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White Paper: What’s up with Aviation IT?
Author: Paul Saunders, Director, Conduce ConsultingSubscribe
What’s up with Aviation IT?
Paul Saunders, Director of Conduce Consulting, identifies the IT requirements that airlines and MROs seem to be demanding and the problems of turning those visions into reality
Aviation IT departments around the world have an uncertain future. For the first time ever the IT teams are not the only ones holding all the cards when it comes to making strategic business decisions regarding Information Technology. Also, for the first time, there is a chance that managers and workers outside of IT have as much knowledge about the strategic use of technology as those inside IT departments. And, for the first time school leavers, college and university graduates do not know a world without the internet. Finally, for the first time consumer technology is at the bleeding edge of the technological world. Could this be the beginning of the end for the aviation IT department as we know it today?
Aviation companies around the world are waking up to the fact that information technology is now a certain and genuine business enabler. But this isn’t because they have been told so by the guys down in IT. Managers, Executives and other users are seeing the potential advantages with their own eyes. They are surrounded by dazzling technology, jaw dropping software and remarkable hardware that was the stuff of dreams and science fiction only a few years ago. But they are not seeing it at work: They live with it all around them at home. Apple, Google and Facebook are at the forefront of this technological revolution, not the IBMs, the Microsofts, and Oracles of yesteryear.
Neither the iPod, nor the iPhone, nor the iPad was designed for business. All three products by one manufacturer, Apple, are genuine revolutionary devices that have shaped their market sectors since their introduction. No company in any industry has matched this feat in such a short space of time. One revolutionary product is a fantastic achievement: but three? In one decade? Regardless of what you think of Apple’s products, they are amongst the most sought after devices today and in 2010 Apple Inc. overtook Microsoft as the world’s largest technology company.
Google has cornered a multi-billion dollar market which simply didn’t exist when I started work in this industry in the late 1990s. The company mission, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, has arguably been achieved through technological means. The way in which a search engine works may not be well understood by everyone who uses it 300,000 times a second, but everyone from the age of five upwards knows what Google does and how to use it. Google is much more than just a search engine: Google today has an unrivalled portfolio of products and services which includes the Google Chrome browser; productivity applications such as Gmail and Google Apps; Social Media platforms YouTube, Picasa and Orkut; the Android mobile operating system; and much, much more.
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook didn’t invent the concept of social media and social networking. When Facebook first came on to the scene in 2004 you might have been forgiven for thinking it was just another rival to MySpace, Friendster, Flickr and other social networking platforms that cropped up around that time. Facebook succeeded where others have faltered by doing so many critical things just right. For example the decision to deliberately keep advertising unobtrusive has led to significantly lower click through rates (CTRs) than rival advertising platforms, but the sheer volume of users who have chosen Facebook as their primary social networking channel as a result of this decision counteracts this effect. A definite case of quantity over quality.
What these monolithic 21st Century technology companies have in common (apart from billionaire founders; a seat at the US President’s table; and some awesome technology to show off every couple of months) is that they have each become what they are today by focusing on innovative products primarily for the consumer market. In doing so, they have blazed a trail for thousands of consumer technologists, making software and applications of their own, which, hooking into the open architecture of third party software and hardware, have driven the consumer technology industry so far ahead of business to business technology that it is difficult to see a way in which this trend is likely to be reversed.
Aerospace Executives, I have found, do not need a business case or a cost benefit analysis to understand the value of embracing this new wave of consumer technology. They can picture it themselves without any outside help. Those businesses that can adopt the new technologies first have a clear, competitive advantage. But most aviation companies are struggling, not through lack of will or funds, but due to the fact that their IT departments and technology vendors with which they have surrounded themselves for the past 10, 15 or even 20 years are geared up for a different purpose to the one that is required today, tomorrow and in the future.Aviation IT departments have evolved over time to become risk minimisers rather than business enablers. In the past couple of months I have been talking to a number of airlines and MROs about potential solutions to some of their problems and it has struck me that there are a number of common threads running throughout aviation IT at the moment. To a greater or lesser degree everyone is experiencing exactly the same problems.
1. Overzealous IT Policies are Stifling Progress
Computers are great aren’t they? They’ve completely revolutionised the way we do work. It seems strange to think that only a generation or so ago that more people didn’t have a computer on their desk at work than did so. In a relatively short space of time the IT industry has sprung up from a few geeks and boffins to a multi-trillion dollar industry. But at the same time computers have somehow posed a supposed risk to our businesses.
Computers are a portal for lost productivity, and they represent a serious security risk
This argument, I believe, is utter nonsense and is driven by fear, lack of understanding and contempt for the unknown. Rather than being technology champions in the vanguard of the proliferation of computer use, for some bizarre reason many aviation IT departments have been the ‘nay-sayers’; stifling progress through inexplicable policies and security measures. Their arguments often seem to be driven by common sense, but it doesn’t take a lot of effort to destroy every lazy explanation.
Let’s take a look at the usual excuses:
- It is widely believed that unrestricted internet access adversely affects employee productivity.
- It is widely believed that unrestricted internet access leaves a company vulnerable to attacks from hackers.
- It is widely believed that unrestricted internet access can lead to data leaks.
- It is widely believed that unrestricted internet access slows a company’s internet connection.
On the surface these seem to be reasonable assertions. In most companies these fears usually manifest themselves into a series of ill-conceived security protocols and procedures resulting in blocked access to certain websites and applications. It is fair to say that nowadays social media sites bear the brunt of the blame.
Plain and simple, if you have employees spending two hours or more per day on Social Media websites, then you have a management issue, not an IT security issue. Persistent time wasters should be dealt with by their management and managers who are unable to deal with that situation should be dealt with in turn. Blocking access to Facebook or YouTube doesn’t solve the problem either. Employees who don’t want to get their work done don’t need social networks to waste time. Besides, due to the expansiveness of the web and the proliferation of smart phones, resistance, as they say, is futile. The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. Recent civil unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has proved this point on a much wider and more significant scale. If you take away YouTube, what’s to stop me bringing in a DVD tomorrow?
In my line of work, I spend a lot of time thinking. Whether I am writing code, writing content, or solving a problem I need to get into the ‘zone’ to help me think. I sometimes do that by taking a wander. Sometimes I’ll go and get a drink. Often my best thoughts occur to me in the morning whilst I’m having a shave… I think this is because it takes my brain ten minutes to boot up in the morning and it’s around that time each day that I’m hacking at my face with a razor. But each to their own: some people I know find horrible music to be the answer; others prefer less awful music. I know many people in creative industries who take a walk outside with a camera to seek inspiration. Certainly it is not inappropriate to seek guidance, inspiration and information online. Companies spend a lot of time and effort to attract the brightest and best talent. Why do they then proceed to remove one of the best tools in their employee’s information arsenal by blocking access to large portions of the net? Employees whose access to the internet is restricted will miss great ideas and opportunities that emerge from conversation and collaboration.
A 2010 Gartner survey revealed that 54% of Fortune 100 companies block all employees from accessing social network sites. How ironic that the exact same percentage of companies are also active on Twitter. With so many companies blocking their employees from engaging, who are they engaging with? Social networks are a vital and proven tool for marketing, recruiting, customer service and more. Why the resistance?
The airline’s marketing team used their cigarette breaks to covertly check what their passengers were saying about them on Twitter
In fact multiple studies now have shown that productivity increases among employees who are able to freely access the internet during work. Besides, most employees tend to be more trustworthy than they are given credit for, and it’s a pretty sad state of affairs when we can’t trust our own employees to do the right thing.
Attacks from hackers
Apparently social networking is one of the newest and most effective ways for hackers to gain entry into peoples’ computers. That might be true for organisations where their IT departments don’t know what they are doing. It is true that there is malware out there which attacks social networks, but according to anti-malware vendors the same malware is plaguing email and the rest of the web. I don’t see any companies doing a blanket shutdown on emails any time soon. So what gives?
The US military is able to cope with an open access policy to social networking. Why should it be any harder for any other organisation? The US Department of Defence allows every one of their users from agents at the Pentagon to soldiers on the front line to access their Social Media hub through a series of robust policies and defences.
There is plenty of good advice online about more effective ways of keeping your network safe than by blocking social networks. My personal favourite is to keep an up-to-date web browser, but more on that shortly.
Opponents to open web access will point to multiple instances of employees compromising intellectual property using social networks. Like the productivity argument, this is sheer stupidity. Lack of access to social media will do nothing to stop this kind of behaviour. Training, education and enforcement of policies are far more effective. A determined or clueless employee will cause such leaks at home or via other means anyway.
Slowing a company’s internet connection
This is the hardest argument to disagree with. Yes I concede, if everyone is streaming video and audio during working hours then this will have a detrimental effect on bandwidth. However, the best answer I have heard recently is simple enough: In the information age, if you need more bandwidth, get some more. In the ‘paper-age’ nobody thought twice about getting more paper when they ran out.
But aside from restricted internet access, what else are Aviation IT departments doing (or not doing) that makes little sense?
Up to Date Web Browsers
PC based internet users, under their own free will have essentially five choices to make regarding which internet browser they use. In fact since anti-trust legislation was introduced in Europe in March 2010, these users are pretty much forced to make a choice.
The options are Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, Apple Safari and Microsoft Internet Explorer.
Based on most recent studies prior to the release of version 9, Internet Explorer would be the worst choice anyone could make based on speed tests, security issues and compatibility with latest HTML5 and CSS3 web standards. Yet this is the Hobson’s choice presented by many Aviation IT departments to their own users. It is worse than that though: Many organisations don’t even allow the use of the most up to date version of the poorest browser. IE7 and IE6 are alive and kicking in many airlines, OEMs and MROs that I have worked with.
Even Microsoft themselves can’t see the sense in the use of out-dated browsers. In March 2011 Microsoft launched the IE6Countdown campaign to move the world off Internet Explorer 6. This initiative is, in my opinion, a spectacular triumph for common sense. According to Microsoft, in February 2011 12% of the world was still using Internet Explorer 6. Although this was down by 9% on the previous year, a significant proportion of the World’s population still needs a bit more encouragement to migrate.
The excuses against an upgrade are lame to say the least. No-one pays for browser licenses, the cost of deployment and cross-training is minimal and the age old excuse of application compatibility is just ridiculous with alternative browsers offering compatibility add-ins. Aviation IT departments should be made to understand that senseless policies that are restrictive and can only be explained by saying ‘because we say so’ make users despise you, and don’t generate any benefit whatsoever.
The real reason can’t be that IT departments don’t realise this. Perhaps it’s just that they don’t have the time and resources to manage things differently.
2. IT Resource are a Scarce Commodity
Although there are some widely debated theories on this subject, a ratio of one IT staff member per 50 users is generally accepted to be the optimum staffing level for most medium sized businesses. The company’s technological dependence; the quantity and type of IT resources deployed; and the level outsourcing arrangements will all have an impact on the suitability of a company’s IT staffing ratio and the ability of the team to deliver the required service.
Well run IT departments should align their own interests solely with the objectives of the business. The person in charge of IT should have a solid business as well as technology mind. The trouble is that most IT departments are bogged down with resetting passwords and plugging in printers for feckless users or squeezing every drop of performance out of groaning IT resources just to keep the Exchange server running. It’s a no-win situation. If they do their job well, no one notices. When they screw up, the website goes down; revenue is lost; and the Head of Marketing can’t access the hilarious video of a puppy wearing clogs that his brother-in-law sent him. Consequently everyone comes down on them like a ton of bricks. In one IT department that I worked in, we had a laminated card with ‘YES WE KNOW’ printed on it that we used to pin to our door during times of hardship.
When they’re not working on the day to day housekeeping chores, there is the list of projects which is prioritised by the senior management or by whoever can shout the loudest. Many of these projects have been conceived months and years in the past and are out of date before they are even embarked upon. Managers who appreciate the backlog either don’t bother or seek their own solutions. IT departments therefore monopolise the computer problem rather than pro-actively providing solutions. If an external supplier had behaved this way, they’d have been dropped years ago.
“IT are asking whether we have tried turning it off and on again”
Aviation IT departments needs to re-define their service level agreements with the rest of the business (if they ever had one) and look to provide an improved business service that their ‘customers’ really need.
3. Management Information Systems are great but they don’t do everything.
Most airlines and MROs who are using a latest generation enterprise level Management Information System (MIS) seem to be pretty happy with it. They tend to use it to its full extent as intended with wall-to-wall capability, mission critical robustness and a high level of ‘stickiness’ where users are 100% reliant on the software tool to carry out their operational transactions. A well designed IT landscape will offer a compliant and integrated solution for up to 80% or 90% of business requirements which is great… But that final 10% is typically causing 90% of the headaches for managers and IT users. That thin slice of missing functionality is usually filled with file servers crammed full of shared documents, spread sheets and home grown databases all outside of the control of IT with little if any integration with central systems.
One client showed me a mission critical, home grown Access Database which has ballooned to a terrifying 40GB and sits as a temporary solution between their engineering and ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems providing vital operational information to an international fleet and inventory technical management operation. This is of course an extreme example that I have seen first-hand, but the numbers of uncontrolled spread sheets that are outside the control of IT should be a major concern. Maybe if the ERP, Engineering and other information systems that airlines are using were a bit more open and able to communicate with each other using an up to date Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) then integration with external systems would be so much easier negating the requirement for home-grown stop-gap peripheral solutions.
Data is being passed from department to department, often transposed from one bit of paper to a database application and then printed back to paper in a slightly different format. For some reason, collaboration between departments, information systems and with external partners is a big problem. Presumably the solution to the problem is at the end of a list of projects that was initiated five years ago.
“This new software is superb. The output report looks exactly the same as the form we receive to input the data!”
Most tools and application chosen by IT departments are engineered for IT departments not business. Take Microsoft SharePoint for example. No business, left to its own devices would ever choose SharePoint as a solution to any problem, but steered by IT, they often do. SharePoint is great at allowing you to do the stuff you used to do, only differently, but IT departments like it, because it allows them to control everything from one management console. That’s probably unfairly over-simplifying the situation, but the fact remains that I cannot point you to a single aerospace organisation that has implemented SharePoint where the users are happy with the outcome.
4. Everyone wants iPads but no-one knows what to do with them
If I had a pound for every airline I know whose Chief Executive has decreed that each manager or aircraft or flight crew should be equipped with an iPad, then I’d probably have enough money for a decent round of drinks. There are a number of barriers to achieving this goal, let alone making a return on that investment.
Although the iPad may be deemed to be a mature consumer product in terms of the quantity in circulation and the number of available apps, it should most certainly be considered bleeding edge as an aviation productivity device. Despite approval as a Class 1 Electronic Flight Bag and the on-going promise of the revolution the iPad poses to In Flight Entertainment, the viability of the iPad as a ‘ready-for-business’ device is less than certain. Of course one is able to create, edit and share documents; run a bewildering series of applications and utilities; but potential users may be disappointed to learn that access to a mature suite of relevant software or interfaces with existing information systems simply do not exist (yet).
Due to the overwhelming success of the iPad and other iOS devices, there is no deal to be struck with Apple Inc. for volume purchases. I know of several airlines that, when they approached Apple to procure a large quantity of iPads, were given directions to the nearest Apple Store.
Assuming that you have enough buying power to cut a deal and that you know what you are going to use your iPads for, you then still have the barrier of deployment and administration. Enterprise management qualities for iOS devices is sometimes forgotten, overlooked or not realised. iOS4 really moved Apple devices properly into the business technology territory. However, there are still some shortcomings over the opposition but largely this lies with the perception within the IT community. In my opinion lack of familiarity often breeds contempt. The post-PC era is upon us and aviation IT departments should embrace that.
Steve’s launch of the iPad2 triggered enough eye-rolling in the aviation IT community to temporarily knock the Earth off its axis.
5. Is there a better way?
Business trends are, in the main, cyclical. I believe that we are entering a period of decentralisation for aviation IT. The rise of technologies such as virtualisation, cloud based applications and XaaS (Anything as a Service) have facilitated a shift away from traditional ways of working. Outsourcing and department specific solutions are a realistic proposition. I’m not advocating that aviation should abandon shared IT services completely. It doesn’t make sense to ditch Exchange servers in favour of hosted Gmail: There is always going to be a place for an IT department in aerospace to some extent, but a transition has begun.
In the same way that certain procurement and HR functions have been pushed out to individual departments, I foresee more and more autonomy for aviation IT users in the future. Progressive managers are making some IT decisions for themselves through necessity already. This arrangement will become increasingly formalised, with centralised IT departments assuming overall control, but delegating specific administrative functions and application management to individual departments. The IT guy or girl of the future will be less technical, with business domain specific expertise (more akin to project managers) equipped to run systems rather than develop them. As applications become more closely aligned to business requirements off the shelf, it is becoming more important to deliver services and manage supplier contracts than to develop systems.
If you are running a company in such a way that a traditional IT department is needed in order to accomplish your market objectives then you are at a strategic and financial disadvantage over a competitor that operates differently.
“Despite their best efforts, the IT department weren’t able to stop the Chief Exec from using a Mac.”