Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Nightmare scenario

I don't often have nightmares, but when I do, of late, they have had two themes. Some involve sitting my Natural Sciences finals exams, only I haven't revised since 1976. (For some reason it's never my Masters exams from the year after.) And the others put me back with my previous employer, British Airways. What used to be a great place to work has become a seen of hatred between workers and management.

I suspect I know why both of these are occurring. As an RLF Literary Fellow I am currently helping science students at Bristol University with their writing skills - and for third years it is that terrifying time of year. As for the BA nightmares, I'm afraid, while exaggerated, it reflects the way the airline is shooting itself in the foot.

When I was at BA, the IT department (then known as IM for Information Management), was central to the airline's success. The IM director, for example, was a full board member. And this was because sensible airlines knew just how important their ICT systems were to survival. Our biggest American rival used to say that it was a booking system company that happened to fly planes.

There are two big factors behind this importance attributed to ICT. One was, indeed, the booking system. Written a language rarely used outside airlines and banks, designed for ultra-fast high levels of transactions, it needed a small army of programmers trained in this very specialist language. The second was scheduling and yield management. Airlines have complex schedules, which have to change at a moment's notice, and airlines led the field in the business of changing the price of seats over time to maximise revenue. There were plenty of other reasons too, from the way that the newest technology was often employed in the airline business to managing a huge and complex engineering business, where safety was paramount.

It was always possible that some of the ICT business could sensibly be outsourced. But the core aspects were the company's crown jewels. Yet, now, much of that business is being sent offshore, and many of the key workers are leaving or being transferred to an external company. It clearly is a nightmare for those who work there. But I also think there is the distinct danger that it could become a nightmare for the company, which used to be a world leader in this field. And that would be a shame indeed.

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