National security issues hamper customer care

Computer World –

Lod, Israel -- Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd. (IAI) takes security seriously. Its headquarters, set behind high chain-link fences topped with razor wire, is patrolled by a private army of Uzi-toting guards.

With more than $2 billion in revenue and 14,600 employees, IAI is Israel's largest company. Despite being run by the fractious and socialist-leaning Israeli government, the company is charged with making a profit each year. That puts pressure on IAI to develop products and services that will appeal to organizations outside the nation's borders. As a result, the company exports goods to more than 90 countries, and exports represented 80% of its sales in 2000.

But for MAMAN, as IAI's IT department is known, the obsession with protecting corporate assets makes it much more burdensome to look outside its base of government customers to improve commercial relations.

"The fundamental and inherent interest of our company is the well-being and security of Israel," said Yoram Holtzberg, deputy general manager of MAMAN. And given the political realities of the region, that makes security uppermost in IT managers' minds as they embark on new programs, such as customer relationship management (CRM) and outsourcing.

A Competitive Edge

MAMAN's staff of 240 supports four business divisions with more than 10,000 end users. Each division has a variety of profit centers, and MAMAN must offer competitive IT support because it charges back its services to business units within the divisions, which have the option of seeking outside IT services to hold down their own costs.

"We have to sell ourselves," Holtzberg said. "Nothing is guaranteed."

MAMAN must help IAI stay competitive enough to attract and satisfy demanding customers, Holtzberg said. So, he explained, when customer calls were left unanswered due to Sabbath restrictions, an IT problem unique to Israel, MAMAN had to be prepared to make changes.

According to Vivian Meyerowitz, the company's CRM project manager, "There are a lot of religious people at IAI. Giving customers online access to information became important because phone calls went unanswered [on the Sabbath]."

Introducing a CRM program wasn't as easy as it might be in most companies, however.

When the avionics division cuts a deal to upgrade, say, Turkish or Chilean jets, those customers expect to get access to information about the status of work. To permit outside access, Yosef Yakovich, IAI's manager of communication systems and networks, had to design a parallel network running a variety of applications on servers that run Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s HP-UX or IBM's AIX.

These applications have to be synchronized to the main network through what MAMAN calls its "demilitarized zone" (DMZ). This DMZ lets users connect to the latest data on the parallel network while systems within the DMZ check all files, data and users for security, looking for viruses, double-checking user authentication and deflecting attacks from outsiders before passing along information requests or file updates to the primary servers.

Despite the recent bout of violence in the Middle East, Yakovich said thhat direct attacks on IAI have remained "approximately the same as two or three years ago." However, he wouldn't provide specific numbers.

Outsourcing some procurement operations involved similar security precautions, according to Eyal Hollander, business-to-business product manager at The Ring, IAI's application service provider. Hollander said the company established what it calls a "cow gate" between The Ring, a division of Tel Aviv-based telecommunications provider Bezeq, and its electronic data interchange system. The cow gate ensures that only one transmission - incoming or outgoing -- occurs at a time, so each can be thoroughly checked for any security problems.

Future Hurdles

Holtzberg said that although he's pleased with these successes, he understands that big challenges remain for his group to compete for IT services at IAI. Holtzberg pointed to the need of giving more suppliers access to engineering databases to expand and improve business-to-business services.

But Richard Aboulafia, director of aviation studies at Teal Group Corp., an aerospace and defense research company located in Fairfax, Va., said IAI still has a long way to go.

"There is nothing more difficult than a vertically integrated business that doesn't view its business units as profit centers," he said. "At the subcontractor level - and this may be the IT support -- they tend to view the prime contractor as a free lunch, a free ride."

"I would say that IAI is about 10 to 15 years behind American defense contractors in terms of entrepreneurial zeal," Aboulafia added.

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