In the airline industry, new modes of business cooperation are on the rise. Leveraging new opportunities requires a state-of-the-art technology platform. Air France-KLM has expressed the ambition to support employees and business partners with the same ease-of-use features.

The new Digital Enablement Platform (DEP) – a service-based architecture consisting of standardized, pre-defined building blocks and embedded security and access management features – will support a wide range of business initiatives. We describe the project-based approach to its creation.

This article is based on an interview with Edwin Borst (SVP Air France-KLM Group CIO Office) and Miel Geleijns (Managing Director Accenture Technology Strategy).

As we rush headlong into an increasingly dynamic future, new opportunities seem to arise at every turn. Consumer expectations are evolving almost as rapidly as the technologies that facilitate them, challenging businesses to innovate and fulfill these expectations at speed. Service-based approaches are uniquely capable of providing the flexibility and intrinsic interoperability this requires, but many organizations face challenges in developing these essential services.

On one hand, services are inherently connected to the business processes they support. When the front-end of the business focuses on new client needs, it requires the support of solid solutions. This is further complicated by the fact that services often support various business processes and projects. To be effective, they must be developed with all those requirements in mind.

Image: Air France-KLM’s Service Architecture Design - by Accenture

Source: KLM Image Bank

On the other hand, services are traditionally designed as part of an overall architecture. But for most major corporations, legacy IT systems remain a fact of life. You can’t just redesign existing architecture overnight. Such sweeping changes are costly, time-consuming and difficult to roll out, especially in large organizations with many business units.

This leaves us with an interesting challenge. While businesses need to roll out new value propositions quickly enough to respond to changing market conditions, they must also take a pragmatic approach toward existing IT architecture. At first glance, these two facts seem difficult to reconcile – but there is a solution. Our work with Air France-KLM on the Digital Enablement Platform has shown that project-based service architecture design can deliver the desired results. What follows is a candid discussion with our client, focusing on the challenges and successes so far as well as those yet to come.

Q&A: Blazing the Trail to Change

What Motivated Air France-KLM to Focus on Service Development? What Was the Main Reason to Change Your Outlook on Architecture Design?

Customers and employees can interact with Air France-KLM, well-known for its achievements in digitization for its customers, through a wide range of advanced client-facing solutions, but there are two sides to every organization. On the commercial side, we embraced the value of access to information long ago. But internally, those digital capabilities were simply not at the level we desired.

When our crews, our maintenance personnel and our staff need information to do their jobs, we want to make sure they have access to context-relevant data whenever and wherever they need it. To make that happen, the IT infrastructure needs to be up to the task. That’s why we began working on the Digital Enablement Platform: to unlock all that vital information and make sure it’s always available to the organization.

Image: Air France-KLM 's service architecture design - Icons - by Accenture

What Were Your Expectations Going into This Process? Was It an Easy Path to Take? Or Were There Significant Challenges?

There’s a big difference between an easy choice and an easy process. For Air France-KLM, this was definitely an easy choice. Once you can make information accessible to everybody in the organization, you’ll have a strong foundation for new applications and services. In that sense, it’s rather straightforward.

The business has short-term needs, but changes to the underlying architecture traditionally play out in the long term

However, the process itself raises significant challenges. On a fundamental level, there are two speeds at work here. The business has short-term needs, but changes to the underlying architecture traditionally play out in the long term. There’s a gap there that you need to bridge. You need to figure out how to do that before you can make progress. For us, that meant answering two core questions:

  1. How can we make sure that enough people take ownership of the Digital Enablement Platform project?
  2. How can we roll out a project-driven approach to architecture development?

Now, the first issue is mainly a matter of visibility. People need to recognize the project, they need to see what it means and where they fit into the process. You can’t commit to what you can’t understand, after all. But you’re also unlikely to commit to a project that will take years to start getting results.

That’s where the second issue comes into play. Architecture tends to live in the realm of grand designs and idealized long-term goals. That doesn’t work for the business. The back end tends to be rigid, while the front end is highly dynamic. To build a malleable layer between them, you need to take architecture out of the long term and bring it into the here and now.

The Pitfalls of Traditional Architecture Design

Of course, service-based architectures are not a new phenomenon. But the conversation tends to focus on defining what they are, as opposed to outlining how to create them. In and of itself, this poses a challenge to large organizations. Without a clear, navigable path regarding the ‘how’, the ‘what’ soon becomes academic.

Without a clear, navigable path regarding the ‘how’, the ‘what’ soon becomes academic

Now, the conventional approach to service development tends to focus on the grand design. Architects define the service structure with limited input from business-driven projects, instead of viewing the services as the emergent behavior of the underlying system required to deliver them. This approach creates expensive, monolithic projects with enormous ramifications for how the organization works. The combined barriers of high costs and internal resistance to change invariably lead to slower progress and lower acceptance, thereby increasing the risk that the project never gets off the ground.

Q&A: Establishing Viable Solutions

How Did Air France-KLM Solve the Architectural Challenges? What Allowed You Move past the Divide and Start Making Progress?

Think of it in terms of building a highway. Once the route is finished, the added value is obvious. That’s the ideal picture, the grand design: a perfect link between two distant cities. Only in reality, you know it won’t get built overnight. These things take time. They require support. Which means you need to start adding real, practical value as soon as possible.

Define clear, short-term goals that align roughly with the big picture. There are many cities and villages between your starting point and your ultimate destination. Don’t focus on designing the entire highway to perfection – focus on building the sections of road between them quickly. Work in small steps, one after the other, and you’ll have a steady string of successes to carry you to your end goal.

Define clear, short-term goals that align roughly with the big picture

An Interesting Analogy, But How Did That Play Out in Practice? What Did Air France-KLM Do to Enable These Short-term Successes?

One approach would be to leverage the axis of your organization and your operating model and force the change that way. We deliberately took a different approach: we wanted to get our talent on board in a participative way, so we used the project and the concept as a vehicle for change. To that end, we broke the process down into three steps:

  1. Sketching out the long-term goals in rough, generalized terms;
  2. Filling in the details for each separate short-term goal as you go;
  3. Making sure everybody is committed to short-term execution.

The big picture is all well and good, but we need to deliver today. That’s where the focus should be. Everybody needs to be involved in the execution. People need to ask themselves: what are best next steps? How can we translate the big picture into actionable short-term success?

As nice as it feels to have brilliant ideas, they don’t mean anything until you get them into production. Sure, you need to know where you’re going, roughly speaking. But once you have the broad strokes filled in, it’s far more beneficial to get started on building the first ten services. Do we know which systems hold the data we need? Do we know which projects can use that data? Do we have the right people in the room? Great, then we can get started on delivery. That’s architecture in action.

Image: Air France-KLM's Service Architecture Platform Design - Airport Icon - by Accenture

When You Change Work Methods, There’s Always a Risk of Creating Resistance. How Did Air France-KLM Manage to Overcome This Risk?

It’s important to pay close attention to the dynamics and the rhythm of the organization, to attune yourself to its needs. You need to listen carefully and create an atmosphere of inclusion. Transitioning to a service-based approach to architecture design is no small change. You can’t just flip a switch.

When your talent strays off target, there is usually a good reason for that. For some, their experience has trained them to think in grand designs rather than immediate problems. Others might have been removed from the practical results of their work for years. This all creates very simple, very human motivational issues and those can only be solved if you understand what drives them.

In the end, the best antidote to resistance is building commitment. Focus on achieving solid results in the here and now, give your team members a clear view of their own added value and make working together as fun as possible. Soon enough, people will rally around your banner.

A Pragmatic Solution to Architectural Change

Uprooting the entire back-end of your business to facilitate the front-end is never a pragmatic solution. For many organizations, doing so takes far too much time and costs far too much money to even consider. But while changing your entire IT architecture in one fell swoop is an unreasonable gambit, the fact remains that you will have to find ways to innovate and deliver new services regardless.

The solution to this impasse is to introduce new services on a project-by-project basis. By setting up projects that address the most pressing business needs with new service architecture, you will be able to deliver real value to users in a way that is both fast and practical. This approach will allow you to set good examples and demonstrate value to the rest of the business. This, in turn, will generate more support, as others come to realize the benefits of project-oriented service architecture design.

Q&A: Looking Toward the Future

Now That Air France-KLM Has Been Working on This for a While, What Are the Results? Have You Seen Any Impact to Speak of, Or Is It Still Very Much an Ongoing Project?

A bit of both, actually. When Air France-KLM started working on the Digital Enablement Platform, we planted a seed in the organization. We’re still not quite ready to scale up, that will take a little while longer, but the seed has already put down strong roots. In that sense, we have seen tremendous impact.

For starters, we have managed to build a lot of support. People at every level of the organization are embracing the new approach. They not only know what Air France-KLM is doing here – they also understand the why and how of it. It has become a useful, relevant topic. In and of itself, that’s a big win.

What Do You Think the Next Big Challenge Will Be? What’s on the Horizon?

The proof of the pudding is always in the eating. In that sense, scaling up will be the true test. All the work so far has been to prepare us for that moment, to make sure everything is robust enough to take it to the next level. We need to prove that our prototype has what it takes to become a real product.

Does it feel like we’re holding back? Sure, sometimes. When you’re eyeing hundreds of new services, it’s very easy to think you’re ready to increase your output by an order of magnitude. Still, it’s better to take your time and scale up successfully than to rush forward and see all your hard work go to waste.

That said, we are getting very close. All the elements involved have been tested extensively, in small practical steps. The pilot phase has taught us which issues will come up and in what order. We know which elements work well and we know how to leverage them. We also know which challenges remain and how to tackle them. And we’re glad we invested the time it took to get here.

If You Had to Boil the Entire Project Down to One Key Learning, What Would That Lesson Be?

Making connections. Everything revolves around connections. Every step of the way, we’re learning how important it is to strengthen existing connections and make new ones. Connecting the short term to the long term in a meaningful, actionable way is the key to success.

Making connections . Everything revolves around connections

For such a new concept and initiative, both the purpose and the approach need to be understood at every level in the organization: from architects and demand managers to executives. This is essential to securing buy-in and funding. This ‘internal marketing’, so to speak, is a vital aspect of the initiative. The vision needs to be clear to everybody and you need positive feedback mechanisms to support that.

This is why theory always needs to be connected to execution. Tangible project results need to be connected to the big picture. Losing track of one side of the equation means you won’t reach your goal. Losing track of the other means you won’t get the short-term results you need to demonstrate success. And architecture plays a key role in this, because that needs to become the glue that holds everything together.

Image: Air France-KLM's Service Architecture Design - by Accenture

The Path to Success Unfolds One Step at a Time

Every climber dreams of summiting Mt. Everest, and many have made it. None of them, however, have reached the peak in one push. The summit may be the end goal, but the path winds from camp to camp, and every leg contributes to the ultimate achievement.

Successfully transforming IT architecture requires a similar approach. As an organization, you would do well to avoid getting bogged down in the details of your grand design. Once you figure out where you need to go, the most important step is to simply start moving.

Switching to service-based architectures favors a pragmatic approach, one that leverages all the talent at your disposal to create real-world value for your users. To that end, it is better to experiment constantly than to design endlessly. Each success paves the way for the next, building momentum and support as you move toward your final vision. And delivering added value in the here and now is the key to keeping that vision viable.