Many of the most complex systems developed by humans follow strong precedents set by nature. Solar power is our version of photosynthesis, GPS is our clumsy replacement for functionality inherent to the brain of every salmon and indeed, the genesis of air travel is readily traceable to birds. Unquestionably upscaled, but at the expense of the grace and efficiency shown by the most common brown duck.
There are two main reasons that we model our systems on those found naturally. The first is that the principles governing those systems have been observed to be efficient. In the case of evolution, that typically involves the most modest deviation from its predecessor that brings the greatest benefit. The second is that notwithstanding luck, because those models have produced successful systems we can assume that they carry a low inherent risk, as the systems may well not have survived otherwise.
So let’s do a Darwinian analysis on a small sector of airline operations and see whether it might offer us any insight.
Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) technology was conceived and initiated in the late 1980s and many of the concepts are as valid now as they were then. In fact, some of the desirable features at the time are only now becoming technically feasible. Even without that functionality though, there was value in implementing a modest system, even if it was measured in coarse-grained benefits such as weight reduction. EFB represented the way of the future. It would streamline flight crew processes, reduce manual calculations and therefore errors, and provide valuable information about profile optimisation, fuel use, weather and a plethora of other flight factors. EFB had everything going for it… except the implementations.
That’s not to say that EFB wasn’t adopted, just that it has taken a painfully long time given the promise that it showed. Even now, many implementations are decidedly unambitious considering the available technology. A common explanation attributes this to the slow pace that airlines evolve at, but it’s a stretch to suggest that this was a factor common to the EFB programs of virtually all airlines. Besides, airlines generally exhibit quite organic patterns of change, adjusting to suit the competitive environment they operate in. Some make good decisions and flourish and others make poor decisions and founder.
So if the concepts and technology were sound and the organisations themselves were not the problem, what caused the lack of vibrancy? Perhaps at this point it makes sense to examine the part played by the ‘imperative to change’ in a natural environment.
Like the early days of EFB, a meadow represents a low imperative to change. The relatively static state of the environment means that the meadow cycles through season after season, year after year, perhaps for decades or even centuries. Change is slow and incremental – trees may grow up and shade the ground cover, which may die off making way for other plants that prefer the shade, etc. Everything is constantly changing with species coming and going, but unless you looked very closely and for a long time, you could be excused for not noticing. This is in no way a sign of a substandard system – on the contrary, that level of symbiosis and balance is an indicator of success within the given environment.
That begs the question as to whether the same can be said for the airline environment during the time the EFB grew up. If so, the low imperative to change resulted in EFB failing to reach its full potential. Nothing more, nothing less. If we accept that the environment exists industry-wide, we must also accept that the failure of EFB to reach its potential was not within the control of individual airlines. That makes a lot more sense than attributing it to universal inadequacy by airlines anyway.
“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change.” ― Charles Darwin
What causes an increase to the imperative to change? Variation to the environment. Suppose the meadow was sprayed with weed killer intended to eradicate a particular species. The population of that species may be decimated, but some individual plants may be genetically predisposed to survive the spray. As the population of plants overall has been limited to such plants, their progeny will likely also exhibit this resistance and indeed, those that have the most resistance will thrive. Over time, even an environmental change designed to eliminate the species may have the affect of making it more successful. The nature of the alteration to the environment is of remarkably little relevance, as anything that heightens the imperative to change provides opportunity.
So what changes the environment for EFB? Unquestionably, that has to be eEnablement. The benefits of having aircraft in flight fully connected to the rest of the organisation, other agencies and even aircraft from other airlines are vast. Just as it occurs in nature, the EFB will be transformed to adapt to its new environment, but will be immediately recognisable as what was conceived 35 years ago. The difference is that it will no longer be just ‘a good idea that has thus far failed to reach its potential’. Provided the eEnablement environment is correctly managed both across and within airlines, EFB is ready to take centre stage.