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Kicking off its annual conference in Nice, France, the TM Forum had some concerning news to report. The group released results of a survey conducted in first quarter 2018 indicating that a “lack of focus and common vision is hindering CSPs’ [communications service providers’] transformation journeys.” Juxtaposed against the forum’s decision to rename the event formerly known as TM Forum Live! to Digital Transformation World, the release of this year’s survey was probably ill-timed. But it did point to a number of key obstacles – technical, operational, and cultural – that continue to challenge network operators.
What exactly digital transformation is can vary based on your perspective. For customer service folks, it means more personalized interactions, more flexible billing systems to accommodate new revenue models, and the adoption of smartbots to offload customer call center volume and streamline CSR workflows. For the network team, digital transformation means virtualization and service orchestration. 5G–Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain have their own role in digital transformation. The lack of a single digital transformation definition poses a real challenge for the TM Forum as it attempts to create a new brand for a longstanding conference.
A look into the areas being focused on by TM Forum Catalysts probably did a better job than the new, amorphous conference name at identifying all of the levels of complexity being addressed by conference attendees. These Catalysts are essentially proof-of-concept projects developed collaboratively by TM Forum vendors and operators to solve common challenges with software solutions. This year’s event featured a total of 25 Catalysts, and within those projects a few themes begin to emerge:
- AI/Machine Learning/Analytics: 12 of the Catalysts relied on artificial intelligence (AI) and/or analytics to fuel a variety of activities, ranging from network planning and optimization, automating customer service, and even anonymizing sensitive customer data to make it shareable with third parties in compliance with the European Union’s GDPR privacy regulations.
- Open APIs: 10 of the projects relied on open APIs, an area where TM Forum has devoted significant development focus. The forum has developed a suite of over 50 open APIs that has been downloaded more than 22,000 times and endorsed by nearly 30 operators globally. Digital Transformation World was the first opportunity for TM Forum to showcase output from the virtual Open API Lab that it opened last December in conjunction with IBM Cloud and Neural Technologies.
- Ecosystem Support: 10 projects were designed to enable the formation of partnerships, primarily to build new revenue models for operators in areas like music distribution, smart city, mobile gaming, blockchain, and IoT. One Catalyst focused on making operators more “phygital” – a term that describes the blending of in-store and digital interactions by network operators. (The concept is good but I say “let’s get digical” works better – cue the Olivia Newton-John video.)
One area that remains underserved by the TM Forum’s Catalysts is in addressing the cultural challenges of digital transformation, and that’s a shame. Last year, the TM Forum launched its Digital Maturity Model (DMM), a tool that allows CSPs to assess their digital maturity and plan their digital transformation across their entire organization. However, it does not appear that the DMM has integrated in with the Catalyst concept as extensively as it needs to.
Only one of this year’s Catalysts focused on addressing the cultural challenges and the how to of creating a digital organization. The project — driven by British operations technology consultants Concentra and German management and technology consultants Detecon Consulting — made use of the GC Index, an increasingly popular framework that helps companies develop and recruit staff and drive internal workforce transformation from a CSP to a Digital Service Provider (DSP).
That’s a huge gap that isn’t being sufficiently addressed. In our conversations with both vendors and operators we often hear similar themes. CxO’s acknowledge that transformation has to happen across all facets of the operators’ businesses, but often lack a clear roadmap on how to re-staff, re-skill, and embark on all of the organizational transformation required to move to cloud native network operations, adopt DevOps across IT and network functions, and move closer to, if not yet fully embrace, the zero-touch concept. Similarly, operators recognize they need to automate much more of the customer-facing operations in order to reduce opex and enable customer service representatives (CSRs) to focus on higher-value interactions.
To its credit, the DMM identifies “Culture, People, and Organization” as one of its five main dimensions for transformation. But the TM Forum’s own survey results show that the percentage of CSP respondents indicating that they were “very optimistic” about conducting successful transformation programs fell from 22 percent in October 2017 to 11 percent in Q1 2018.
Clearly, the TM Forum and its participants continue to make great progress on the other four pillars (Customer, Strategy, Technology, and Operations). But unless they spend more time on the cultural challenges, most operators will continue to struggle to make meaningful strides toward the holy grail of becoming bona fide Digital Service Providers.
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