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Interview – A digital intrapreneur breaking silos at Airbus

For this first in the series of interviews of Transformation Leaders, I interviewed, at Airbus’ Leadership University, Laurent Fradin, Digital Transformation Leader, from the newly created Digital Transformation Office at Airbus.

“[We got the] digital wave in our face… [let’s] surf the wave…”

He calls himself a “communication guy” and has been a digital pioneer bringing new audio visual technologies, intranet, website, client portals to Airbus Communication Department since the 80’s. For Laurent Fradin, digital is key to succeed in the next transformations of the business to support new ways of working, but it is in no way the “alfa and the omega”. According to him, and I couldn’t agree more, it is more about culture and mindset change than about the tools and technologies. And he says it quite clearly: “[it is] more an Airbus transformation powered by digital than digital transformation for the sake of digital”.

What struck me throughout our discussion is that although we were talking about digital transformation (since it is his job title) but we could have been talking about any kind of transformation in the organisation. Laurent showed a great understanding of the complexities of working in a large industrial corporation whilst being able to think and act like an entrepreneur. He strongly believes in Airbus’ capacity to adapt and this is why he’s so involved in supporting the next waves of transformation. The next 4 key points are my take on his experience sharing illustrated by his comments and opinions.

“It is a cultural change. These technologies are bringing something new that can accelerate, that are providing ways to overcome challenges that we were not able to face before. We can now embrace things that we didn’t think were possible before.”

[Disclaimer: the opinions and perspectives shared in this article are my own and that of the interviewee, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the interviewee’s employer]

A real intrapreneur with a startup mindset

I first met Laurent Fradin a few years ago, when he participated in a training called SWITCH that I facilitated at Airbus Leadership University for senior managers of Airbus. This module was based on business agility and focused on one of our areas of expertise: entrepreneurship mindset and tools. As per the Airbus leadership model, employees are encouraged to act like an entrepreneur whilst being aware of large organizational constraints and complexities.

Laurent was at the time already very switched on to the material I was bringing, but it is only now that I fully realise, listening to his experiences of the past few years, that he clearly has a startup mindset. That became even clearer when he related to me one story about how he used this entrepreneurial mindset, he calls “Lab spirit”, with the Digital Communication department he was heading at the time.

“[We asked ourselves] What could we do crazy, new this year? Let’s open the boxes, let’s get out of the box… What would we do with digital? What would we like to test? And it was also for us a kind of “Lab spirit”. What can we do that will provide value for comms [communication department] but also provide value in learning something new, trying something new, because I think comms, but it should be true for any department, should get a little bit of “Lab” part, a “test and learn” part. We had an idea that we parked for a while, and one day there was a call for action through the company saying we should do something for this programme, and every idea was welcomed. So we said ok. We’ve got one idea and we’ll push it. We tried to push this idea, knowing that it was not a pure comm. idea, that we will probably get out of our usual area of responsibility and that probably this idea was a little bit against some cultural aspects of the company. But we were thinking we were bringing some value and we were participating to the cause. The cause was: save the A380”

This idea ended up being accelerated at Airbus BizLab and became a webservice and now an app: IflyA380, responding to the socially shared excellent customer experience of flying on an A380 aircraft and the customers’ desire to fly A380 again.

So Laurent and his team, were surfing on the digital wave, social networks, and apps, but only in service of value creation on a market, even if it meant going out of their comfort zone and in areas where Airbus was not present yet: social selling for their customers (B2B2C). They learnt a lot about their customer, the airlines, that they did not know before, that is ROI!

Creating value, and adding value on a market is for us the foundation of innovation and any business model, and Laurent showed throughout the interview that it was key in all the transformations he was involved in.

Focusing on creating added-value

One of the key transformations that he lead was supported by digital but was more a fundamental shift in the communication department’s purpose and value creation. He described at length how the communication departments throughout Airbus Group were over specialised, and fragmented. To turn this around, he did use a platform (which he described in an interview with Adobe) but the key element was to first change the mindsets of comms employees, to go back to their shared basics with them on what they were doing – dealing with content (sourcing, creating, editing, publishing, engaging, ensuring…) – and why – creating value for an audience (their customer).

The difficulty with this transformation was for people to get over the comfort of what they knew how to do, “to forget the legacy” as Laurent puts it, get over their fear so that they could actually focus on a more fulfilling job, with less copy-paste and editing, and more added-value creation.

What the tool allowed them to do was first to have a common platform for sharing content, which saved time and effort as well as gave more coherence. But most importantly, digital allowed them to measure the impact of their content, so they could correct, learn, and switch from a content push “I did 200 press releases” perspective to a “user-centric and data-driven” mindset.

“From the very beginning, what is it that we want? On some area or some topics? Do we want more engagement with certain audiences? So making sure from the beginning you set some objectives and you measure if you are working well against those objectives. Before it was not done, it was really a publisher centric view, and we pushed out stuff and that’s all. Even the same story we pushed on every channel… we were multi channel but not in the best way, so we were creating more noise, rather than being really heard, understood, welcomed and creating engagement.”

When I asked about how the communication teams reacted to this new way of working and seeing their jobs, Laurent explained that the immediate confrontation to the audience impact might have been a shock – but it was a reality check that created an opportunity to learn and adapt. Like a startup getting early market feedback and being able to pivot.

Ok so shifting mindsets towards creating value is key but then implementing large scale transformations throughout a complex organisation is another thing. So how could Laurent keep his entrepreneurial mindset AND help stir the huge Airbus cruise ship?

Facing the challenges of scale and complexity of a large corporation

When talking about the challenges he faced in the transformations that he has been driving or is currently leading, Laurent speaks about the cultural obstacle:

Culturally speaking, [the message is] “We have to deliver first, so guys this is all good what you are doing, but we’ve got our bread and butter aircraft and we have to deliver so this is our focus, so keep your nice things you’re playing with, keep them in the sandbox.” Well it used to be the case, it is shifting also, because people have understood as well that even to be able to deliver what we have in our order book, we are reaching a glass ceiling, and if we don’t use these new ways of working and these new technologies, anyway, we won’t be able to deliver on time or on cost.”

The various experimentations with digital, playing with business models were not seen for a while as bringing value for the company because not bringing “cash” per say. Mainly “noble” activities like production were valued. Which is not surprising in a process-driven engineer-run company such as Airbus. So Laurent identified this way of thinking as one of the initial “blocker” for transformation.

The first challenge is hence to convince the rest of the organisation that the transformation (digital or other) is not just a “Nice-to-have” but is key to the future long-term sustainable success of the company. It is a matter of survival, even if today the order book is full and will bring in cash for the next 5-7 years.

This leads to the second challenge, according to Laurent, which is speed. Speed of change is countered by the difficulty the organisation has to work across silos especially at large scale.

OK now people see it brings value, it really helps decrease the missing parts, we are really able to gain something in our aircraft manufacturing life, in real life, so ok and people are keen to test, to get the Proof of Concept, but then when we go back to industrializing these ideas, it’s tough, because we are pushing the boundaries the organizational model up to a point that … we’re not there yet. Then you feel again the vertical silos. Time in Proof of Concept, MFTs, a few months, it’s fine, but then you need to industrialise and then [people ask questions such as] “who is paying? Who’s in charge of what? Who is owning this process?” And bad luck, very often, the transformation is about end-to-end process so you drill all the silos to get something completely transversal, and who is responsible? Guys, it’s about co-ownership, co-design, collaboration, co, co, co, co, co, a lot of co-co for this company and it is a little bit creating some hiccups.”

What Laurent is referring to in Airbus is not surprising and is pretty symptomatic of large industrial organisations. Indeed, since the 80’s so much emphasis has been put on managers’s responsibility to deliver on their objectives, their teams’ orbjectives with their own KPIs, that they now have a difficulty to step back from their own activity and deliverables and be able to deliver as a collective. Because for so long failure has been seen as “a bad thing you should be ashamed of and that will have negative consequences on your reputation and career”, someone needs to be clearly identifiable as responsible for a project, an idea etc. So that if it fails we know who to blame and assign the bad consequences to. In the more collaborative initiatives such as the ones mentioned by Laurent Fradin in Airbus, the notion of co-ownership is key, but employees’ mindset is not yet ready for this and the first reflex is to ask who is the owner? And it shouldn’t even be a question, the real question should be: “who can contribute?”

And speaking of the weight of the legacy, that many companies carry, the “this is how we do things here” mentality is often a blocker. Even on simple things such as speaking to your customers in a different way, or gaining a deeper understanding of who they are by talking to other teams not just your usual point of contact: the buying department. During his IflyA380 app intrapreneurship experience, Laurent and the team realized that it might be more interesting to discuss with airlines commercial guys to gain their collaboration, rather than using the usual connection with aircraft procurement department. And it paid off. Challenging the usual networks, breaking down the silos, and navigating outside the business as usual, under the radar have been successful ways to circumvent the heaviness of process-driven mindsets and way of working.

But beside a successful initiative like this intrapreneurial experience with IflyA380, Laurent is well aware that transformations need to be organisation-wide and to do so requires not just a startup mindset to avoid heavy structure challenges but a holistic approach to influence and onboard all.

Taking a holistic approach to organizational transformation

The success of any transformation, according to Laurent, takes root in addressing all 3 pilars: technologies, methods (frameworks such as agile, lean startup etc.) and people. The emphasis that Laurent has on the people side is not surprising as he says when talking about his mission as Digital Transformation Leader: “I am more working on the soft side of the transformation, I’m not the capability / technology leader like IoT, big data and so-on, but more to support them and to make sure that all employees are following”.

Having a holistic approach to digital transformation makes a lot of sense, as it is not just about technologies. It is a real cultural change, which requires a full-stack approach (from values to vision to behaviors).

“If you don’t get the ways of working, if you don’t get the customer-centric, this is bringing nothing, you will just digitalize a sh*tty process, so you will get your bad product quicker, sh*t in – sh*t out a bit quicker, but that’s it. Here thanks to the digital we can really RE-WORK some processes, forget years of legacy… coming back to what is really the customer needs, pain points etc., and maybe having a leaner answer to them, cleaner, and offering more than what is just requested by the customer to bring something that is more desirable for them. Digital alone is nothing”

He addresses not only the people’ mindset and skills but also leadership behaviors that will allow and not block the transformation, and he puts it very bluntly:

“If you don’t have in a big company like Airbus, the right leadership behaviors, if you don’t let your team be empowered, if you don’t let your expert go to provide support to another multi-functional team, if you have more an ownership behavior than a sharing behavior, then we are dead”.

“If you are silo-minded, not open-minded, then we’re dead”.

The current digital transformation is not the first that Airbus has been through, this is just a new episode but the way Laurent is envisioning this new transformation is about how to sustainably enabled people to adapt for all the future coming transformations.

“Before we would say ok, we are at point A and want to go to point B, and we transform for point B. I think now, our view is more how to equip the people and the company to sustainably face transformation, because this will not end, and there will be new technologies, and new combinations of technologies, bringing new things etc. So the point is to organise the company to be able to sustain new changes, and for people to welcome changes rather then to suffer when facing these transformations.”

Laurent insisted that the “People” pilar is also key in the transformation as they need to be equipped to face the challenges.

“First they are aware, then we move them from awareness to understanding, and from understanding to practice and to really bite into this new transformation at Airbus.”

Coming back to the Comms. department transformation, after being confronted to audience feedback on their content, the teams could then be supported in their development to adjust their skills and ensure a better performance with the new way of creating value.

“Suddenly they [communication teams] were realizing that they were not doing such a good job before… But the point was not to make them feel guilty. It’s the system that was so, we want to shift the system, so guys, the rules are not exactly the same now, and of course if we do so, you need to grow, so we will accompany you also, and we will upskill you to make sure that you write better for this type of audience, or you get a better knowledge of this type of social media, social networks, for you to become a community manager and not just an information provider… Depending where you are in the content life cycle, what do you need to do now a better job, and to be better equipped to provide this added-value content, to make sure the audience goes “this is a great brand!” 

Final piece of wisdom for other Transformation Leaders

In his final comments Laurent Fradin offered a few pieces of advice quite humbly and realistically starting with: “there is no recipe”.

Listen to customers

I think you can never say this enough. Sometimes it is even less about listening and more about knowing and understanding who they are, their constraints, ambitions, desires, stress, and perspectives. Well that’s if you really want to ensure you are creating value for them.

“Listen first to your customer, external or internal. You pretend you do it, you’re not actively listening to the customer, involving him in each and every loop you do.”

– Test, practice and simplify

So you can fail fast and cheap and also learn. Testing means allowing for risk, which doesn’t mean you are making “risky products”, especially in an industry like aircraft manufacturing where safety is paramount.

“When you start doing that then you initiate a virtuous cycle, it’s not easy, but you need to practice, test, do the first walk, if it’s not by the book, (agile or whatever), it’s not that important, if you keep this user-centricity and data driven… And if you got the right support of digital capabilities that really enable a quicker, leaner, simpler answer. It’s more about removing than adding. More about simplicity than complexity. These are complex technologies, but to provide simplicity to the user.”

– Measure – be data driven

Not only can data help you show the gains on the field, in real life, of digital or other new ways of working or transformation, but it can also help people align their perspectives. As Laurent puts it: “it’s not my belief against your belief, it is about his [the customer’s] pain points, his needs, and desires, objectivised by real data”.

Transformation in progress…

I will conclude with one of Airbus DTO transformation projects, mentioned by Laurent Fradin, that is powered by digital and using big data, but that is also a big shift in mindsets for Airbus and his customers – the airlines.

For airlines, Aircraft On the Ground (being maintained and repaired) is part of their operating model, and it is a time when this big investment (the aircraft) is not creating any revenu. What if AOG could disappear? Not that aircraft are not maintained, but they could have predictive maintenance thanks to the sharing of in-flight data and other data from aircraft in-use, hence reducing significantly the time of idle aircraft.

This change powered by big data is first and foremost a change in the relationship with the customers, how data is owned, shared and used, and in the business models of aircraft after-sale support. They are currently working with willing customers this open data platform called skywise.

I look forward to hearing more about their testing, experimentations and learning and how it will transform further their business, don’t you?