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Lost in translation Rob Britton


OPINION


Rob Britton goes in search of a 'better way' of communication between information technology suppliers and their airline customers


The travel industry in general and the airline business in particular have been voracious customers of information technology for more than half a century, way back to when IBM built the first ‘airline computer’ for American Airlines, initially to help with scheduling and pricing.


During these 50-plus years, IT has come to be seen as a cutting edge of modernity – think sophisticated websites and iPhones.


But any manager or leader in the travel business who has ever asked for a new system or an application has typically encountered experts and processes that are anything but modern and responsive. This disconnect has driven up cost and slowed business progress. Almost 30 years later, I still remember my first encounter with IT development: what was a simple request for collating and reporting some basic airline sales data became an enormous ordeal – an over- articulated process that cost far more time and money than it should. “There has got to be a better way,” I thought. Remarkably, the better way still eludes most of us. Systems and application


development processes are, in many organisations and at many suppliers, badly broken. The methodology is several decades old. It’s not that IT professionals want to frustrate their customers, but the approach to getting work done does not work. Typically, the business writes a formal ‘requirements document’ and sends it to IT. The first problem pops up: IT doesn’t know much about the needs of the business, and vice-versa.


Requirements are revised, things go back and forth, and some sort of design specification emerges from the fog. Then the programming work begins, followed by ‘user acceptance testing’. By now, a lot of time has passed, and the original requirements may have changed – or perhaps the whole business has evolved. Another round of iteration begins, focused on a ‘change request’, and the business’s desire to stay abreast of change becomes threatening. How to improve things? First, and fundamentally, business ‘users’ must take charge of the process. As in so many other aspects of professional service, IT providers can be intimidating with all that jargon and overly-formal process. But you know a lot, and you certainly know more about your business than they do. Remember that you are the customer and if they push back, reward their arrogance by finding new helpers. Secondly, there are new IT


"A simple request for some airline sales data can become an over- articulated process that costs far more time and money than it should"


approaches out there, and they work. Firms like Pegasystems (www. pega.com), IBM (www.ibm.com), and Oracle (www.oracle.com) have completely revolutionised application development, throwing out the old way and introducing faster and more flexible methods. These eliminate paper-based requirements and manual programming in favour of a process that uses familiar tools – like Excel spreadsheets – to turn business objectives into usable software. And these new methods are built for change and adaptability, rather than rigidity, something fast-changing businesses like ours really need. What used to take six to18 months now happens in less than three. This is not pie-in-the-sky: Pega, IBM, Oracle and others have a proven track record. Next time your business needs some new apps, take a fresh look at how the work gets done – you’ll save time, money, and headaches. rob.britton@airlearn.net


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