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Benelux CIO interview: Paul Elich, CIO at KLM

Paul Elich, CIO at Dutch airline KLM, tells Computer Weekly about building innovation into IT departments and the ongoing de-duplication of internal systems since its merger with Air France

KLM CIO Paul Elich faces two pressing challenges: establishing the role of IT in the organisation and keeping abreast of technology.

Of the first, Elich says “IT makes the difference”, but the driver for the second is more personal: “It’s an extension of my own development,” he says. The 27-year veteran of the Dutch airline likes to broaden his horizons.

Elich, who became CIO in December 2014, says it’s stimulating to get to know different kinds of people, and his career has reflected this. KLM’s top IT manager does not have a background in IT, either in development or on the admin side. Originally, he was an architect. Not an IT architect: the kind that designs buildings.

So Elich is a relative outsider. Doesn’t that mean he lacks the experience needed to be a CIO? “What I don’t have is hardcore IT knowledge”, he admits frankly. “What I do have is business perspective: what IT can do for the business and vice versa.”

He acknowledges “you do need basic knowledge about IT,” but that can be learned. “I did have an opinion about IT,” he smiles, “and that opinion did not match the image that the IT organisation had of itself.”

Self-imposed complexity

“IT is by its nature very complex, and our organisation is also complex.” Complexity of one results in complexity in the other. But it’s also somewhat self-imposed, says Elich. And you can’t always see it when you’re a part of the organisation.

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KLM’s motto is “We want to be easy to deal with,” says Elich. He says that this is not only a company slogan but also an internal goal. IT should be easy for the business to deal with, and his drive is making that a reality.

Innovation needs a foundation

First order of business is day-to-day operation. “Innovation is important, but your credibility as an IT organisation is dependent on the smooth running of the day-to-day operations.” That also entails the ability to innovate. “It’s a matter of image.” To innovate you need to have a solid base to work from, Elich adds.

A major issue to tackle has been a lack of pride. “IT can and should be more proud of itself. We have good people who achieve impressive accomplishments. But we don’t celebrate it.” There are several causes for this false modesty, according to Elich.

IT matters

One cause is the external perception of IT. It is seen as a public utility, which should “just work” and isn’t a distinguishing element for doing business. “But IT does matter”, he says.

Another cause for this modesty is the nature of IT people, which at KLM is reinforced by Dutch culture. Achievements and successes should be celebrated more, says Elich. The marketing of IT, within a business or organisation, should be taken seriously.

Elich says the build-up of systems over many years created difficulties that IT has had to overcome. “We are a relatively old company, so we have an IT landscape that has grown over the years. It’s not an environment that has been designed as such; it’s a patchwork of subsystems, a complex architecture and infrastructure.” The art of modern IT is to have a dynamically developed front-end that connects to a complex and stable back-end.

Another complicating factor is the fact that KLM works a lot with external partners. Examples are Amadeus, the European booking and e-commerce system, and SITA, a multinational IT company for the aviation industry. “We do a lot of work with those external partners. They are quite important for our application performance.”

Internally, KLM has dependencies galore, which were further enhanced and complicated by the merger with Air France. “We have a double heritage”, Elich says. “On the customer-facing side we have two airlines. The aim is to have one architecture behind the scenes, for as much as it is possible and sensible to merge separate systems into one universal platform.”

This has already been achieved for the large commercial systems: bookings, inventory, departures, and more are converged. For engineering and maintenance systems the merging is about to start. But de-duplicating the infrastructure, as Elich describes it, will only be done where it makes sense. It doesn’t make sense in HR, for example, Elich says. “The HR worlds are so different, there is not much convergence there.”

Adding value

But where merging is possible, the aim is not just to go from two systems to one, Elich says. “We try to gain additional value”, like new functionality or greater ease of use. “That is the goal for most replacements and for all new systems.” This focus on improvement helps not only the business, but also IT itself. The financing for IT migration comes from KLM’s innovation budget.

“You shouldn’t migrate to one platform just for the sake of migrating,” Elich says. Becoming future-ready is the overarching drive. Part of that readiness is to elevate the information access of employees to that of customers. “At one point our customers had more insight into flight status on their mobiles than some of our employees, using PCs at the front desk,” Elich admits.

One of the things he takes pride in is the proposition for KLM customers. “We do that quite well, we are in the lead there. Our whole customer process has been digitised: searching, choosing, booking, paying.” The contact with customers operates smoothly, not just before they take a flight, but also during and afterwards, thanks in part to KLM’s award-winning use of social media. IT support to make that customer contact possible is very important.

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