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Plane and Simple Partners

Plane and Simple Partners

You might expect to find examples of symbiosis in biology, but not perhaps in IT integration projects. But symbiosis, the interdependence of two separate entities, is perhaps the best way to describe the relationship that has been forged between Qantas and Unisys. Because when Qantas decided to call on external help with an overhaul of its maintenance systems and support IT -- the Camsys project -- it not only brought Unisys on board to help with the systems integration work, it absorbed the company's personnel so fully into the Qantas structure, that for all intents and purposes they could be Qantas employees.

The partnership even extends into the management structure.

Overall direction of the project lies with Jerry Cade, Qantas' general manager for aircraft operations systems. But beneath him in the command structure is a Unisys consultant, Colin Fleming, to whom both Qantas and Unisys personnel report to on a day-to-day basis. Cade and Fleming are proud of the alliance that user and supplier have forged. "You could walk into a meeting and you would not know, unless you looked at the badges, who is Qantas and who isn't," says Fleming.

Cade points to the monthly Sunday project reviews as an example. "They start at about 8.00am, and usually go through to 4.00 or 5.00pm," says Cade. "There are contractors there, Unisys people, Qantas people -- everybody just turns up -- and nobody's talking about overtime or why they have to give up a Sunday."The reason they are all there is to implement the Camsys project. Born from the ashes of another project -- Emsys -- its aim is to provide an up-to-date platform for the engineering and maintenance support systems for Qantas. The Emsys project was initiated in the late 1980s with the intention of delivering an entirely new suite of programs and systems based around distributed client-server Unix technology. When Qantas and Australian airlines merged, its scope was increased to cover both operations. The two companies were operating a mix of platforms, including Unisys mainframes and some server-based applications, leading to highly variant systems and procedures.

Fleming says Emsys got into trouble for a variety of reasons, resulting in significant time and cost overruns. When a decision was taken in late 1995 to scrap Emsys it had already soaked up $38 million in total costs, and was likely to take a further $60 million before its completion. "That just couldn't be justified on the basis of the benefits it would bring," says Cade, "so we decided to look for an alternate course that was faster and cheaper."That alternative path is the renovation and modernisation of the existing systems, bringing them together as a seamless operation linked over a TCP/IP network with a graphical user interface. The decision to change horses midstream wasn't an easy one, says Cade. "We had an external party come in and look at the existing project, and the likelihood of delivering it, just to satisfy ourselves that it was the correct decision. They validated our estimates.

"Our end position hasn't changed in terms of the functionality that's required," Cade says. "We've simply taken a different path that will enable us to get there more cost effectively, more quickly and with less risk." It was in choosing this path that the current relationship between Qantas and Unisys was born, thanks mainly to two key factors.

The first was the long-standing relationship between the two companies. Cade says for many years Australian Airlines was a Unisys-only platform. While IBM-based financials systems were introduced in the late 1980s, Unisys systems form the basis of the engineering maintenance applications. The second factor was the failure of Emsys itself. "There was a lot of frustration at the lack of delivery from the previous system," says Fleming. "If the alternative path was to be accepted it had to have some pretty rapid results."Since the alternative path required rejuvenation of the existing systems, and it needed to take place quickly, people with skills in those applications were needed. Unfortunately, Qantas had been progressively winding down those very applications in anticipation of Emsys. The installation of a new reservation system had also drained the department's resources. The key area was the Unisys platform. Cade says the ongoing relationship with Unisys meant a number of the vendor's staff had been heavily involved with the development of some of Qantas' applications in years gone by. What would make more sense then than to call on those resources once more?So rather than put the project to tender, Qantas decided to sole-source it to Unisys. "Given the history of the relationship between the two companies," says Cade, "we had a lot of confidence that their assistance would be positive and would lead to the sort of delivery time frames that we're looking for." He says the benefits were clearly visible at the outset, the decision was not made lightly. For starters, it eliminated the estimated 12--15 month delay that a full tender process would need. When combined with the development time, Cade says such delays were unacceptable.

"Because of the problems with the other project [Emsys] there was a credibility issue with end users," says Cade. "If we said we were going to give them everything that they wanted, but they're weren't going to get it for four years, they would have said forget it. And we couldn't implement the project without the 100 per cent support of the people who are going to it."The other option was to hire more staff internally, but this too would have taken time while generating headcount issues.

A delay was also unacceptable on a cost basis, because of the duplicate systems Qantas was maintaining. While Cade says tendering might have returned a cheaper delivery price, he estimates the costs of delayed implementation at $1 million a month. "Now if that tender process was going to take us only 12 months, there's $12 million you've got to get differentially in the price. I've got full access to the pricing on what we're doing, and there isn't $12 million there. So in a sense it became a little bit of a no-brainer."Along with sole sourcing, another key decision has been to manage the systems integration risk internally, rather than passing it on to the integration company. "We knew that it was going to be a complex project," says Cade, "not only from a technical point of view, but we also had to manage a lot of cultural and process change within the organisation. And while an external organisation could have accepted responsibility for that, it would be very, very difficult for them to manage the internal change process.

"So we felt we had a better chance if I took on that sort of role of managing the internal risk."Cade says that risk was made easier by the fact that he and Fleming had worked together before. "I said I need somebody I can have absolute confidence in who's going to deliver this thing for me. That was when I said to my boss that I thought it would be very good if we could get Colin on board." He says Fleming's role has been to manage the overall project, including Qantas and Unisys staff. What work that can be done by Qantas people is done by Qantas people, and what gaps exist are filled by Unisys personnel, or by contracted staff brought in by Unisys.

Cade says there was some concern among the lower echelons of Qantas management over Fleming's appointment, but it was easily dealt with. "At the end of the day, there're going to be a number of people who think they should be doing the job. So it doesn't matter if you appointed God himself, somebody's going to think they could have done a better job. Whether it's internal or external you're going to have the little bit of friction."Cade is not unconcerned by suggestions that Qantas may be getting too close to its supplier. "Qantas has a solution that works; we couldn't have done it any more cost effectively. So whether or not I'm close to the vendor is largely irrelevant," he says. "And the other side of the equation is that today everybody talks about forming long-term relationships and reducing your supplier base. Somewhere in between those two ends of the spectrum lies the answer."Cade says that from the beginning the two companies have endeavoured to ensure that neither could be compromised. For instance, a number of the Unisys contracts are completely open book, he says. "And not only are they open book, but we've also got retrospectively clauses in there, that say if at subsequent negotiations between Qantas and Unisys there is a downwards movement in price, then the contracts get rewritten at the downward price. So in my view, we've got ample protection against any of the ills that allegedly flow from being too close to your supplier."From Fleming's point of view it would make no sense for Unisys to disadvantage Qantas. "Why would Unisys take advantage of the situation? Unisys by definition is in the marketplace to secure business. There's a long-standing relationship here -- this is just a phase of it," he says. "I think from a personal perspective it's something that too many companies shy away from, because they're afraid of being branded as being too close. You can get that, but I don't that's true in this case."Cade points out that Unisys holds marketing rights to a substantial part of the system, as part of a relationship extending back to the ‘80s. "I always felt pretty comfortable that they were going to do their very best to deliver, because at the end of the day they also had a vested interest in the product being very good."Cade feels the closeness of the two companies has even contributed to the pace of the implementation. "If it wasn't for the closeness we'd be still thinking about how we're going to do it," Cade says. The degree of trust that exists between the two organisations has meant that when it comes to contract variations, say for an extra 100 PCs, such things can be easily dealt with over the phone, with the paperwork to follow later.

Knowledge transfer has also been a benefit arising from the relationship, says Cade. "The Unisys people have got a lot more experience in dealing with clients than most of the Qantas technical people have. They also have a lot of experience dealing with different issues that arise during integration. So they've bought a lot of human skills to the task as well, just in terms of managing people."Cade is also happy with the technical skills transference taking place. "Some of the people that I have as business analysts would now know as much about Novell and NetFrame and some of the intricacies of the technical stuff as probably anybody in the country," he says. That skill transference is also important for when the integration project concludes, and Unisys steps back from its active role. Cade says Qantas already has a number of personnel reporting to Fleming who will take on responsibility for applications when the project finishes.

When the project does come to a close, Qantas will have a maintenance system that Cade feels will provide the airline with a solid platform on which to build. "We've added a lot of functionality, and behind the system we'll bring in common processes, practices and procedures."The Camsys project saw its first cutover in Melbourne on 1 July. Cutover in Sydney is slated for December, representing the end of the integration process.

The project's closure will bring to an end what Fleming views as an interesting experiment. For Fleming, the speed with which the project has been carried out and the closeness of the vendor-customer relationship has created an environment where frankness and pragmatism have flourished.

"It's certainly a no-frills type environment, and there's a lot more open communication. Egos are put to one side more readily here than in many other environments, and it has been very interesting watching different people react.

None of them have worked in this sort of relationship before. They've all tended to have very clear-cut contractual type boundaries to work within. Here it's very hard sometimes to know where the boundary is."In the end, Cade says it is all about cooperation. "I think it is a very good example of what can be achieved if you work together."

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