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Process innovation is critical as virtualisation beckons

The need to change process and internal structure has been one of the most consistent themes we have heard over the last year. Even while positioning for network transformation (the network innovation we addressed in a recent post in this series on innovation), operators understand that this will have a dramatic impact on their operations and organisation. Some have forecast significant headcount reduction, while others see this as being the final act in the convergence IT and network departments.

However, it’s also clear that operators are not united in what they think this will mean in practice. I moderated a panel at the recent IMS World Forum in which this specific question was raised by a delegate from Swisscom. On the panel were senior representatives from Orange, Deutsche Telekom and KPN. Each had a different answer, doubtless reflecting the different natures of their existing organisations, their respective histories and market positions.

What this means is that, while we all know that significant, not to say profound change is coming, we don’t yet know what that will mean in practice and there will doubtless be a number of different approaches, not a single template to be followed. Uncertainty often leads to prevarication but it’s clear that change is inevitable.

This means that people, human resources, change management and process innovation are as important, if not more so than the forecast technical change as we move to virtualised network infrastructure. While there are some excellent examples of virtualisation for key infrastructure elements such as IMS (as we saw from the entries to the IMS World Forum awards, for which we were honoured to be part of the judging panel), others are adopting a piecemeal approach, in which key services are identified as candidates for early migration to virtual environments, for example, VoLTE. It seems likely that there won’t be a revolution but more of an evolution.

While this doesn’t defer the real problem of structural change, it does buy time in which the right approach can be considered. Already we can see the impact of this, as vendors such as ZTE report how service activation can be achieved in days rather than the traditional months. Finally, we are seeing the promised benefits of changes that have been made over the last years – but organisation change is lagging behind and must be confronted sooner rather than later.

That will also change. The next three years will see significant pressure both on operators and on their suppliers to adapt and to shift to a more dynamic approach. Some have already taken this on board, others are as yet innocent of what this means. The fact that senior executives in some of the leading telcos recognise the need for change is important. We may not know the answers yet, but being aware of the question is an important step forward.

Conferences such as the IMS World Forum, which has traditionally been focused on issues of technology and service implementation need to shift to reflect this too. They have to include active discussion in their agendas of cultural and process issues, perhaps by incorporating best practice from experts from related fields. As our old friend Brent Newsome from NewNet pointed out, agility is the cornerstone of development approaches that are common in the Internet industry. If we aspire to process change, then we should learn from those that have already adopted and developed best practice for the rapid deployment of new product innovations and who have built the culture and organisation to support it.