the consumer world, when mobile phone technology, email capability and digital cameras converged, they gave birth not only to a multi-capability device but also to a whole new paradigm of ‘people’s journalism’ with anybody holding a mobile device able to record any incident at the touch of a button or screen. Bring disruption and convergence together and you can put into a child’s hands a device that would once have been regarded as ‘Star Trek’ science fiction.
These forces also work on wider scale, using technology design to bridge the gap between desire and need for consumers and technology function to turn business needs into operational realities in the workplace for businesses.
These, at first sight, natural forces can be harnessed, can be made to work with the business through a process of ‘business and IT alignment’; they are also the source of dilemmas which I and my peers’ and chiefs’ face. To run, procure, create, simplify and continuously improve the legacy… these were typical IT goals in past and they have changed now. I now apply a strategy for convergence of design, technology and business to ensure that the right systems are built, for the right business needs, in the right time; but also for the right people to bring about quick and true successful adoption. The trick is to recognise early and then to manage the business advantage that disruption and convergence can generate.
Time and trust
Time is also an issue here. In the past, programs to realize values from IT have often been lengthy affairs so that, in extreme cases, benefits have arrived only after the reasons for which they were developed have already been superseded by events. By importing some of the attitudes, priorities and characteristics that govern the fast-paced consumer technology space, businesses can move away from past sins of IT ecosystems: undertaking multi-year implementations (under the incorrect pretext of IT being complex) and forced adoption of systems to business users (under the veil of process improvement). Programs to realize IT value need to be fast and, with technologies like the Cloud, they need to be on the business’s own terms for purposes that the business has identified will serve it (rather than getting caught in the artificial enigma of cloud interpretations by various technology providers acting in their selfish interest). A focus such as this can, in turn, lead to a considerable reduction in IT spend and reduced implementation cycle times to build or improve an IT portfolio.
And, for all of its potency and seemingly miraculous capability, IT needs to be trustworthy. A practical interpretation of trustworthy IT would focus on some basic elements such as a balance of need versus desire, the value of a consistent user experience, customization (making what we have manage what we need) versus configuration (aligning IT with the business) and the superficial security of predictability versus the longer term value of innovation.
A world of data
Investment in IT cannot be a cost in isolation but must be aligned with the global, world-class ambitions of the business. In order for this to be managed in the business, it is important to ensure IT clarity at all levels: clear architecture and design guideless, especially related to system performance and user experience; applying simple technologies like search, application marketplace, auto identification, maps etc. When applied in the aviation domain, such clarity of purpose, execution and user experience can increase efficiency by multiples. A lesson learnt from the consumer environment is that, for users, IT should help them not challenge them.
This is true of most environments but we need to be wary of the very smart technology providers with their respective (and often self-serving) definitions and vocabulary about the Cloud and User Centric computing. My vision is of a ‘World of Data’ in which data is stored wherever that is best achieved, made available to whatever systems might be able to use it and the resulting output presented as a seamless and immersive user experience on whatever platform suits the user’s needs or circumstances at the time.
I see this as three elements (see Diagram B above) to manage business information (corporate, customer and operation data), considering globalization, growth, high quality experience and connected value chain. By adopting these elements we can create:
- Mission critical confidence;
- True breakthrough insights.
These, in turn, will generate a true differentiator and support continuous business success.
With change being the new constant in today’s world of volatility and constraint, a smart IT is the only channel which can provide business intelligence. I would differentiate today’s equating of business intelligence to C-level dashboards as an immature view which invariably ends up with poor ROI (return on investment) for IT investment. I would instead put the stress on insights through coverage of all business critical paths (see Diagram C below): for me, business intelligence is IT.
Taking the best from the rest
None of this requires those of us working in aviation IT to reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of mature and proven adoptions of technology which we can take away from other domains, including cases wherein, to help their overall value chain, even fierce business competitors, global brands, have come together to share staple information, hence reigniting the growth of their shared market and increasing by many factors the efficiency of their industry at large. At the same time, such collaborative efforts have given birth to new paradigms and innovation which have, in turn, improved the whole industry within which the businesses operate.
Of course, working collaboratively and sharing information across the value chain, especially working with Cloud based solutions, can cause some people to worry about security and privacy. Loss of competitive advantage is an often expressed concern in this context but also, depending on where the business is located, concerns can extend to issues such as intrusion into human rights with an attendant fear of unions, legislation and restrictive regulatory agencies, customs and corruption in emerging markets, a fundamental reluctance to contemplate anything that smacks of outsourcing (the individual manager’s personal interest in managing a large number of employees to create his/her empire as opposed to passing parts of the job over to managing vendors) and so on and so forth. But, in the end, users have to believe that what has worked and generated across-the-board business success in other sectors stands a very good chance of achieving as good an outcome in the aviation IT sector.
That really is something positive for CIOs and everybody involved in taking IT strategy decisions to be thinking about today.