I Don't Need an Aviation SMS Database... or Do I?
Many aviation service providers today are researching features and capabilities to acquire databases to address documentation requirements of their aviation safety management system (SMS). Alternatively, these operators are not looking to acquire an SMS database, but to:
- learn how to design an SMS database in-house; or
- cobble together single-point solutions to satisfy SMS regulators.
Why are aviation SMS databases important?
What should an aviation service provider know before running out and buying the cheapest SMS database on the market?
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Aviation (SMS) are composed of structured processes. In most cases, aviation SMS enforce, and in other situations, encourage, aviation service providers to manage their SMS according to best practices established by:
- International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO),
- Transport Canada,
- IS-BAO; and
- other civil aviation authorities.
The reason SMS databases are so important to aviation service providers is that many SMS documentation requirements need long term data storage and retrieval strategies from many disparate data sources. Let that sink in. You may even wish to re-read that sentence.
The important phrase is: long-term data storage and retrieval strategies from many disparate data sources.
For readers whose eyes are rolling back in their heads, this simply means that you need to store and retrieve data from many areas of the SMS that have different data elements, such as data from:
- Safety reporting;
- Accident investigations;
- Hazard identification;
- SMS Training;
- Risk controls; and
- Safety communications.
SMS Databases Automate Labor Intensive Tasks
In an SMS, many risk management activities are time sensitive with due dates that cannot slip through the cracks. Otherwise, SMS regulatory auditors will identify your substandard safety performance and issue audit findings. After reacting to repeat audit findings, operators either:
- end up complying and getting proper tools to address substandard performance;
- modify company's risk management processes; or
- lose their certificate (in two to four years based on my experience).
In addition to alerting safety teams and management of "problems in your risk management processes," SMS databases are used to accurately automate labor-intensive data analysis and monitoring tasks, like
- generating reports and trending charts;
- providing and tracking SMS training;
- detecting trends and automatically alerting management of trends;
- collecting safety reports from various sources (web, email, third parties);
- tracking hazard identification processes;
- risk management processes;
- safety communications;
- setting and monitoring key safety performance indicators (KPIs or SPIs).
Related Articles on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in Aviation SMS
- What Is a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) in Aviation SMS?
- How to Set and Monitor Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in Existing SMS
- How to Automate Key Performance Indicator KPI Monitoring
Based on many years of observations, aviation service providers are not having problems with reacting to events and applying corrective and preventive actions, the problems I see are operators having problems managing the documentation. As I mentioned earlier, there data management tasks required in an SMS are no joke.
Furthermore, operators know what is most important to their operations (KPIs), and their problem arises from:
- identifying trends; and
- documenting results and corrective actions when necessary.
SMS is a structured process. Operators need help documenting their risk management processes. As they start working on the process and documenting their actions, then they will start being able to demonstrate continuous improvement of the SMS.
Factors Determining Benefits of SMS Database
To help safety teams in their search for an aviation SMS database, here are a few things to consider before you throw time and energy into implementing aviation SMS software or building your own. Not every aviation service provider needs an SMS database.
I'll be the first to tell you that some operators should not purchase an SMS database. Their safety culture and management commitment will not support long-term data management initiatives.
Several considerations determine whether an SMS database will add any value to your company, such as:
- Top management commitment;
- Safety budget
- Organization's size and complexity;
- Existing technological capabilities;
- Employee technological maturity;
- Maturity of SMS implementation;
- Short term strategic business initiatives;
- Effectiveness of regulatory oversight; and
- Safety culture.
What Is an Aviation SMS Database?
As of 2019, Australians and Canadians are still the ones who most fully embrace the ICAO 2006 SMS mandate. These requirements are explained in ICAO Document 9859.
The rest of the world can learn from the growing pains suffered by Canadians and Australians during their SMS implementations. For those of us that have been following SMS from the beginning, we have been able to identify trends in their SMS implementation processes.
Since these two countries paved the "SMS way," countries following in their footsteps can leapfrog technological hurdles faced earlier by these two countries. "Leapfrogging" is a concept that you may run into during business and economic discussions. The best example that always sticks with me from my college days is the "mobile phone" example.
Third-world countries adopted mobile phones without having to bear the huge expense of "hard-line" phones. In short, they leapfrogged over the hard-line phones and directly adopted mobile phone technology. This leapfrogging allowed these counties to forebear the horrendous expense of telephone poles and tens of thousands of miles of telephone wires.
Along the same vein, aviation service providers that are not at the leading technological edge of SMS data management can leapfrog technologies that have proven ineffective in managing SMS documentation requirements, such as spreadsheets and poorly integrated "point solutions."
If your company has more than 50 employees, you should not consider spreadsheets to store SMS data. You will regret this and the accountable executive will not be pleased with the unnecessary risk. Another rule of thumb based on over a dozen years of observations is: do not use spreadsheets in companies with high employee turnover, even for small companies with 15-20 employees.
Related Articles on Using Spreadsheets to Manage Aviation SMS Data
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Point Solutions Next Phase of SMS Data Management Evolution
Point solutions are software products designed to satisfy one major business requirement, such as:
- Safety reporting system;
- Auditing system;
- Document management system; or
- Training and qualifications system.
There are companies like Sabre and ETQ that actively search to acquire and market point solutions to provide to the aviation industry. These companies don't generally develop solutions but acquire point solutions and add them to their stable of software offerings.
In a few instances, these companies will integrate multiple-point solutions into a single platform or product and relabel the new "integrated solution" under their brand. You may know this as "white labeling." A white-label product is produced by one company and then rebranded by another company to make it appear as if they made it.
Point solutions may satisfy a particular business need but often are not easily configurable to meet unique business needs. This becomes more true with white-label SMS solutions because the company marketing the SMS solution doesn't have the technological ability to easily customize the solution.
Another disadvantage of point solutions is that technical and customer support is not as responsive because support tickets are routed from the solutions provider back to the original software developers, and then returns through the same process. This "support ticket routing game" becomes obvious when tech support takes more than a couple of hours to contact you with a solution to your problem. If technical support and flexible configuration capabilities are important to your company's long-term data management strategy, point solutions should not be considered.
The advantage of point solutions is that they are cheaper than fully integrated databases that have all the features required in a complete SMS database. Most operators don't need all features at the beginning of their SMS implementations, so a point solution scratches the immediate itch.
Point solutions are a short-game strategy. There are valid business cases for adopting point solutions, but if you are a small company with fewer than 60 employees, these point solutions will come back and haunt you in five to six years into your SMS implementation. Larger operators may have available IT resources to integrate multiple point solutions, but if you are a smaller operator or your IT support staff are overworked, then you should avoid point solutions in your SMS implementation.
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Integrated Point Solutions Comprised of Multiple Databases
Point solutions usually have at least one database for each system; therefore, if your company has six-point solutions to manage all SMS documentation requirements, then you will potentially have at least six distinct databases to store data. This is not an efficient data management strategy for aviation SMS.
Unfortunately, this complexity is hidden from clients who buy an integrated solution comprised of multiple-point solutions. To the customer, they are buying "Brand X SMS." They think they are buying "one product" when in reality, they may be buying 6 or 8 different "white label" products wrapped in a cute package with fancy marketing speak. Unsuspecting customers may not know what is under the covers until years later as they wonder why it is so hard to have a user-friendly configurable system.
The quickest way to spot these "white-label" integrated SMS solutions is to look at their public-facing documentation. How much detail do they show? If they don't show much detail about their SMS solutions, chances are that this will be a white-label SMS package that may have been created for another industry, like:
- Energy (petroleum);
- Automotive, etc.
Best SMS Database Is Designed for Specifically for SMS
The best solution with the lowest long-term maintenance cost is the single, enterprise-capable SMS database that was designed specifically to address aviation SMS documentation and performance monitoring requirements. An easy way to tell if an SMS database was designed specifically for the aviation industry is to look at the industry types the company markets to. It becomes highly unlikely the SMS database was built for aviation SMS when the SMS database provider is also selling to other industries, like:
- Construction; and
- Oil and gas.
Is it important that your SMS database provider sells to other industries? Are you concerned about the depth of SMS database provider's subject matter expertise? These are both valid points to consider.
Retooling Systems In-House to Manage SMS Data Needs
Similar to the white-label software providers, some operators have been re-tooling existing database solutions, such as SharePoint and Spiceworks to serve as their SMS database. We have seen some ingenious hacks using "help desk support software" that was designed to support IT teams. The business argument was that the price was right.
This is again a short-game strategy.
As we have seen in Australia and Canada, in the early stages of the SMS implementation, safety managers don't know what data they are going to collect. What are they going to do with the data once they get it? These safety managers were addressing one implementation point at a time, without the experience of what the end game looks like. It was only years later, usually six to eight years, that account executives and safety teams realized that they had an unrealistic picture of the final product - and by the final product, I'm referring to the fully implemented SMS.
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Based on what they knew at the time, safety managers adopted available tools in-house, which were spreadsheets, point solutions, or retooled software solutions hacked together to satisfy the "immediate need" to demonstrate "something."
Major shortcomings these operators finally realize after about three-to-five years is that they lack:
- automated notifications of schedule slippages;
- real-time SMS performance monitoring;
- KPI management and KPI monitoring;
- industry-accept hazard identification and risk control monitoring;
- SMS-specific charting tools to analyze data and spot trends; and
- automated email notifications from major activities (feedback and task assignment notifications).
As you can see, point solutions are great and scratch an immediate itch, but lack long-term sustainability. For a long-term SMS data management strategy, don't implement your SMS using point solutions.
Benefits of an SMS Database During SMS Implementation
We have worked with hundreds of aviation service providers in many countries since 2007 as they implemented SMS, or as they re-implemented failed systems. We provide an SMS database built following ICAO's four components. In short, we have seen hundreds of SMS implementations and we are also SMS data management experts. We are not white-label SMS resellers, but genuine aviation SMS database architects and developers.
We have worked with many different types of operations, which is very cool for us. As you may know, it is not just airlines and airports that are required to implement formal SMS. The list also includes,
- Aviation maintenance;
- Air traffic control;
- Flight Schools;
- Aviation equipment manufacturers;
- Ground handling companies.
In the early days after ICAO mandated formal SMS adoption, the Canadians and Australians resorted to tools they knew best and had in-house, including:
- MS Word,
- MS Excel,
- MS Access, and maybe
After several years of implementing their SMS, many of these companies realized that the data management requirements of fully implemented SMS required professionally designed SMS databases. To be perfectly candid, they didn't realize this solely on their own, but from SMS auditors. This became even more evident for companies with more than 100 employees, regardless of whether they were:
- Airports; or
- Aviation maintenance organizations.
For the major operators with more than 1,000 employees, these companies have IT support that could either develop their own system or integrate multiple-point solutions to address regulatory requirements.
These smaller to mid-sized companies also tried in-house solutions and point solutions. Finally, they had come to realize that it is easier, more cost-effective, and less risky to simply acquire an SMS database from a company that focuses on such systems. After all, you don't buy an aircraft from an auto manufacturer. Subject matter expertise runs more deeply in a company that dedicates its energies to satisfying SMS data management requirements.
From my experience, aviation service providers in the Middle East and Europe didn't suffer as long as the Canadians in their SMS implementations. This may be due to better training or a better understanding of the data management requirements of these fully developed aviation SMS. If you are an operator in the Middle East, your biggest challenge will be to acquire top management commitment and support to acquire tools to demonstrate SMS compliance. Each geographic region has its own challenges. Luckily, I've been blessed by being exposed to most regions around the world.
So what does an aviation SMS database offer before, during, and after an SMS implementation process?
- Centralized data storage;
- SMS gap analysis tools to evaluate existing tools and processes;
- SMS implementation management;
- Secure access by all members of the aviation organization based on role;
- Improved data security;
- Improved organizational communication;
- Enhanced accountability;
- Less risk to the organization; and
- Real-time SMS performance monitoring.
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- 4 Pillars | How to Conduct Safety Performance Monitoring and Measurement
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Best Practices Achievable Using SMS Databases
Professionally designed aviation SMS databases can also ensure that operators are following data management best practices. When multiple managers have access to the same data, there is less chance to ignore reported hazards and safety concerns. There is increased accountability and transparency across the organization's SMS.
In addition to best practices, employees become more involved in the SMS when the SMS database is user-friendly and the workflows are logical. There is nothing more of a buzz-kill than a crappy SMS database that doesn't work or is not user-friendly.
A poorly designed SMS database is a threat to your safety culture. I learned long ago that an airline would suffer a long time before ditching substandard software. It is expensive to change. You have to consider
- legacy data to import into the new system;
- training employees on the new system; and
- reviewing SMS manual to align risk management processes to new software.
The point is that it is less expensive to choose wisely in the first place. Otherwise, your company's safety culture will suffer for many years to come, unless you get out of the bad relationship within the first year or two.
SMS Databases Encourage Repeatable Risk Management Processes
SMS is a structured process. Perhaps the single most important advantage of an SMS database is that it facilitates repeatable risk management processes. Business rules can be enforced to ensure that designed risk management procedures are followed according to your SMS manual. This becomes increasingly important for larger companies that are "process-driven" or companies with high staff turnover.
The SMS database also reduces the risk for the accountable executive. They can be assured the SMS is performing in all areas of the organization and alert management when substandard safety performance is detected. If your company needs repeatable risk management processes, and you don't have time to develop your own, the quick fix is to acquire an SMS database.
Not having defined risk management processes becomes especially more important when the operator still doesn't have a good SMS manual. SMS manuals are a major concern for new SMS implementations as safety managers work diligently to organize:
- Safety policies;
- Duties and responsibilities of key safety personnel;
- Organizational chart;
- Safety reporting processes;
- Risk management processes;
- Auditing and safety assurance;
- Hazard analysis (safety risk analysis);
- Safety training;
- and so on...
Some SMS database solutions have an SMS manual template to get new operators started on the right track and to reduce frustrations. SMS manual templates allow safety managers to get a huge jump start on their SMS implementation. This becomes increasingly important when safety managers come to an organization with poorly documented risk management processes.
Safety managers without documented risk management processes are grasping for some sort of help, and these SMS manual templates are wonderful because they have well-defined, industry-accepted best practices already incorporated in the SMS manual templates.
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- Difference between Reactive, Predictive and Proactive Risk Management in Aviation SMS
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What to Expect from Aviation SMS Software?
When we talk about an aviation SMS database, it is important to understand that the database is simply half of the solution. The user interface is the other half. Most safety professionals think that the SMS database and the user interface are the same. However, if the safety manager has an IT background, the safety manager will realize the database is only used to store organized data in logical tables, like a spreadsheet.
To be absolutely correct, SMS software, in most cases, is a Web application. This is a detail that may not excite you, but if you are thinking about buying an SMS database, you will also be getting the front end where the user interacts with the database using pretty workflows and business logic that prompts you to do something. The Web application may also enforce data restraints, such as required fields, or send email notifications when you assign a task to another user.
To us in the IT world, what I described is a Web application, but you may recognize it as a "software program." There is a database in the back end that stores data. You can think of the database as having hundreds of related data tables. Software (the Web application) accesses this data, either retrieving or storing the data according to the security and functional requirements of the software.
An aviation SMS software program offers little value unless the user interface is:
- Flexible (or configurable); and
- Easily adaptable when technologies change (such as from desktop to mobile).
When you shop for your aviation SMS database, consider your goals and needs. For example, if you are already using SharePoint, you may not need a robust version-controlled document management system integrated into your safety portal.
At the bare minimum, your aviation safety database should consist of the following:
- Web-based hazard reporting forms;
- Automated email notification of events;
- Risk management workflow to assess, classify and perform investigations;
- Corrective/Preventive Action tracking;
- KPI management and monitoring;
- Data analysis and export features to MS Excel; and
- User-friendly charting and graphing tools.
Again, these are the bare minimum features the cheapest aviation SMS database software should offer. The more sophisticated systems will have:
- Offline features for safety reporting and auditing;
- Proactive hazard analysis (safety risk analysis);
- Hazard and risk registers;
- Message boards with "read files";
- Auditing suites for scheduling and managing audits;
- Training and qualification management;
- SMS training delivery and tracking of initial and recurrent SMS training; and
- SMS performance monitoring dashboards.
To sum this up, your SMS database scratches the itch affecting all aviation safety managers: "how and where do I store all my SMS documentation?"
Related Articles on Documenting Aviation SMS Requirements
- Best Practices for Documenting Your Aviation SMS
- 5 Times When Documentation Saves an Aviation Safety Manager
- How to Document Your System Processes in Aviation SMS
SMS Performance Monitoring Is Required
Your accountable executive has major responsibilities to the SMS. For starters, they need to make sure their SMS is properly implemented and working as designed across the entire organization. They also need to regularly review safety performance. Whenever problems are identified, either by the safety team or by external auditors, they are responsible for fixing the substandard safety performance.
In order to assure the accountable executive that the SMS is performing, you will need tools to monitor SMS performance. SMS performance monitoring dashboards and email notifications (or alerts) afford accountable executives some assurance that the SMS is performing as expected. The alternative is the accountable executive may as well be on another planet, unaware of what will happen to him should a major event occur.
The unaware accountable executive will be the one who is not committed to the SMS and will not support the SMS budget for the SMS database. The unaware accountable executive deserves a "spreadsheet SMS" because they are telling the safety team that all he is concerned with is a "paper SMS." He just wants to check the box.
I'll keep repeating that a "paper SMS" is not always a bad thing. There are business cases that support "checking the box." However, if your company really is sincere about benefiting from SMS risk management processes, then the accountable executive needs to budget for an SMS database to effectively monitor SMS performance and be able to respond to substandard performance in a timely manner.
What Options Do I Have with Aviation SMS Databases
When it comes to aviation SMS software solutions, the options are virtually endless and are growing daily. Technology constantly changes, so even the existing aviation SMS databases are changing rapidly.
Most of the popular aviation SMS solutions are subscription-based and some have the option of hosting on your server. With a subscription to aviation SMS database software, the subscription payments are typically monthly or annually. Costs vary by the number of employees or the number of aircraft. Operators that focus pricing on the number of aircraft are commonly flight operations specific and their solutions are not as flexible as those that don't focus on aircraft.
There are also some free aviation SMS solutions on the market. Free aviation SMS software may be great for starting your SMS program but don't expect to have all the features of a paid subscription. Smaller operators and many governmental agencies without an aviation SMS budget typically sign up for the free aviation SMS subscriptions.
Are Aviation SMS Databases Right for Our Company?
If your company has more than 20 employees, you should invest in an aviation SMS software program to save yourself the pain and misery caused by managing the aviation SMS requirements.
Experience has shown that aviation service providers will suffer about eight to ten years of pain before realizing that they need help managing all the data associated with required aviation SMS documentation.
If you don't have top management support, then an aviation SMS database may not be your answer. Lack of top management support is the number one reason why aviation SMS fails.
A good rule of thumb is; if your company has 40 or more employees, you will definitely need software tools to manage your data. Otherwise, expect to have audit findings and know that you will suffer repeatedly whenever auditors come calling.
What Benefits Can We Expect with Aviation SMS Database
We will review the benefits described above:
- Centralized data storage;
- Secure access by all members of the aviation organization;
- Improved data security;
- Improved organizational communication;
- Enhanced safety culture;
- Repeatable risk management processes;
- Enhanced accountability; and
- Less risk to an accountable executive.
Which Aviation SMS Databases Are Worth Considering?
There are probably three or four aviation SMS software providers that have comparable products. If you Google "aviation SMS software," you will find the top companies on the first page. Aviation SMS database programs are not that expensive, with some of them as low as $100 per month for smaller operators.
Before you purchase an aviation SMS software solutions, make sure the database will be able to grow with your needs. Also, research how the SMS database will help solve your problems when you are implementing your aviation SMS program.
Did I mention that we provide an SMS database?
If you need an SMS database,
- we are not white-label; and
- we have a single, enterprise-grade database; with
- excellent customer support.
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Last updated May 2023.