Is developing M&E software in-house keeping up with the times?
The other day I was talking to a friend in the business about their maintenance operations and asked what IT system they were using. He didn’t say a word and instead looked at me, smiled and pulled out his phone. He opened an app and showed me what is currently going on at his place of business. There were open work orders, material requests, rosters and all the bells and whistles you can think of. I was truly impressed and asked him who his IT supplier is. He proudly responded: “We developed it on our own!”
While I’m still happy to see that my friend and his team were able to successfully develop an IT tool for their operations, I could not stop thinking about this one question:
Is developing your own M&E software in-house keeping up with the times?
If you were to ask maintenance organisations in the past why they chose to develop their own M&E software, the response would most probably have been: “Because we have unique processes, which require unique software to support our operations. No IT firm in the market can support our processes.”
If we look to the distant past, there might be some truth to this, however, these days with IT firms specialising in M&E software solutions, how much value should we give a statement like ‘unique’ operations?
Maintenance organisations are highly controlled environments. They have to adhere to more or less the same regulations, approved quality manuals and procedural instructions that govern what MROs and aircraft operators can do. So, where is the uniqueness?
I have seen many component repair shops in my career, either as a supplier, as a customer, or as the responsible operations manager. The only uniqueness I have seen so far are the different uniforms worn by the employees, but the work performed in shops around the world follows the same principles in compliance with regulatory requirements. While I have limited knowledge and experience in the area of heavy maintenance and line maintenance of MROs and aircraft operators, I believe that this also applies to these organisations. Same same, but different!
So why then do we still find MROs and aircraft operators who hold capabilities and capacity of in-house IT consultants and why would they not look outside for external developed IT solutions?
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the senior leadership team of an MRO, or an operator with a connected part 145 organisation, operating in an extremely competitive and vulnerable environment. We are confronted with the situation to decide whether to further continue to work with a legacy IT software that was developed in-house, or to seek IT solutions from outside the organisation.
There are probably some good reasons for further throwing money at adjusting, modifying, or even redeveloping a legacy IT system that our organisation developed many years ago, which was probably a project started by an intern. The most obvious reason could be cost, but subconsciously maybe even the belief that the best IT consultants we can find for this project are already working in our organisation.
While an external IT supplier will provide us with an invoice for implementation fees and license fees expressed in dollars and cents, our internal IT department will deliver IT projects ‘at cost’, which then will show up as a line item in the charts of accounts in the annual report and gets allocated to the user cost centres. These figures are not really comparable, but some people may say that economies of scale will justify the use of in-house IT specialists, as these resources are then also able to work on other IT development projects. If we then consider elephant projects like ‘Digitisation’, which many MROs and aircraft operators have on their bucket list, it actually should not be a problem to give an own in-house IT department enough work. Interestingly, however, the rate of development and deployment of solutions, or even modifications on existing self-developed software in organisations with own programming power, is surprisingly slow and that brings us to the question whether there is adequate capability and enough capacity available.
Why do MROs and operators believe that they can provide an exciting environment for coders and IT geeks? What makes us think that the aviation industry, one of the strictest regulated of all industries, would be able to attract the best IT talent. These specialists are highly creative people who love to experiment, thrive on trial and error and are people who need an open and dynamic environment. Let’s face it…as long as we deal with airworthiness regulations and hydraulic fluids, our organisations will not be in the top 10 of “companies I’d like to work for” for IT graduates.
The risks involved in developing our own M&E software are quite evident:
Lack of capability: We might find IT specialists, but are these the best talents we want and need for the job? How do we retain super-bright IT people, considering that there is a broad spectrum of other industries out there, where these people can apply their skills and most likely will find more job satisfaction and are potentially better paid?
Lack of capacity: The project list of M&E organisations can be overwhelming and the respective IT department may not be equipped with adequate human resources to crunch through the project list. As the core business is MRO, it is quite clear that we probably will not invest unproportionally in our in-house IT resources and therefore we have to manage projects by prioritisation.
Loss of knowledge: While the idea of developing an IT software that suits our organisational processes 100% sounds intriguing, we will, however, face challenges when key people suddenly turn their backs on us and leave for greener pastures. If we hold on to our legacy self-build system, how do we make sure that knowledge base, coding skills, etc. do not disappear?
Lack of adaptability: We probably can be proud that we managed to develop a complex software…Chapeau! How do we now make sure to (a) support and maintain the software and (b) develop the software in line with changing business requirements? What usually happens over time is that when the software is working it will only receive a minimum amount of attention unless it doesn’t do what it was supposed to do. If business requirements and regulations change, organisations need to adapt quickly including changes to the IT software. Considering the three points above, lack of capability and capacity as well as the loss of knowledge, how can our little IT team support major development and changes in a short time?
Inheritance: Who set out the business requirements when we started to develop our own software? How long ago was that? Were these requirements ever validated and by whom? Are we currently validating our software capabilities against processes or are our processes enslaved by our developed software? Once we develop our own software to match our ‘unique’ operations and processes, we are at higher risk of inheriting processes from the past and not questioning or validating business processes enough. Why? Because we miss the opportunity to learn and understand what the ‘market’ is doing by rejecting external IT support.
In summary, I would recommend opting for the external solution and re-deploy available in-house IT resources in the exploration of available software and technology that will contribute to a ‘fit for future’ organisation.
The core business of software firms is to develop and deliver software and technology for the industry user. They gather information of operational processes and requirements with every customer project and convert these requirements (if not already available) into solutions by investing resources for the development of their software and technology to meet customer demands and therefore market demands. One can look at commercially available M&E software as an aggregated pool of industry processes, quasi best-practice solutions for MROs and aircraft operators. M&E software is a tool, which is purposefully designed to support the operations of MROs and aircraft operators so that they can concentrate on delivering their services in a timely, safe and cost-efficient manner. Software doesn’t come for free, but likewise, the total cost of ownership of in-house developed software can be significant and is mostly not transparent.
In order to have information at your fingertips on your mobile device, it is not necessary to develop your own M&E software. Mobility, AI/ML and digitisation of processes and workflows can be delivered with readily available OOTB solutions by specialised software providers, saving you time and resources and allowing you to focus on your core business.
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