For telecom operators, digital transformation involves more than technology

For many sectors of the economy one of the biggest impacts of a move to digitize is a change to the skills required by businesses, and the consequent change in the number and type of people employed. Yet in the telecoms sector, while the same transformational changes are happening, the focus is much more often on the infrastructure and systems architectures needed to deliver relevant services to customers. The telecoms news media and industry analysis focuses much more on equipment needed to virtualize network functions and build cloud-based networks, and much less on who is going to be doing that virtualization and cloudification work, and what skills they will need. It seems that it’s just assumed that telecom network operators have the clever engineers they need to drive the digitization process. But actually, that is far from the case.

Silos and cultures

Most telecom operators have for the last couple of decades been struggling with the fact that there is a real divide between the engineers that design, build, operate and maintain the network infrastructure (generally managed by a Chief Technology Officer or Head of Network Operations) and the IT department that designs, builds, operates and maintains the IT systems that interact with this network (the IT department, run by a Chief Information Officer CIO).

The move to digitization shows up the limitations of this separation: network functions are increasingly software running on commodity server hardware and artificial intelligence is making some of the network operational decisions previously made by experienced engineers; new communications services are enablers of apps rather than big revenue-generators in their own right; service level agreements are more complex as different performance indicators need to be taken into account and the relationship between physical and virtual resources needs to be understood.

Both at a product level and at an internal organisational level, telecom operators are having to evaluate what skills they need to have – and they are starting somewhat later than companies in banking, IT or manufacturing.

Expert advice

Strategy consultants can be called in to help a telco determine what it wants to be, and to advise on organisational structure, but such consultancies may stop short of defining specific roles and competencies for those at the sharp end, running the networks and IT systems. And traditionally, big telecom network equipment and IT systems vendors like Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei and Amdocs have of course delivered specific training on how to use their products – as well as being happy to provide outsourced and managed services. Ericsson and Huawei are two that have identified a broader training opportunity too; Amdocs' subsidiary Kenzan provides consulting and training services to support digital transformation including assessment of required roles and practices; and Nokia too told us it offers its customers Job Task Analysis and HR consultancy services – often around the running of the Network Operations Centre (NOC). These vendors are also developing ways to help operators' staff become more efficient and empowered.

Part of all this is a requirement to define the new roles and competencies an operator will need, and plan how to deliver them. Some broadly based consultancies have a handle on this (Boston Consulting Group and Willis Towers Watson are examples) but the scale of the challenge is illustrated by AT&T’s decision, reported by CNBC, that it needed to retrain half its 250,000 workforce. The culture within the traditionally self-contained telecoms industry means that domain experience will be important to any company offering to help telcos with their workforce transformation.

Describing what’s needed

The first challenge will be to settle on descriptions – using terminology understood by everyone – of what the tasks and roles are. This is harder than it sounds as network and IT departments increasingly become a single entity. One organisation that has taken on the challenge is the SFIA Foundation ( which has published its Skills Framework for the Information Age, developed by industry itself through open consultation, and which is now in its seventh edition. The Foundation is a not-for-profit body that claims its framework – a matrix of seven levels of responsibility and 102 professional skills – is the world’s most widely adopted.

Figure 1: How the SFIA framework works [Source: SFIA Foundation, used with permission]

Making it real

Using a common language to define what an organisation needs is a great start, of course, but how this is used is the second challenge. One company that is using SFIA’s framework as part of a consultancy service for telecom operators is the global infrastructure giant Huawei. In an interview with Innovation Observatory recently, Huawei outlined its approach. It offers HR services branded Learning Services and iTalent@Digital (launched in July 2018) that aim to complement operators’ other digital transformation efforts at technical and operational levels.

Huawei’s Shawn Wang, General Manager of Huawei’s technical training organisation, told us "it is not easy to find a competency schema that is acceptable to all the departments within an operator, and that SFIA's is the best we have found". Shawn Wang's view is that common competency frameworks will become increasingly important as operators move from closed to open environments where people don’t ‘talk telecom’. As operators develop services in conjunction with vertical industries, there is a broader ecosystem and any framework needs to work for them too.

Huawei’s engagement with operators is often with CTOs who find themselves having to interpret and realize new organisation structures developed at a high level. Such an engagement will typically be an evaluation of what’s needed, using the SFIA tools, and advice. The operator will make decisions about the size and shape of the workforce, and the need for skills training or equipment, that Huawei can then deliver. While what is delivered varies a great deal from engagement to engagement, as an example, the company suggests that those with technical skills may find themselves managing outsourcing contracts rather than operating the network.

The people aspects of transformation can be the most difficult

Sensitivity and an appreciation of cultural and legal differences from region to region, country to country and company to company are all required in this type of consultancy service. And while the people aspects of transformation are often the most difficult, and clear communication between senior management and employees is critical, it’s sometimes not easy to achieve. Mergers between companies or between departments can sometimes be an opportunity to drive through a change.

It will be interesting to see how this somewhat neglected aspect of telecoms digital transformation plays out over the next few years.

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