Tag Archives: web technology

What I like about jet engines

Rolls-Royce{{1}} (the engineering company, not the car manufacturer) is an interesting firm. From near disaster in the 70s, when the company was on the brink of failure, Rolls-Royce has spent the last 40 years reinventing itself. Where it used to sell jet engines, now the company sells hot air out the back of the engines, with clients paying only for the hours an engine is in service. Rolls-Royce is probably the one of the cleanest examples of business-technology{{2}} that I’ve come across; with the company picking out the synergies between business and technology to solve customer problems, rather than focusing on trying to align technology delivery with a previously imagined production process to push products at unsuspecting consumers. I like this for a few reasons. Firstly, because it wasn’t a green fields development (like Craig’s List{{3}} et al), and so provides hope for all companies with more than a few years under their belt. And secondly, as the transformation seems to have be the result of many incremental steps as the company felt its way into the future, rather than as the result of some grand, strategic plan.

[[1]]Rolls Royce[[1]]
[[2]]Business-Technology defined @ Forrester[[2]]
[[3]]Craig’s list[[3]]

A Rolls-Royce jet engine

I’ve been digging around for a while (years, not months), looking for good business-technology case studies. Examples of organisations which leverage the synergies between business and technology to create new business models which weren’t possible before, rather than simply deploying applications to accelerate some pre-imagined human process. What I’m after is a story that I can use in presentations and the like, and which shows not just what business-technology is, but also contrasts business-technology with the old business and technology alignment game while providing some practical insight into how the new model was created.

For a while I’ve been mulling over the obvious companies in this space, such as Craig’s List or Zappos{{4}}. While interesting, their stories don’t have the impact that they could as they were green fields developments. What I wanted was a company with some heritage, a history, to provide the longitudinal view this needs.

[[4]]Zappos[[4]]

The company I keep coming back to is Rolls-Royce. (The engineering firm, not the car manufacturer). I bumped into a story in The Economist{{5}}, Britain’s lone high-flier{{6}}, which talks about the challenge of manufacturing in Britain. (Which is, unfortunately, behind the pay wall now.) As The Economist pointed out:

A resurgent Rolls-Royce has become the most powerful symbol of British manufacturing. Its success may be hard to replicate, especially in difficult times.

[[5]]The Economist[[5]]
[[6]]Britain’s lone high-flier @ The Economist[[6]]

With its high costs and (relatively) inflexible workforce, running an manufacturing business out of Britain can be something of a challenge, especially with China breathing down your neck. Rolls-Royce’s solution was not to sell engines, but to sell engine hours.

This simple thought (which is strikingly similar to the tail of the story in Mesh Collaboration{{7}}) has huge ramifications, pushing the company into new areas of the aviation business. It also created a company heavily dependent on technology, from running realtime telemetry around the globe through to knowledge management. The business model — selling hot air out the back of an engine — doesn’t just use technology to achieve scale, but has technology woven into its very fabric. And, most interestingly, it is the result of tinkering, small incremental changes rather than being driven by some brilliant transformative idea.

[[7]]Mash-Up Corporations[[7]]

As with all these long term case studies, the Rolls-Royce story does suffer from applying new ideas to something that occurred yesterday. I’m sure that no one in Rolls-Royce was thinking “business-technology” when the company started the journey. Nor would they have even thought of the term until recently. However, the story still works for me as, for all it’s faults, I think there’s still a lot we can learn from it.

The burning platform was in the late 60s, early 70s. Rolls-Royce was in trouble. The company had 10% market share, rising labour costs, and was facing fierce competition from companies in the U.S. Even worse, these competitors did not have to worry about patents (a hangover from the second world war), they also had a large domestic market and a pipeline of military contracts which put them in a much stronger financial position. Rolls-Royce had to do something radical, or facing being worn down by aggressive competitors who had more resources behind them.

Interestingly, Roll-Royce chose to try and be smarter than the competition. Rather than focus on incremental development, the company decided to designed a completely new engine. Using carbon composite blades and a radical new engine architecture (three shafts rather than two, for those aeronautical engineers out there) their engine was going to be a lot more complex to design, build and maintain. It would also be a lot more fuel efficient and suffer less wear and tear. And it would be more scalable to different aircraft sizes. This approach allows Rolls-Royce to step out of the race for incremental improvements in existing designs (designing a slightly better fan blade) and create a significant advantage, one which would take the company’s competitors more than the usual development cycle or two to erase.

Most of the margin for jet engines, however, is in maintenance. Some pundits even estimate that engines are sold at a loss (though the manufactures claim to make modest margins on all the engines they sell), while maintenance can enjoy a healthy 35%. It’s another case of give them the razor but sell them the razor blades. But if you give away the razors, there’s always the danger that someone else may make blades to fit your razor. Fat margins and commoditized technology resulted in a thriving service market, with the major engine makers chasing each other’s business, along with a horde of independent servicing firms.

Rolls-Royce’s interesting solution was to integrate the expertise from the two businesses: engine development and servicing. Rather than run them as separate businesses, the company convinced customers to pay a fee for every hour an engine was operational. Rather than selling engines, the company sells hot air out the back of an engine. This provides a better deal for the customers (pay for what you use, rather than face a major capital expense), while providing Rolls-Royce with a stronger hold on its customer base.

Integrating the two business also enabled Rolls-Royce to become better at both. Maintenance data helps the company identify and fix design flaws, driving incremental improvements in fuel efficiency while extending the operating life (and time between major services) tenfold over the last thirty years. It also helps the company predict engine failures, allowing maintenance to be scheduled at the most opportune time for Rolls-Royce, and their customers.

Rolls-Royce leveraged this advantage to become the only one of the three main engine-makers with designs to fit the three newest airliners in the market: the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the Airbus A380 and the new wide-bodied version of the Airbus A350. Of the world’s 50 leading airlines, 45 use its engines.

Today, an operations centre in Derby assess, in real time, the performance of 3,500 jet engines enabling to Rolls-Royce to spot issues before they become problems and schedule just-in-time maintenance. This means less maintenance and more operating hours, fewer breakdowns (and, I expect, happier customers), and the operational data generated is fed back into the design process to help optimise the next generation of engines.

This photograph is reproduced with the permission of Rolls-Royce plc, copyright © Rolls-Royce plc 2010
Rolls-Royce civil aviation operations in Derby

This service-based model creates a significant barrier to competitors for anyone who wants to steal Rolls-Royce’s business. Even if you could clone Rolls-Royce’s technology infrastructure (hard, but not impossible), you would still need to recreate all the tacit operational knowledge the company has captured over the years. The only real option is to recreate the knowledge yourself, which will take you a similar amount of time as it did Rolls-Royce, while Rolls-Royce continues to forge ahead. Even poaching key personnel from Rolls-Royce would only provide a modest boost to your efforts. As I’ve mentioned before{{8}}, this approach has the potential to create a sustainable competitive advantage.

[[8]]One of the only two sources of sustainable competitive advantage available to us today @ PEG[[8]]

While other companies have adopted some aspects of Rolls-Royce’s model (including the Joint Strike Fighter{{9}}, which is being procured under a similar model), Rolls-Royce continues to lead the pack. More than half of its existing engines in service are covered by such contracts, as are roughly 80% of those it is now selling.

[[9]]The Joint Strike Fighter[[9]]

I think that this makes Rolls-Royce a brilliant example of business-technology in action. Rolls-Royce found, by trial and error, a new model that wove technology and business together in a way that created an “outside in” business model, focused on what customers what to buy, rather than on a more traditional “inside out” model based on pushing products out into the market that the company wants to sell. You could even say that it’s an “in the market” model rather than a “go to market” model. And they did this with a significant legacy, rather than as a green fields effort.

In some industries and companies this type of “outside in” approach was possible before advent of the latest generation of web technology, particularly if it was high value and the company already had a network in place (such as Rolls-Royce success). For most companies it is only now becoming possible with business-technology along with some of the current trends, such as cloud computing, which erase many of the technology barriers.

The challenge is to figure out the “in the market” model you need, and then shift management attitude. Given constant change in the market, this means an evolutionary approach, rather than a revolutionary (transformative) one.

From doctrine to dogma: when did a good idea become the only idea

When does a good method become the only method? The one true approach to solving a problem; the approach which will bind them all. The last few decades has seen radical change in our social and business environments, while the practice of business seems to have changed relatively little since the birth of the corporation. The problem of running a business, the problem we work every day to solve, has changed so much that the best practice of yesterday has become an albatross. The methods and practices that have brought us to the current level of performance are also one of the larger impediments to achieving the next level. When did the yesterday’s doctrine become today’s dogma? And what can we do about it?

Our methodologies and practices have been carefully designed to help steer our leviathan ships of industry, tuning their performance to with five and three year plans. The newspapers of today, for example, hold a marked resemblance to the news papers of 100 years ago, structured as large content factories churning out the stories with some ads slapped in the page next to them.

The best practices evident in companies today represent the culmination of generations of effort in building, running and improving our businesses. The doctrine embodied in each industry in a huge, a immensely valuable body of knowledge, tuned to solving the problem of business as we know it.

doctrine |ˈdäktrin|
noun
a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group : the doctrine of predestination.
• a stated principle of government policy, mainly in foreign or military affairs: the Monroe Doctrine.
ORIGIN late Middle English : from Old French, from Latin doctrina ‘teaching, learning,’ from doctor ‘teacher,’ from docere ‘teach.’

OS X Dictionary, © Apple 2007

However, a number of fundamental changes have taken hold in recent years. The pace of business has increased markedly; what used to take years now takes months, or even weeks. The role of technology in business has changed as applications have become ubiquitous and commoditized. The assumptions which existing doctrine were developed under no longer hold.

Today, most (if not all) newspapers are watching their as revenue is eroded by the likes of Craigslist, who have used modern web technology to come up with a new take on the decades (if not centuries) old classified ad.

Let’s look at Craiglist. I’ve heard people estimate that they are doing close to $100mm in annual revenues at this point. Many say, “they could be doing so much more”. But the Craigslist profit equation is interesting. They apparently have less than 30 employees. That’s about $4mm/year in employee costs. Let’s assume that they spend another $6mm per year on hosting and bandwidth costs and other costs. So it’s very possible that Craigslist’s annual costs are around $10mm/year. Their value equation then is 10 x (100-10) = $900mm. That’s almost a billion dollars in value for a company with only 30 employees.

Fred Wilson, A VC

Craigslist has taken a fresh look at what it means to be in the business of classified ads, and used technology in a new way to help create business value, rather than restrict it to controlling costs and delivering process effencies; an approach Forrester have labeled Business-Technology.

The challenge is to acknowledge that the rules of business have changed, and modify our best practices to suit the new business environment because, as Albert Einstein pointed out “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If we can’t change our best practices to suit, then our valuable doctrine has become worthless dogma.

dogma |ˈdôgmə|
noun
a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true: the Christian dogma of the Trinity | the rejection of political dogma.
ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: via late Latin from Greek dogma ‘opinion,’ from dokein ‘seem good, think.’

OS X Dictionary, © Apple 2007

Enterprise architecture (EA) is prime example. As a doctrine, enterprise architecture has a proud history all the way back to John Zachman’s work in the 70s and the architecture framework which carries his name. EA has leveraged large, multi-year transformation programs to deliver huge operational effencies into the business. These programs have delivered a level of business performance unimaginable just a generation ago.

The pace of business has accelerated so much in recent years that the multiyear engagement model these transformations imply is no longer appropriate. What use is a five or three year plan in a world that changes every quarter? Transformation projects have been struggling recently. Some recent transformations edge across the line, at which point everyone moves onto the next project exhausted, and the promised benefits are neither identified or realized. Some transformations are simply declared a success after an appropriate effort has been applied, allowing the team to move on. A few explode, often quite publicly.

This approach made sense a decade or more ago, where IT was focused on delivering the next big IT asset into the enterprise. It’s application strategy, rather than technology strategy. However, the business and technology environment has changed radically recently since the emergence of the Internet as a public utility. The IT departments we’ve created as application factories have become an albatross for the business; making us incapable of engaging anything but a multiyear project worth tens of millions of dollars. They actively prevent the business from leveraging in innovative solutions or business opportunities. Even when there is a compelling reason to do so.

Simply put, the value created by enterprise architecture has moved, and the doctrine, or at least our approach to applying it, hasn’t kept up. For example, a common practice when establishing a new EA team seems to involve hiring architects to fill each role defined TOGAF’s IT Architecture Role and Skill Definitions to provide us with complete skills coverage. Driving this is a desire to align ourselves with best practice, and ensure we do the job properly.

Some of TOGAFs IT Architecture Role and Skill Definitions
Some of TOGAF's IT Architecture Role and Skill Definitions

Most companies don’t need, nor can they can afford, a complete toolbox of enterprise architecture skills inside the business. A strict approach to the the doctrine will result in a larger EA team than the company can sustain. A smarter approach is to balance the demands and available resources of the company against the skill requirements and possible outcomes. We can tune our approach by aligning it with new techniques, tools and capabilities, or integrating elements from other doctrines—agile or business planning techniques, for example—to create a broader pallet of tools to solve our problem with. This might involve new engagement models. We can buy some skills while renting others. Some skills might be sustainable at a lower levels. It is also possible multi-skill, playing the role of both enterprise and solution architect. Similarly, leveraging software as a service (SaaS) solutions can also force changes in our engagement model, as a methodology suitable for scoping a three year and $50 million investment in on-premises CRM might not be appropriate for a SaaS solution which only requires 10% of the effort and investment as the on-premises solution.

Treating doctrine as prescriptive converts it into dogma. As John Boyd pointed out, we should assume that all doctrine is not right—that it’s incomplete or incorrect to some extent. You need to challenge all assumptions and look outside your own doctrine for new ideas.

Our own, personal resistance to change is the strongest thing holding us back. It seems that we learn something in our early to mid twenties, and then spend the rest of our career happily doing the same thing over and over again. We define ourselves in terms of what we did yesterday. If we create an environment where we define ourselves in terms of how we will help the organization evolve, rather than in terms of the assets we manage or doctrine we apply, then we can convert change from an enemy into an opportunity.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. For all the talk of the end of newspapers, some journalists are banding together to create new business models which can hold their own in a post-Craigslist world. Some old school journalists have taken a fresh look at what it means to be a newspaper. Young but growing strong and profitable, Politico’s news room is 100 strong and they have more people in the white house bureau than any other brand.

As TechCrunch pointed out:

Journalists still matter. A lot. Especially the good ones.

The challenge is to focus on what really matters, get close to your customers and find what really drives your business, question all the common sense (which is neither common or sensible in many cases) in your industry’s doctrine, look into the doctrine of other industries to see what they are doing that you can use, and use technology to create a business which their more traditional competitors will find it impossible to compete against.