OSS are tools have a big part to play in modern ICT organisations. They can make the difference between effective or ineffective operations of electronic assets. The Executive Series of blogs provide information that is targeted for senior executives on how to utilise OSS to deliver better business outcomes.
Inability to serve the market (eg offerings, capacity, etc)
Inability to operate network assets profitably
In that article, we looked closely at a human factor and how current trends of open-source, Agile and microservices might actually exacerbate it. In yesterday’s article we looked at market-serving factors for us to investigate and monitor.
But let’s look at point 3 today. The profitability factors we could consider that reduce the chances of the big boss getting fired are:
Ability to see revenues in near-real-time (revenues are relatively easy to collect, so we use these numbers a lot. Much harder are profitability measures because of the shared allocation of fixed costs)
Ability to see cost breakdown (particularly which parts of the technical solution are most costly, such as what device types / topologies are failing most often)
Ability to measure profitability by product type, customer, etc
Are there more profitable or cost-effective solutions available
Is there greater profitability that could be unlocked by simplification
Inability to serve the market (eg offerings, capacity, etc)
Inability to operate network assets profitably
In that article, we looked closely at a human factor and how current trends of open-source, Agile and microservices might actually exacerbate it. In yesterday’s article we looked at the broader set of catastrophic failure factors for us to investigate and monitor.
But let’s look at some of the broader examples under point 2 today. The market-serving factors we could consider that reduce the chances of the big boss getting fired are:
Immediate visibility of key metrics by boss and execs (what are the metrics that matter, eg customer numbers, ARPU, churn, regulatory, media hot-buttons, network health, etc)
Response to “voice of customer” (including customer feedback, public perception, etc)
Human resources (incl up-skill for new tech, etc)
Ability to implement quickly / efficiently
Ability to handle change (to network topology, devices/vendors, business products, systems, etc)
Measuring end-to-end user experience, not just “nodal” monitoring
Scalability / Capacity (ability to serve customer demand now and into a foreseeable future)
Not sure whether you have a clear answer to that question – either the thought is enticing (you want the CEO to get fired), unthinkable (you don’t want the CEO fired) or somewhere in between. You’d invariably get different answers from different employees within most organisations (you can’t please all of the people all of the time).
Today’s post also has no singular situation, so it poses a number of hypothetical questions. But let’s follow the thread of the question from a purely technical perspective (ie discounting inappropriate personal decisions, incompetence and the like).
If we look at the technical factors that could get the big boss fired, they’re probably only limited to:
Inability to serve the market (eg offerings, capacity, etc)
Inability to operate network assets profitably
Let’s start with catastrophic failures, ones where entire networks and/or product lines go down for long periods (as opposed to branches of networks becoming faulty or intermittently failing). We’ve had quite a few catastrophic failures in my region in the last few years.
Interestingly, we’re designing networks and systems that should be more reliable day-by-day. In all likelihood they probably are. But with increased system complexity and programmed automation, I wonder whether we’re actually increasing the likelihood of catastrophic failures. That is, examples of cascading failures that are too complex for operators to contain.
Anecdotal evidence surrounding the failures mentioned above in my area suggest that a skills-gap after many retirements / redundancies has been partly to blame. The replacements haven’t been as well equipped as their predecessors to prevent the runaway train of catastrophic failure.
Do you think a similar risk awaits us with the current trend towards build-it-yourself OSS? We have all these custom-built, one-of-a-kind, complex systems being built currently. What happens in a few years time when their designers / implementers leave? Yes, their replacements might be able to interrogate code repositories, but will they know what changes to rapidly make when patterns of degradation start to appear? Will they have any chance of inherently understanding the logic behind these systems like those who created them? Will they be able to stop the runaway train/s?
There are many pros and cons of the build vs buy argument, but at least there’s a level of repeatability and modularity with off the shelf solutions.
I wonder if the CEOs of today/tomorrow are planning for sophisticated up-skilling of replacements in future when they decide to build in-house today? Or will they just hand the replacements the keys and wish them luck? The latter approach keeps costs down, but it just might get the CEO fired!
We’ll take a closer look at the other two factors (“serve the market” and “profitability”) in the next few days.
We’ve spoken at length about TM Forum’s, “Time to kill the RFP? Reinventing IT procurement for the 2020s,” report so far this week. We’ve also spoken about the feeling that the OSS/BSS RFP (Request For Proposal) still has relevance in some situations… as long as it’s more of a lighter-touch than most. We’ve spoken about a more pragmatic approach that aims to find best available fit (for key objectives through stages of filtering) rather than perfect fit (for all requirements through detailed analyses). And I should note that “best available fit” includes measurement against these three contrarian procurement KPIs ahead of the traditional ones.
Yesterday’s post discussed how we get to a short list with minimal involvement of buyers and sellers, with the promise that we’d discuss the detailed analysis stage today.
It’s where we do use an RFP, but with thought given to the many pain-points cited so brilliantly by Mark Newman and team in the abovementioned TM Forum report.
The RFP provides the mechanism to firm up pricing and architecture, but is also closely tied to a PoC (Proof of Concept) demonstration. The RFP helps to prioritise the order in which PoCs are performed. PoCs tend to be very time consuming for buyer and seller. So if there’s a clear leader from the paper studies so far, then they will demonstrate first.
If there’s not a clear difference, or if the prime candidate’s demonstration identified significant gaps, then additional PoCs are run.
Next steps are to form the more detailed designs, commercials / contracts and ratify that the business case still holds up.
In yesterday’s post, I also promised to share our “starting-point” procurement methodology. I say starting point because each buyer situation is different and we tend to customise it to each buyer’s needs. It’s useful for starting discussions.
The overall methodology diagram is shown below:
A few key notes here:
The process looks much heavier than it really is… if you use traditional procurement processes as an indicator
We have existing templates for all the activities marked in yellow
The activity marked in blue partially represents the project we’re getting really excited to introduce to you tomorrow
You may’ve noticed that things have been a little quiet on this blog in recent weeks. We’ve been working on a big new project that we’ll be launching here on PAOSS on Monday. We can’t reveal what this project is just yet, but we can let you in on a little hint. It aims to help overcome one of the biggest problem areas faced by those in the comms network space.
Further clues will be revealed in this week’s series of posts.
The industry we work in is worth tens of billions of dollars annually. We rely on that investment to fund the OSS/BSS projects (and ops/maintenance tasks) that keeps many thousands of us busy. Obviously those funds get distributed by project sponsors in the buyers’ organisations. For many of the big projects, sponsors are obliged to involve the organisation’s procurement team.
That’s a fairly obvious path. But I often wonder whether the next step on that path is full of contradictions and flaws.
Do you agree with me that the 3 KPIs sponsors expect from their procurement teams are:
Negotiate the lowest price
Eliminate as many risks as possible
Create a contract to manage the project by
If procurement achieves these 3 things, sponsors will generally be delighted. High-fives for the buyers that screw the vendor prices right down. Seems pretty obvious right? So where’s the contradiction? Well, let’s look at these same 3 KPIs from a different perspective – a more seller-centric perspective:
I want to win the project, so I’ll set a really low price, perhaps even loss-leader. However, our company can’t survive if our projects lose money, so I’ll be actively generating variations throughout the project
Every project of this complexity has inherent risks, so if my buyer is “eliminating” risks, they’re actually just pushing risks onto me. So I’ll use any mechanisms I can to push risks back on my buyer to even the balance again
We all know that complex projects throw up unexpected situations that contracts can’t predict (except with catch-all statements that aim to push all risk onto sellers). We also both know that if we manage the project by contractual clauses and interpretations, then we’re already doomed to fail (or are already failing by the time we start to manage by contract clauses)
My 3 contrarian KPIs to request from procurement are:
Build relationships / trust – build a framework and environment that facilitates a mutually beneficial, long-lasting buyer/seller relationship (ie procurement gets judged on partnership length ahead of cost reduction)
Develop a team – build a framework and environment that allows the buyer-seller collective to overcome risks and issues (ie mutual risk mitigation rather than independent risk deflection)
Establish clear and shared objectives – ensure both parties are completely clear on how the project will make the buyer’s organisation successful. Then both constantly evolve to deliver benefits that outweigh costs (ie focus on the objectives rather than clauses – don’t sweat the small stuff (or purely technical stuff))
Yes, I know they’re idealistic and probably unrealistic. Just saying that the current KPI model tends to introduce flaws from the outset.
Over the years in OSS, I’ve spent a lot of my time helping companies create their OSS / BSS strategies and roadmaps. Sometimes clients come from the buy side (eg carriers, utilities, enterprise), other times clients come from the sell side (eg vendors, integrators). There’s one factor that seems to be most commonly raised by these clients, and it comes from both sides.
What is that one factor? Well, we’ll come back to what that factor is a little later, but let’s cover some background first.
OSS / BSS covers a fairly broad estate of functionality:
If you’re from the buy-side, you need to manage both to build a full-function OSS/BSS suite. If you’re from the sell-side, you’re either forced into dealing with both (reactive) or sometimes you can choose to develop those to bring a more complete offering to market (proactive).
You will have noticed that both are double-ended. Integrations bring two applications / functions together. Relationships bring two organisations together.
This two-ended concept means there’s always a “far-side” that’s outside your control. It’s in our nature to worry about what’s outside our control. We tend to want to put controls around what we can’t control. Not only that, but it’s incumbent on us as organisation planners to put mitigation strategies in place.
Which brings us back to the one factor that is raised by clients on most occasions – substitution – how do we minimise our exposure to lock-in with an OSS product / service partner/s if our partnership deteriorates?
Well, here are some thoughts:
Design your own architecture with product / partner substitution in mind (and regularly review your substitution plan because products are always evolving)
Develop multiple integrations so that you always have active equivalency. This is easier for sell-side “reactives” because their different customers will have different products to integrate to (eg an OSS vendor that is able to integrate with four different ITSM tools because they have different customers with each of those variants)
Enhance your own offerings so that you no longer require the partnership, but can do it yourself
Invest in your partnerships to ensure they don’t deteriorate. This is the OSS marriage analogy where ongoing mutual benefits encourage the relationship to continue.
For most end-customers, the OSS/BSS we create are merely back-office systems that they never see. The closest they get are the customer portals that they interact with to drive workflows through our OSS/BSS. And yet, our OSS/BSS still have a big part to play in customer experience. In times where customers can readily substitute one carrier for another, customer service has become a key differentiator for many carriers. It therefore also becomes a priority for our OSS/BSS.
Customers now have multiple engagement options (aka omni-channel) and form factors (eg in-person, phone, tablet, mobile phone, kiosk, etc). The only options we used to have were a call to a contact centre / IVR (Interactive Voice Response), a visit to a store, or a visit from an account manager for business customers. Now there are websites, applications, text messages, multiple social media channels, chatbots, portals, blogs, etc. They all represent different challenges as far as offering a seamless customer experience across all channels.
I’ve just noticed TM Forum’s “Omni-channel Guidebook” (GB994), which does a great job at describing the challenges and opportunities. For example, it explains the importance of identity. End-users can only get a truly seamless experience if they can be uniquely identified across all channels. Unfortunately, some channels (eg IVR, website) don’t force end-users to self-identify.
The Ovum report, “Optimizing Customer Service in a Multi Channel World, March 2011” indicates that around 74% of customers use 3 channels or more for engaging customer service. In most cases, it’s our OSS/BSS that provide the data that supports a seamless experience across channels. But what if we have no unique key? What if the unique key we have (eg phone number) doesn’t uniquely identify the different people who use that contact point (eg different family members who use the same fixed-line phone)?
We could use personality profiling across these channels, but we’ve already seen how that has worked out for Cambridge Analytica and Facebook in terms of customer privacy and security.
I’d love to hear how you’ve done cross-channel identity management in your OSS/BSS. Have you solved the omni-channel identity conundrum?
PS. One thing I find really interesting. The whole omni-channel thing is about giving customers (or potential customers) the ability to connect via the channel they’re most comfortable with. But there’s one glaring exception. When an end-user decides a phone conversation is the only way to resolve their issue (often after already trying the self-service options), they call the contact centre number. But many big telcos insist on trying to deflect as many calls as possible to self-service options (they call it CVR – call volume reduction), because contact centre staff are much more expensive per transaction than the automated channels. That seems to be an anti-customer-experience technique if you ask me. What are your thoughts?
Yesterday’s post talked about the difference between “flow state” and “office state” in relation to OSS delivery. It referenced a book I’m currently reading called Stealing Fire.
The post mainly focused on how the interruptions of “office state” actually inhibit our productivity, learning and ability to think laterally on our OSS. But that got me thinking that perhaps flow doesn’t just relate to OSS project delivery. It also relates to post-implementation use of the OSS we implement.
If we think about the various personas who use an OSS (such as NOC operators, designers, order entry operators, capacity planners, etc), do our user interfaces and workflows assist or inhibit them to get into the zone? More importantly, if those personas need to work collaboratively with others, do we facilitate them getting into “group flow?”
Stealing Fire suggests that it costs around $500k to train each Navy SEAL and around $4.25m to train each elite SEAL (DEVGRU). It also describes how this level of training allows DEVGRU units to quickly get into group flow and function together almost as if choreographed, even in high-pressure / high-noise environments.
Contrast this with collaborative activities within our OSS. We use tickets, emails, Slack notifications, work order activity lists, etc to collaborate. It seems to me that these are the precise instruments that prevent us from getting into flow individually. I assume it’s the same collectively. I can’t think back to any end-to-end OSS workflows that seem highly choreographed or seamlessly effective.
Think about it. If you experience significant rates of process fall-out / error, then it would seem to indicate an OSS that’s not conducive to group flow. Ditto for lengthy O2A (order to activate) or T2R (trouble to resolve) times. Ditto for bringing new products to market.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Has any OSS environment you’ve worked in facilitated group flow? If so, was it the people and/or the tools? Alternatively, have the OSS you’ve used inhibited group flow?
PS. Stealing Fire details how organisations such as Google and DARPA are investing heavily in flow research. They can obviously see the pay-off from those investments (or potential pay-offs). We seem to barely even invest in UI/UX experts to assist with the designs of our OSS products and workflows.
However, the book’s content has helped to make the link between flow and OSS more palpable than you might think.
In the early days of working on OSS delivery projects, I found myself getting into a flow state on a daily basis – achieving more than I thought capable, learning more effectively than I thought capable and completely losing track of time. In those days of project delivery, I was lucky enough to get hours at a time without interruptions, to focus on what was an almost overwhelming list of tasks to be done. Over the first 5-ish years in OSS, I averaged an 85 hour week because I was just so absorbed by it. It was the source from where my passion for OSS originated. Or was it??
The book now has me pondering a chicken or egg conundrum – did I become so passionate about OSS that I could get into a state of flow or did I only become passionate about OSS because I was able to readily get into a state of flow with it? That’s where the book provides the link between getting in the zone and the brain chemicals that leave us with a feeling of ecstasis or happiness (not to mention the addictive nature of it). The authors describe this state of consciousness as Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness, or STER for short. OSS definitely triggered STER for me,, but chicken or egg??
Having spent much of the last few years embedded in big corporate environments, I’ve found a decreased ability to get into the same flow state. Meetings, emails, messenger pop-ups, distractions from surrounding areas in open-plan offices, etc. They all interrupt. It’s left me with a diminishing opportunity to get in the zone. With that has come a growing unease and sense of sub-optimal productivity during “office hours.” It was increasingly disheartening that I could generally only get into the zone outside office hours. For example, whilst writing blogs on the train-trip or in the hours after the rest of my family was asleep.
Since making the concerted effort to leave that “office state,” I’ve been both surprised and delighted at the increased productivity. Not just that, but the ability to make better lateral connections of ideas and to learn more effectively again.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments section below. Some big questions for you:
Have you experienced a similar productivity gap between “flow state” and “office state” on your OSS projects?
Have you had the same experience as me, where modern ways of working seem to be lessening the long chunks of time required to get into flow state?
If yes, how can our sponsor organisations and our OSS products continue to progress if we’re increasingly working only in office state?
“The hotel group Marriott International has been told by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office that it will be fined a little over £99 million (A$178 million) over a data breach that occurred in December last year…
This is the second fine for data breaches announced by the ICO on successive days. On Monday, it said British Airways would be fined £183.39 million (A$329.1 million) for a data breach that occurred in September 2018.”
Sam Varghese of ITwire.
The scale of the fines issued to Marriott and BA is mind-boggling.
Determination is based on the following questions:
Nature of infringement: number of people affected, damaged they suffered, duration of infringement, and purpose of processing
Intention: whether the infringement is intentional or negligent
Mitigation: actions taken to mitigate damage to data subjects
Preventative measures: how much technical and organizational preparation the firm had previously implemented to prevent non-compliance
History: (83.2e) past relevant infringements, which may be interpreted to include infringements under the Data Protection Directive and not just the GDPR, and (83.2i) past administrative corrective actions under the GDPR, from warnings to bans on processing and fines
Cooperation: how cooperative the firm has been with the supervisory authority to remedy the infringement
Notification: whether the infringement was proactively reported to the supervisory authority by the firm itself or a third party
Certification: whether the firm had qualified under approved certifications or adhered to approved codes of conduct
Other: other aggravating or mitigating factors may include financial impact on the firm from the infringement
The two examples listed above provide 282 million reasons for governments to police data protection more stringently than they do today. The regulatory pressure is only going to increase right? As I understand it, these processes are only enforced in reactive mode currently. What if the regulators become move to proactive mode?
Question for you – Looking at #7 above, do you think the customer information stored in your OSS/BSS is more or less “impactful” than that of Marriott or British Airways?
Think about this question in terms of the number of daily interactions you have with hotels and airlines versus telcos / ISPs. I’ve stayed in Marriott hotels for over a year in accumulated days. I’ve boarded hundreds of flights. But I can’t begin to imagine how many of my data points the telcos / ISP could potentially collect every day. It’s in our OSS/BSS data stores where those data points are most likely to end up.
Do you think our OSS/BSS are going to come under increasing GDPR-like scrutiny in coming years? Put it this way, I suspect we’re going to become more familiar with risk management around the 10 dot points above than we have been in the past.
TM Forum’s Open Digital Architecture (ODA) White Paper begins with the following statement:
Telecoms is at a crucial turning point. The last decade has dealt a series of punishing blows to an industry that had previously enjoyed enviable growth for more than 20 years. Services that once returned high margins are being reduced to commodities in the digital world, and our insatiable appetite for data demands continuous investment in infrastructure. On the other hand, communications service providers (CSPs) and their partners are in an excellent position to guide and capitalize on the next wave of digital revolution.
Clearly, a reduction in profitability leads to a reduction in cash available for projects – including OSS transformation projects. And reduced profitability almost inevitably leads executives to start thinking about head-count reduction too.
As Luke Clifton of Macquarie Telecom observed here, “Telstra is reportedly planning to shed 1,200 people from its enterprise business with many of these people directly involved in managing small-to-medium sized business customers. More than 10,000 customers in this segment will no longer have access to dedicated Account Managers, instead relegated to being managed by Telstra’s “Digital Hub”… Telstra, like the big banks once did, is seemingly betting that customers won’t leave them nor will they notice the downgrade in their service. It will be interesting to see how 10,000 additional organisations will be managed through a Digital Hub.
Simply put, you cannot cut quality people without cutting the quality of service. Those two ideals are intrinsically linked…”
As a fairly broad trend across the telco sector, projects and jobs are being cut, whilst technology change is forcing transformation. And as suggested in Luke’s “Digital Hub” quote above, it all leads to increased expectations on our OSS/BSS.
Pressure is coming at our OSS from all angles, and with no signs of abating.
To quote Queen, “Pressure. Pushing down on me.Pressing down on you.”
So it seems to me there are only three broad options when planning our OSS roadmaps:
We learn to cope with increased pressure (although this doesn’t seem like a viable long-term option)
We reduce the size (eg functionality, transaction volumes, etc) of our OSS footprint [But have you noticed that all of our roadmaps seem expansionary in terms of functionality, volumes, technologies incorporated, etc??]
We look beyond the realms of traditional OSS/BSS functionality (eg just servicing operations) and into areas of opportunity
TM Forum’s ODA White Paper goes on to state, “The growth opportunities attached to new 5G ecosystems are estimated to be worth over $580 billion in the next decade. Servicing these opportunities requires transformation of the entire industry. Early digital transformation efforts focused on improving customer experience and embracing new technologies such as virtualization, with promises of wide-scale automation and greater agility. It has become clear that these ‘projects’ alone are not enough. CSPs’ business and operating models, choice of technology partners, mindset, decision-making and time to market must also change. True digital business transformation is not an easy or quick path, but it is essential to surviving and thriving in the future digital market.”
BTW. I’m not suggesting 5G is the panacea or single opportunity here. My use of the quote above is drawing more heavily on the opportunities relating to digital transformation. Not of the telcos themselves, but digital transformation of their customers. If data is the oil of the 21st century, then our OSS/BSS and telco assets have the potential to be the miners and pipelines of that oil.
If / when our OSS go from being cost centres to revenue generators (directly attributable to revenue, not the indirect attribution by most OSS today), then we might feel some of the pressure easing off us.
Let me start today with a question: Does your future OSS/BSS need to be drastically different to what it is today?
Please leave me a comment below, answering yes or no.
I’m going to take a guess that most OSS/BSS experts will answer yes to this question, that our future OSS/BSS will change significantly. It’s the reason I wrote the OSS Call for Innovation manifesto some time back. As great as our OSS/BSS are, there’s still so much need for improvement.
But big improvement needs big change. And big change is scary, as Tom Nolle points out:
“IT vendors, like most vendors, recognize that too much revolution doesn’t sell. You have to creep up on change, get buyers disconnected from the comfortable past and then get them to face not the ultimate future but a future that’s not too frightening.”
Do you feel like we’re already in the midst of a revolution? Cloud computing, web-scaling and virtualisation (of IT and networks) have been partly responsible for it. Agile and continuous integration/delivery models too.
The following diagram shows a “from the moon” level view of how I approach (almost) any new project.
The key to Tom’s quote above is in step 2. Just how far, or how ambitious, into the future are you projecting your required change? Do you even know what that future will look like? After all, the environment we’re operating within is changing so fast. That’s why Tom is suggesting that for many of us, step 2 is just a “creep up on it change.” The gap is essentially small.
The “creep up on it change” means just adding a few new relatively meaningless features at the end of the long tail of functionality. That’s because we’ve already had the most meaningful functionality in our OSS/BSS for decades (eg customer management, product / catalog management, service management, service activation, network / service health management, inventory / resource management, partner management, workforce management, etc). We’ve had the functionality, but that doesn’t mean we’ve perfected the cost or process efficiency of using it.
So let’s say we look at step 2 with a slightly different mindset. Let’s say we don’t try to add any new functionality. We lock that down to what we already have. Instead we do re-factoring and try to pull the efficiency levers, which means changes to:
Platforms (eg cloud computing, web-scaling and virtualisation as well as associated management applications)
Methodologies (eg Agile, DevOps, CI/CD, noting of course that they’re more than just methodologies, but also come with tools, etc)
Process (eg User Experience / User Interfaces [UX/UI], supply chain, business process re-invention, machine-led automations, etc)
It’s harder for most people to visualise what the Step 2 Future State looks like. And if it’s harder to envisage Step 2, how do we then move onto Steps 3 and 4 with confidence?
This is the challenge for OSS/BSS vendors, supplier, integrators and implementers. How do we, “get buyers disconnected from the comfortable past and then get them to face not the ultimate future but a future that’s not too frightening?” And I should point out, that it’s not just buyers we need to get disconnected from the comfortable past, but ourselves, myself definitely included.
There’s a famous Zig Ziglar quote that goes something like, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”
You could safely assume that this was written for the individual reader, but there is some truth in it within the OSS context too. For the OSS designer, builder, integrator, does the statement “You can have everything in your OSS you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want,” apply?
We often just think about the O in OSS – Operations people, when looking for who to help. But OSS/BSS has the ability to impact far wider than just the Ops team/s.
The halcyon days of OSS were probably in the 1990’s to early 2000’s when the term OSS/BSS was at its most sexy and exciting. The big telcos were excitedly spending hundreds of millions of dollars. Those projects were huge… and hugely complex… and hugely fun!
With that level of investment, there was the expectation that the OSS/BSS would help many people. And they did. But the lustre has come off somewhat since then. We’ve helped sooooo many people, but perhaps didn’t help enough people enough. Just speak with anybody involved with an OSS/BSS stack and you’ll hear hints of a large gap that exists between their current state and a desired future state.
Do you mind if I ask two questions?
When you reflect on your OSS activities, do you focus on the technology, the opportunities or the problems
Do you look at the local, day-to-day activities or the broader industry
I tend to find myself focusing on the problems – how to solve them within the daily context on customer challenges, but the broader industry problems when I take the time to reflect, such as writing these blogs.
The part I find interesting is that we still face most of the same problems today that we did back in the 1990’s-2000’s. The same source of risks. We’ve done a fantastic job of helping many people get what they want on their day-to-day activities (the incremental). We still haven’t cracked the big challenges though. That’s why I wrote the OSS Call for Innovation, to articulate what lays ahead of us.
It’s why I’m really excited about two of the concepts we’ve discussed this week:
I’d like to introduce the concept of CT/IR – Continual Test / Incremental Resilience. Analogous to CI/CD (Continuous Integration / Continuous Delivery) before it, CT/IR is a method to systematically and programmatically test the resilience of the network, then ensuring resilience is continually improving.
This is done by storing a knowledge base of failure cases, pre-emptively triggering them and then recording the results as seed data (for manual or AI / ML observations). Using traditional techniques, we look at event logs and try to reverse-engineer what the root-cause MIGHT be. In the case of CT/IR, the root-cause is certain. We KNOW the root-cause because we systematically and intentionally triggered it.
The continual, incremental improvement in resiliency potentially comes via multiple feedback loops:
Ideally, the existing resilience mechanisms work around or overcome any degradation or failure in the network
The continual triggering of faults into the network will provide additional seed data for AI/ML tools to learn from and improve upon, especially root-cause analysis
We can program the network to overcome the problem (eg turn up extra capacity, re-engineer traffic flows, change configurations, etc). Having the NaaS that we spoke about yesterday, provides greater programmability for the network by the way.
We can implement systematic programs / projects to fix endemic faults or weak spots in the network *
Perform regression tests to constantly stress-test the network as it evolves through network augmentation, new device types, etc
Now, you may argue that no carrier in their right mind will allow intentional faults to be triggered. So that’s where we unleash the chaos monkeys on our digital twin technology and/or PSUP (Production Support) environments at first. Then on our prod network if we develop enough trust in it.
I live in Australia, which suffers from severe bushfires every summer. Our fire-fighters spend a lot of time back-burning during the cooler months to reduce flammable material and therefore the severity of summer fires. Occasionally the back-burns get out of control, causing problems. But they’re still done for the greater good. The same principle could apply to unleashing chaos monkeys on a production network… once you’re confident in your ability to control the problems that might follow.
* When I say network, I’m also referring to the physical and logical network, but also support functions such as EMS (Element Management Systems), NCM (Network Configuration Management tools), backup/restore mechanisms, service order replay processes in the event of an outage, OSS/BSS, NaaS, etc.
As the title suggests above, NaaS has the potential to be as big a paradigm shift for networks (and OSS/BSS) as Agile has been for software development.
There are many facets to the Agile story, but for me one of the most important aspects is that it has taken end-to-end (E2E), monolithic thinking and has modularised it. Agile has broken software down into pieces that can be worked on by smaller, more autonomous teams than the methods used prior to it.
The same monolithic, E2E approach pervades the network space currently. If a network operator wants to add a new network type or a new product type/bundle, large project teams must be stood up. And these project teams must tackle E2E complexity, especially across an IT stack that is already a spaghetti of interactions.
But before I dive into the merits of NaaS, let me take you back a few steps, back into the past. Actually, for many operators, it’s not the past, but the current-day model.
As per the orange arrow, customers of all types (Retail, Enterprise and Wholesale) interact with their network operator through BSS (and possibly OSS) tools. [As an aside, see this recent post for a “religious war” discussion on where BSS ends and OSS begins]. The customer engagement occurs (sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly) via BSS tools such as:
Order Entry, Order Management
Product Catalog (Product / Offer Management)
SLA (Service Level Agreement) Management
If the customer wants a new instance of an existing service, then all’s good with the current paradigm. Where things become more challenging is when significant changes occur (as reflected by the yellow arrows in the diagram above).
For example, if any of the following are introduced, there are end-to-end impacts. They necessitate E2E changes to the IT spaghetti and require formation of a project team that includes multiple business units (eg products, marketing, IT, networks, change management to support all the workers impacted by system/process change, etc)
A new product or product bundle is to be taken to market
An end-customer needs a custom offering (especially in the case of managed service offerings for large corporate / government customers)
A new network type is added into the network
System and / or process transformations occur in the IT stack
If we just narrow in on point 3 above, fundamental changes are happening in network technology stacks already. Network virtualisation (SDN/NFV) and 5G are currently generating large investments of time and money. They’re fundamental changes because they also change the shape of our traditional OSS/BSS/IT stacks, as follows.
We now not only have Physical Network Functions (PNF) to manage, but Virtual Network Functions (VNF) as well. In fact it now becomes even more difficult because our IT stacks need to handle PNF and VNF concurrently. Each has their own nuances in terms of over-arching management.
The virtualisation of networks and application infrastructure means that our OSS see greater southbound abstraction. Greater southbound abstraction means we potentially lose E2E visibility of physical infrastructure. Yet we still need to manage E2E change to IT stacks for new products, network types, etc.
The diagram below shows how NaaS changes the paradigm. It de-couples the network service offerings from the network itself. Customer Facing Services (CFS) [as presented by BSS/OSS/NaaS] are de-coupled from Resource Facing Services (RFS) [as presented by the network / domains].
NaaS becomes a “meet-in-the-middle” tool. It effectively de-couples
The products / marketing teams (who generate customer offerings / bundles) from
The networks / operations teams (who design, build and maintain the network).and
The IT teams (who design, build and maintain the IT stack)
It allows product teams to be highly creative with their CFS offerings from the available RFS building blocks. Consider it like Lego. The network / ops teams create the building blocks and the products / marketing teams have huge scope for innovation. The products / marketing teams rarely need to ask for custom building blocks to be made.
You’ll notice that the entire stack shown in the diagram below is far more modular than the diagram above. Being modular makes the network stack more suited to being worked on by smaller autonomous teams. The yellow arrows indicate that modularity, both in terms of the IT stack and in terms of the teams that need to be stood up to make changes. Hence my claim that NaaS is to networks what Agile has been to software.
You will have also noted that NaaS allows the Network / Resource part of this stack to be broken into entirely separate network domains. Separation in terms of IT stacks, management and autonomy. It also allows new domains to be stood up independently, which accommodates the newer virtualised network domains (and their VNFs) as well as platforms such as ONAP.
The NaaS layer comprises:
A TMF standards-based API Gateway
A Master Services Catalog
A common / consistent framework of presentation of all domains
The ramifications of this excites me even more that what’s shown in the diagram above. By offering access to the network via APIs and as a catalog of services, it allows a large developer pool to provide innovative offerings to end customers (as shown in the green box below). It opens up the long tail of innovation that we discussed last week.
Some telcos will open up their NaaS to internal or partner developers. Others are drooling at the prospect of offering network APIs for consumption by the market.
You’ve probably already identified this, but the awesome thing for the developer community is that they can combine services/APIs not just from the telcos but any other third-party providers (eg Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, etc, etc, etc). I could’ve shown these as East-West services in the diagram but decided to keep it simpler.
Developers are not constrained to offering communications services. They can now create / offer higher-order services that also happen to have communications requirements.
If you weren’t already on board with the concept, hopefully this article has convinced you that NaaS will be to networks what Agile has been to software.
Agree or disagree? Leave me a comment below.
PS1. I’ve used the old TMN pyramid as the basis of the diagram to tie the discussion to legacy solutions, not to imply size or emphasis of any of the layers.
PS3. Similarly, the size of the NaaS layer is to bring attention to it rather than to imply it is a monolithic stack in it’s own right. In reality, it is actually a much thinner shim layer architecturally
PS4. The analogy between NaaS and Agile is to show similarities, not to imply that NaaS replaces Agile. They can definitely be used together
PS5. I’ve used the term IT quite generically (operationally and technically) just to keep the diagram and discussion as simple as possible. In reality, there are many sub-functions like data centre operations, application monitoring, application control, applications development, product owner, etc. These are split differently at each operator.
Back in the earliest days of OSS (and networks for that matter), it was the telcos that generated almost all of the innovation. That effectively limited innovation to being developed by the privileged few, those who worked for the government-owned, monopoly telcos.
But over time, the financial leaders at those telcos felt the costs of their amazing research and development labs outweighed the benefits and shut them down (or starved them at best). OSS (and network) vendors stepped into the void to assume responsibility for most of the innovation. But there was a dilemma for the vendors (and for telcos and consumers too) – they needed to innovate fast enough to win work against their competitors, but slow enough to accrue revenues from the investment in their earlier innovations. And innovation was still being constrained to the privileged few, those who worked for vendors and integrators.
Now, the telcos are increasingly pushing to innovate wider and faster than the current vendor collective can accommodate. It means we have to reach further out to the long-tail of innovators. To open the floor beyond the privileged few. Excitingly, this opportunity appears to be looming.
“How?” you may ask.
Network as a Service (NaaS) and API platform offerings.
If every telco offers consumption of their infrastructure via API, it provides the opportunity for any developer to bundle their own unique offering of products, services, applications, hosting, etc and take it to market. If you’re heading to TM Forum’s Digital Transformation World (DTW) in Nice next week, there are a number of Catalyst projects on display in this space, including:
The challenge for the telcos is in how to support the growth of this model. To foster the vendor market, it was easy enough for the telcos to identify the big suppliers and funnel projects (and funding) through them. But now they have to figure out a funnel that’s segmented at a much smaller scale – to facilitate take-up by the millions of developers globally who might consume their products (network APIs in this case) rather than the hundreds/thousands of large suppliers.
This brings us back to smart contracts and micro-procurement as well as the technologies such as blockchain that support these models. This ties in with another TM Forum initiative to revolutionise the procurement event:
But an additional benefit for the telcos, if and when the NaaS platform model takes hold, is that the developers also become a unpaid salesforce for the telcos. The developers will be responsible for marketing and selling their own bundles, which will drive consumption and revenues on the telcos’ assets.
Exciting new business models and supply chains are bound to evolve out of this long tail of innovation.
Network operators spend huge amounts on building and maintaining their OSS/BSS every year. There are many reasons they invest so heavily, but in most cases it can be distilled back to one thing – improving operational efficiency.
And our OSS/BSS definitely do improve operational efficiency, but there are still so many sources of friction. They’re squeaking like un-oiled bearings. Here are just a few of the common sources:
Identifying best-fit tools
Procurement of new tools
Update / release processes
Continuous data quality / consistency improvement
Navigating to all features through the user interface
Non-intuitive functionality / processes
So many variants / complexity that end-users take years to attain expert-level capability
Integration / interconnect
Getting new starters up to speed
Getting proficient operators to expertise
Unlocking actionable insights from huge data piles
Resolving the root-cause of complex faults
Onboarding new customers
Productionising new functionality
Exception and fallout handling
Access to supplier expertise to resolve challenges
The list goes on far deeper than that list too. The challenge for many OSS product teams, for any number of reasons, is that their focus is on adding new features rather than reducing friction in what already exists.
The challenge for product teams is diagnosing where the friction and risks are for their customers / stakeholders. How do you get that feedback?
Every vendor has a product support team, so that’s a useful place to start, both in terms of what’s generating the most support calls and in terms of first-hand feedback from customers
Do you hold user forums on a regular basis, where you get many of your customers together to discuss their challenges, your future roadmap, new improvements / features
Does your process “flow” data show where the sticking points are for operators
Do you conduct gemba walks with your customers
Do you have a program of ensuring all developers spend at least a few days a year interacting directly with customers on their site/s
Do you observe areas of difficulty when delivering training
Do you go out of your way to ask your customers / stakeholders questions that are framed around their pain-points, not just framed within the context of your existing OSS
Do you conduct customer surveys? More importantly, do you conduct surveys through an independent third-party?
On the last dot-point, I’ve been surprised at some of the profound insights end-users have shared with me when I’ve been conducting these reviews as the independent interviewer. I’ve tended to find answers are more open / honest when being delivered to an independent third-party than if the supplier asks directly. If you’d like assistance running a third-party review, leave us a note on the contact page. We’d be delighted to assist.
Well, would you hire a furniture maker as CEO of an OSS vendor?
At face value, it would seem to be an odd selection right? There doesn’t seem to be much commonality between furniture and OSS does there? It seems as likely as hiring a furniture maker to be CEO of a car maker?
Oh wait. That did happen.
Ford Motor Company made just such a decision last year when appointing Jim Hackett, a furniture industry veteran, as its CEO. Whether the appointment proves successful or not, it’s interesting that Ford made the decision. But why? To focus on user experience and design as it’s next big differentiator. Clever line of thinking Bill Ford!!
I’ve prepared a slightly light-hearted table for comparison purposes between cars and OSS. Both are worth comparing as they’re both complex feats of human engineering:
Transport passengers between destinations
Operationalise and monetise a comms network
Claimed “Business” justification
Reducing the cost of operations
Operation of common functionality without conscious thought (developed through years of operator practice)
Hmmm??? Depends on which sales person or operator you speak with
Error detection and current-state monitoring
Warning lights and instrument cluster/s
Alarm lists, performance graphs
Key differentiator for customers (1970’s)
Database / CPU size
Key differentiator for customers (2000’s)
Gadgets / functions / cup-holders
Key differentiator for customers (2020+)
Connected car (car as an “experience platform”)
Connected OSS (ie OSS as an experience platform)???
I’d like to focus on three key areas next:
Item 4 and
The transition between items 6 and 7
Item 3 – operating on auto-pilot
If we reference against item 1, the primary objective, experienced operators of cars can navigate from point A to point B with little conscious thought. Key activities such as steering, changing gears and Indicating can be done almost as a background task by our brains whilst doing other mental processing (talking, thinking, listening to podcasts, etc).
Experienced operators of OSS can do primary objectives quickly, but probably not on auto-pilot. There are too many “levers” to pull, too many decisions to make, too many options to choose from, for operators to background-process key OSS activities. The question is, could we re-architect to achieve key objectives more as background processing tasks?
Item 4 – error detection and monitoring
In a car, error detection is also a background task, where operators are rarely notified, only for critical alerts (eg engine light, fuel tank empty, etc). In an OSS, error detection is not a background task. We need full-time staff monitoring all the alarms and alerts popping up on our consoles! Sometimes they scroll off the page too fast for us to even contemplate.
In a car, monitoring is kept to the bare essentials (speedo, tacho, fuel guage, etc). In an OSS, we tend to be great at information overload – we have a billion graphs and are never sure which ones, or which thresholds, actually allow us to operate our “vehicle” effectively. So we show them all.
Transitioning from current to future-state differentiators
In cars, we’ve finally reached peak-cup-holders. Manufacturers know they can no longer differentiate from competitors just by having more cup-holders (at least, I think this claim is true). They’ve also realised that even entry-level cars have an astounding list of features that are only supplementary to the primary objective (see item 1). They now know it’s not the amount of functionality, but how seamlessly and intuitively the users interact with the vehicle on end-to-end tasks. The car is now seen as an extension of the user’s phone rather than vice versa, unlike the recent past.
In OSS, I’ve yet to see a single cup holder (apart from the old gag about CD trays). Vendors mark that down – cup holders could be a good differentiator. But seriously, I’m not sure if we realise the OSS arms race of features is no longer the differentiator. Intuitive end-to-end user experience can be a huge differentiator amongst the sea of complex designs, user interfaces and processes available currently. But nobody seems to be talking about this. Go to any OSS event and we only hear from engineers talking about features. Where are the UX experts talking about innovative new ways for users to interact with machines to achieve primary objectives (see item 1)?
But a functionality arms race isn’t a completely dead differentiator. In cars, there is a horizon of next-level features that can be true differentiators like self-driving or hover-cars. Likewise in OSS, incremental functionality increases aren’t differentiators. However, any vendor that can not just discuss, but can produce next-level capabilities like zero touch assurance (ZTA) and automated O2A (Order to Activate) will definitely hold a competitive advantage.
Unfortunately for OSS vendors / integrators, their business models have a dependency (and major risk) on accounts receivable.
Investopedia states, “Accounts receivable are amounts of money owed by customers to another entity for goods or services delivered or used on credit but not yet paid for by clients.”
One of the earliest OSS projects I worked on was worth in excess of $30m for the vendor. It was a multi-year implementation. Two years in, they’d only received the initial mobilisation payment. With implementation costs blowing out, it was proving to be a major challenge for the company to continue operating.
The team had delivered a majority of the functionality written into the contract, as well as many other features negotiated in-flight. It was successfully being used in production, helping to deliver revenues to the customer. Unfortunately for the vendor, there was some key functionality that was still a way off being delivered. That meant contractual objectives hadn’t all lined up for payments to occur.
The balance of financial power was definitely in the hands of the customer.
Whether it’s in a large, complex implementation or ongoing license fees, accounts receivable can be the bane of OSS vendors.
That’s why I try to establish a no accounts receivable model for OSS vendors. That means up-front payment, but as shown below, means up-front value also needs to be delivered. It’s one of the attractive aspects of cloud-delivery business models.
The project I mentioned above had a product suite that worked out of the box, but only delivered value after features, data, integrations and automations were custom built… over a period of years.
So a couple of questions for the OSS vendors out there:
How to deliver value, not just functionality, early in a project and then ongoing through the product lifecycle?
How to give the customer enough confidence that they’ll receive up-front (and recurring) value that they’re prepared to pay up-front (and recurring)?
Leave me a comment below if accounts receivable is a bane of your organisation’s existence or whether you’ve found a way to have less reliance on AR.