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A culture for aerospace innovation
A cultural problem disguised as a technological problem

Patrice Duboe
7 June 2023

The message is loud and clear; go green or become irrelevant.

And the message has been received. Large aerospace primes are well aware of the need to be more sustainable. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) rules, changing international legislation and increasing shareholder activism are all factors. Business models are having to change, in order to support the decarbonisation of aviation. Companies that don’t make the change will be unable to operate and, will, by extension, not make it through.

But changing the trajectory of aviation is not like adjusting the course of an airliner. It’s more like turning a supertanker; gaining momentum takes time – but time is not a thing we have a lot of, considering the traditional development timeframes of commercial aviation capabilities.

So, how can progress be accelerated? It’s a cultural challenge as well as a tooling one – the rapid innovation needed to decarbonise aviation requires a cultural shift. Companies, large and small, will need to work faster than before, and work together in ways they may not be entirely comfortable with, whilst maintaining the extremely high safety standards of aerospace certification.

It is technology that will largely help us solve the problem of sustainable aviation. But technology (eg. what technologies to use and how to use them) is created by humans and largely determined by human decisions. And culture is made up of people – which means that innovating the technology we need is, at least partly, a cultural challenge.

‘Digital first’ for digital firsts

According to instant messaging giant and tech success story, Slack: “Building a digital-first culture involves more than just integrating the latest technologies. Digital-first means creating an agile organization where technology and corporate culture work together to improve processes, maximize efficiencies and offer unparalleled customer experience.”

Many look to the rapid ‘fail fast’ approach of tech companies, like Slack, as an example to emulate – but few would disagree that aerospace companies face far more serious consequences for failure.

We can consider SpaceX, arguably the best known aerospace company, as an example of a company that is digital first and that takes a rapid innovation approach. It even frames the high-profile explosions of its rockets as ‘successful failures’, taking the opportunity to gather data from the launch (and crash) to quickly understand and remedy issues for the next launch. Of course, none of these craft are crewed, so no lives are lost – but it is still a bold stance, considering the sheer costs of a lost rocket.

So, how might this rapid, tech-driven approach be adapted to such a traditionally slow moving and safety-critical aerospace environment? What must change in company culture?

1. A vision and a plan to achieve it

As the old business cliche goes, ‘start with why’.

Digital transformation (or ‘digitalization’) doesn’t happen ‘by accident’. Companies that wish to create a more innovative culture should establish a clear vision and an innovation strategy. Why does the company want to be innovative? What does success look like? How will progress be measured? What will inspire employees to want to get involved (…and not see innovation as something that is ‘being done to them’)? And, how can the company’s goals and values be aligned with innovation and creativity?

2. New ways of thinking and working

To succeed, the movement will need to be ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’ – individuals within companies, no matter how junior, must understand that they also have a part to play and should feel able to challenge unsuited or unsustainable practices. Employees should be encouraged to experiment, learn from failures, and continuously improve their skills and knowledge. They should be given the necessary resources, including time, tools, and training. ‘Flattening’ the organisational structure might be too much of an ask, but staff must feel free to challenge the status quo, when the status quo is not the best option.

This brings us to communication and hierarchy. Instead of seniority being a trump card, innovation favours ‘what’s right, not who’s right’. Data-driven decision-making should prevail here; with data collection and analytics used to inform decision-making and to measure the success of initiatives.

Risk tolerance is another factor. A culture of experimentation and innovation takes experimentation as a given, not as a risk, and accepts that failure is inevitable, but can be properly managed. This is understandably more difficult with strict safety procedures and fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders, but an ability to be more flexible with project expectations and milestones may pay dividends in scoping (and working on) complex aerospace technology projects. This is where digital, iterative ways of working and project management, like DevOps, DevSecOps or Agile (which are synonymous with tech) tend to win out against more traditional and inflexible project styles, like PRINCE2 or Waterfall.  

Geographically distributed teams allow access to a greater talent pool, plus potential labor and carbon cost savings. For example, consider the case in which a specialist engineer/expert can work remotely, for example, using extended reality (XR) technology (virtual reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR)), to help local staff troubleshoot a technical problem, instead of having to travel to the site.

Remote working also offers the promise of an improved work-life balance that supports recruitment with the promise of a happier workforce. In fact, a happier workforce is another competitive advantage – companies that wish to create an innovative culture and attract the right staff should give thought to creating an environment that prioritizes employee wellbeing.

3. Leadership and an example to follow

Speaking of hierarchy (or the lack thereof) – a supportive leadership is also essential.

Leaders play a critical role in setting the tone and expectations for innovation. They must be supportive of new ideas, willing to take risks, and provide resources to support innovation among their subordinates. They should emphasize the value of feedback and encourage employees to learn from failures and mistakes. And, as always, they must lead through their example – innovative leaders make for an innovative culture.

4. The right tech stack

Having spoken at some length about culture, we’d be remiss not to cover some of the technologies that can support aerospace innovation.

As we’ve covered in previous articles, the ability to do a significant amount of engineering digitally is a huge cost and time saver and a significant source of competitive advantage. As such, it’s not a matter of kind, but a matter of degree – how much more digital can an organisation become, in order to increase collaboration, and speed of innovation – whilst also driving down the need to travel and test physically, plus the associated environmental costs? And what tech can support this?

At the high level, this requires a robust cloud-based infrastructure to enable distributed teams, collaboration, and scalability. It also means AI, ML and big data analytics tools that can make sense of the plethora of test and operations data, and drive data-driven decisions. And of course, it also means robust cybersecurity to protect all of this invaluable infrastructure.

Succeed together, fail alone

Aerospace startups can clearly be more ‘nimble’ than many longstanding incumbents, but, this doesn’t mean startups are more digitally capable than established primes, who have ample resources to invest in the best-in-class tech. However, startups are often able to operate without the constraints imposed by the bureaucracy or legacy systems of large organisations, and they do not have the problem of getting traditional engineers who have been with the company for decades to work with new sustainability and software teams, who have different ways of working.

In fact, many major aviation players are quite far advanced in the use of digital thread and digital engineering. For example, Rolls Royce has used digital twins for its engine designs for some years now, and Northrop Grumman’s sixth-generation stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, was built using the latest suite of digital engineering techniques. This puts them in a good position to innovate, but digital technologies and huge R&D budgets alone do not create revolutionary ideas – culture is a major factor.

The real lesson from startups is not so much around the use of advanced digital technology. It is, instead, to adopt the fail fast mentality that lets these startups rapidly experiment to solve big challenges, and quickly move from proof of concept to prototype to minimum viable product and beyond – learning and iterating through simulation and testing, whilst also having appropriate stage-gated checks to ensure good ideas progress and duds are quickly stopped. Can we combine the pace of a startup with the industrial capacity of an aerospace prime?

Considering that many major primes are actually quite advanced in digital technologies, their next focus should be putting these digital tools to use in new areas, for example, bringing in specialization and nurturing innovative mindsets within parts of the business (without cannibalizing profitable existing approaches). This can be done by partnering with smaller companies that have specialist technical expertise (eg. hydrogen fuel cells or autonomous navigation algorithms), or by building teams of in-house innovators with high degrees of specialist expertise in novel areas, and setting frameworks to encourage experimentation.

None of this needs to be done alone, and does not require aerospace companies to see everyone as a competitor. Value chains aren’t independent – they operate in a regulatory framework and are made up of a network of specialist companies, all competing and cooperating in different measures. To truly transform, cultures must move to a collaborative mentality, using digital collaboration tools to securely work with partners, suppliers, academics, startups, software companies, hyperscalers, consultants, and, sometimes, even competitors.

This too, is something of a cultural challenge. Solving sustainable aviation is partly a coordination problem: thought must be given to how newer players and incumbents will work together. Incentives and efforts must be aligned – it can’t work otherwise. This may require a cultural shift, moving away from a natural possessiveness around IP and data, to the realization that partnerships between aerospace generalists (with scale and experience), and tech specialists (with deep domain expertise) are likely the fastest and most efficient way to get us to Net Zero 50.

As with many other historic challenges, we succeed if we work together, and we fail if we don’t.

Meet our expert

Patrice Duboé

EVP – Capgemini's CTIO for South & Central Europe & Global Aerospace & Defense
Patrice Duboé has been working in Innovation & Technology for more than 30 years in multicultural environments. He is now Innovation Executive Vice President and CTIO for Capgemini S&C Europe and for the Global Aerospace & Defense Industry. He is leading Innovation & Technology teams to deploy Innovation at scale for global corporation & clients with key partners and emerging startups.