Monday, June 20, 2011

It's now all about the experience

Or how customers experiences and expectations of mobile communications have changed over the years and are now driving innovation and evolution in the telecommunications industry.

During the induction to my first job in the Telecommunications industry (well over 20 years ago), one presenter claimed that within a matter of a few years everyone that wanted one would carry a mobile phone. This doesn’t seem very radical now, but back then it seemed a pretty ambitious target and we weren’t all convinced. Remarkably he was correct, by the mid-1990’s mobile phones were pretty much common-place, albeit not the throw away commodity they are now.

Technological advancements in the industry over the last 20 years have been enormous, but what I find almost as interesting is the change in customer expectations.

When mobile phones first became generally available in the UK it was common to not have sufficient signal to make or receive a call. Dropped calls were the norm rather than an exception and connections to other mobile networks expensive and often unreliable. Though often frustrated customers rarely complained, most accepted the situation as the cost of using such new and novel technology. These days phone users expect immediate, reliable connections and in most cases not just to any other phone but also to the internet where they can access email or surf the internet. A quick browse on some of the network forums provides a useful insight in to the expectations and demands of current customers.

This increased expectation of service delivery has been coupled with a decrease in the price customers are willing to pay. After investing billions in the rollout of network infrastructure, mobile phone companies are now watching traffic increase rapidly over their networks but revenues remain static. Customers simply demand and expect more for less. This scenario is mirrored across all countries with established mobile communication industries.

The role of mobile phone companies has also changed. Most have grown from simple network operators, building and managing mobile networks, to providing completely integrated communication services earning their new communication service providers (CSPs) moniker. This change has also blurred the lines between types of service provider, with technologies and consolidation driving a shift to convergent operators providing mobile phones alongside internet, fixed line and even cable services. Providers need to be able to offer customers a seamless service across a wide range of products, competing with increasing demand for services at an ever reducing cost.

My own career has followed this evolution in the industry quite closely. The first role I had was as a manufacturing engineer building switches for a telecoms equipment vendor. I was quickly seduced by computers with the power and flexibility of software applications to provide solutions and enhancements to the basic hardware. 

As mobile networks started to gain traction and coverage expanded to more users, my career shifted towards software products designed to manage these networks - operations support systems (OSS). Initially these were focused on network performance and fault management but with a subsequent migration into overall service assurance solutions. As the business and operations support (B/OSS) functions began to merge so did the solutions I was delivering, until finally the concept of customer experience solutions (CES) and management (CEM) were introduced. 

As their customers demand more for less, CSPs are increasing looking at how they can monitor, manage and control the experience of their customers. Software vendors are likewise striving to meet these requirements  by providing more and more integrated solutions across the whole spectrum of customer, business and operations support.

Industry sources are starting to suggest the next big steps for CSPs will be customer experience transformations (CET). Which is just as well, because I’ve had my sabbatical away from the industry over the last couple of years and I’m keen to jump straight back in where I left off... 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A winning team

This week I was lucky enough to discuss a job opportunity with an organisation that is continuing to do remarkably well in terms of sales and production despite the current economic climate.

In common with most companies, the business wasn’t without its problems. In fact this is largely why they have an opportunity for me to analyse the situation and help implement changes. During my experience I was interested in discussions around the perceived lack of ownership and commitment to product quality demonstrated by some of the workforce. The business in question manufactures a luxury product with a significant brand awareness of very high quality, even amongst its competition. It seems odd that the some of the problems related to a lack of attention to quality during production. It was not clear that the workforce were as ‘proud’ of their product and its strong brand as perhaps would be expected.

Without providing details or identifying the organisation; the experience did remind me of an article I wrote prior to my MBA focused on the factors responsible for creating high performing (or winning) teams in successful organisations. In my opinion there are two key factors responsible; a company culture that promotes an environment where effective teamwork can flourish and systems in place that will ensure employees work together towards common goals.

Company culture, or the character of an organisation, is essential to provide a platform where employees can be made to feel part of the business and responsible for its overall success. The actual culture is of less importance than the strength and consistency of the messaging through the organisation. In fact winning teams across many industries often demonstrate vastly different cultures while still delivering a high performance. Contrast for instance the differing cultures that exist between successful companies such as IBM, Google and McDonalds. Each promote and demonstrate very different cultures within their organisations and when dealing with customers, but in each case the cultures are consistent throughout the business and reflected amongst all employees.

A solid team culture will frequently deliver a higher performance than would be expected based on the ability or experience of each individual. Though more commonly observed in sporting teams this phenomena does not go unnoticed by venture capital firms looking to invest in smaller start-up companies. Often it is the culture and enthusiasm amongst the employees that provides the necessary confidence that the business will succeed.

With a consistent and accepted culture in place throughout the organisation, the next key factor to enable a winning team is to ensure that everyone is working together.

Most companies have incentive plans and performance monitoring systems in place to encourage high performance. How these systems are used is the key factor to enabling a winning team. It is important to ensure a consistent application of the process across all business areas and employees. It is especially important to avoid any contradictions between objectives and goals across different areas of the business. The quickest way to introduce conflict and destroy teamwork is to allow employees to believe what they are trying to achieve differs substantially from others in the same organisation.

The best way to ensure everyone is focused on the same core goals and objectives is to use a cascading approach to goal setting. The CEO holds the key to the initial introduction and creation of these goals. Based on expectations of the company’s stakeholders, the CEO is responsible for deciding on what goals the business needs to be focused each year. These need to be converted in to objectives for the senior management team and then cascaded in a similar manner to all employees.

While the rank and file employees are unlikely to share identical goals to the senior executives, they should at least be aligned with the overall business goals and, ensure everyone believes that they are driving the organisation in the same direction.

A winning team is created in an organisation when each employee wants the business to succeed and feels that their individual contribution is an integral part of this success.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mind the Gap

As mentioned on previous posts, the challenge of finding my next role has not been as smooth sailing as one might think with 20+ years experience in the software industry, a first class engineering degree and now an MBA. Unfortunately in the current employment environment it remains tough just getting past the first hurdle; from CV appraisal to interview. In many cases I’m not sure anyone actual reads my CV.

There are numerous on-line blogs, advice columns and even ‘old-fashioned’ books on the topic of writing a compelling CV. I’ve lost count of the number of unsolicited emails I receive from people offering me free appraisals of my efforts. One topic often covered if what to do about gaps in your CV, or more specifically, periods of time where there was no obvious employer. In addition to the most recent gap whilst I completed my full-time MBA and now search for my next position, my career also includes an 18-month sabbatical when I retrained to work as a service provider in the sports and leisure industry. This aspect of my career history has always required a certain amount of management. It has been necessary to ensure I report my activities away from progressive career roles in a positive manner, which is generally straightforward with honesty always the best policy.

But what should you do if the gap on your CV is because you were sleeping rough or, even more controversially, in prison?

Not a problem most of us face. But a very real problem to many job seekers caught in the vicious circle of not being able to find a job because of their current (or recent past) and therefore unable to take enough steps away to keep themselves clear of trouble. Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet and discuss these problems with a number of potential job candidates in exactly this position.

As part of my own efforts to keep busy during my job hunt I have been helping a number of friends with their own businesses. In particular I have spent a lot of time working with a small but rapidly growing landscape gardening business based in West London. We constantly have a need for additional on-site landscape assistants (or semi-skilled labourers), willing to work hard and deliver a good job. In addition to improving the physical environment we also have a commitment to helping less fortunate members of society. We were delighted to have the opportunity to support Crisis (the national charity for single homeless people) with their Employment Platform event.

The event was arranged to help job seekers “connect directly with employers and improve their prospects of getting a job and leaving homelessness behind for good”. It also enabled employers to meet and discuss problems face-to-face with Crisis clients and gain an understanding of the type of obstacles typically placed in their way. In additional to the usual job-fair style stands, there were a variety of supporting workshops and a Q&A session with a panel of employers.

Though I enjoyed meeting prospective employees on my stand; the most interesting session for me was as a member of the panel for the Q&A’s. This was where the ‘gap’ problem was raised with passion by many in the audience. Most saw it as a real barrier to their success approaching organisations. The panel recommended that applicants put a positive spin on any activity or tasks completed during these gaps (such as attending the current workshop) but also to remain honest and be wary of deliberately hiding information. The reaction of the audience implied this technique hadn’t helped. One member of the panel did express the opinion there are many organisations not as forward-thinking and open-minded as those attending the event and this would remain an issue until there was better awareness of the problems amongst the majority of employers.

The discussion on convictions struck a particular note for me. It was suggested that for the large majority of roles there was no need to disclose any criminal background. In fact until someone is offered the job it is best to withhold this information to minimise the disclosure to a wider audience (after all why would anyone not interested in employing someone care about such things). Once given a firm offer it was then important to disclose this information to ensure honesty and integrity. It then becomes the employer’s risk management to make the decision on whether or it is necessary to withdrawal the offer based on the new information. Though a situation to which I have not yet been exposed, I think I understand and agree with this notion. As an employer I want to have the opportunity to make this decision myself, but not necessarily before I have chosen the best candidate based on the requirements in the job criteria.  

Overall I had an enjoyable and enlightening experience. I also hope that as a business we are in the position to offer roles to at least some of the candidates as we expand over the next few months. In terms of my own job hunt it was a very humbling experience and makes me realise how easy I have it relative to some.

Everyone I met yesterday was either homeless or had recent experience of being homeless. All of them showed considerable commitment, enthusiasm and drive to attend the event and take advantage of the opportunity to enhance their career prospects. I can’t help but feel that they would prove far better candidates than most others with standard boiler-plate CVs with no gaps...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Head in the clouds

A recent experience* has prompted me to write a few comments about the shift in the IT industry to the ‘new’ concept of cloud computing...

It is impossible to pick up a magazine or read an IT online article on without coming across a reference or advert relating to the future of cloud computing. But what exactly is this ‘cloud’ and how does it differ from previous internet-based hosting platforms?

At a basic level the answer is very little. Stripping away the buzz words, fancy marketing and media hype you effectively arrive back at the same place we were a couple of years ago before the whole cloud concept was conceived. In fact if you have used an internet-based email, calendar or other desktop-style application then you have already been taking advantage of the cloud. Microsoft’s HoTMaiL introduced cloud computing to the masses 15 years ago!

Cloud computing effectively provides the ability to use computer applications over the internet. Typically the application(s) in question will be located remotely on servers owned and managed by someone else. This goes hand-in-hand with another ‘new’ phenomenon in the IT industry, Software as a Service (SaaS). Again this is simply a change of business model to allow customers to replace high upfront software licence costs with more manageable charges based on their actual usage of computer resources. Computing power, storage and capacity become a commodity, purchased as and when required by the customer. Fundamentally the underlying computing technology behind the applications remains unchanged; please take note recruiters and HR personnel looking for 'cloud experienced' developers and project managers. Cloud services and SaaS are largely strategic business decisions not technological changes.

Now I realise that I am sounding a little cynical, so with a nod towards reality there are some fundamental differences with implementing a cloud strategy (especially for a large organisation). For a start there is the not insignificant impact on costs already sunk on bespoke, customised software applications currently running in-house on internally supported servers. Using a third party to simply host applications externally is an initial step, but this is unlikely to be much more different for a large organisation than simply handing over control of existing data centres to another company. The core idea behind cloud computing and SaaS is to encourage the use of standardised applications developed, supported and upgraded by third parties focused dedicated to this task, allowing your organisation to concentrate on its own core business.

I have considerable experience in the IT industry selling and delivering software solutions for business transformation projects based on the use of off-the-shelf products. In theory this lends itself well to the ideas behind cloud computing applications and SaaS. However, one of the biggest challenges consistently faced in all my deployments involved additional configuration of products to deliver the exact functionality required. The concept of change to existing business processes was not one easily accepted at any level in the organisations (top to bottom), despite any obvious business benefits. Attempting to sell these organisations a completely standard cloud-based solution is unlikely to be particularly successful without significant investment, even with C-level support.

With this in mind it is probably small businesses (especially start-ups) that stand to gain the most from the shift towards the cloud (at least in the short-term). Rather than invest in an expensive IT support group, associated hardware and suitable premises; it is now possible to outsource the effort and complexity behind many IT functions. There is also a significant time saving; the lead-time behind ordering, delivering and configuring new hardware and software generally runs into weeks or months. With the right partner this time could conceivably be reduced to minutes for the most basic functionality. Another key benefit is the option of increasing (or decreasing) capacity to meet demand; a considerable attraction to businesses that have a fluctuating order book.

As with any new concept there are significant challenges to address with a cloud-based strategy. Security will be a major concern to all, even with a reputable provider many business owners will be reluctant to allow someone else to be guardian of their most important information. There will also be a need to ensure suitable backup and recovery strategies are adopted. Access/availability needs to be appropriate for each organisation. 24x7 access may not always be required, but there would be big problems if an organisation was unable to use its cloud services due to issues such as maintenance windows that are out of its control.

Finally there is one more very important benefit not yet covered here. Mobility. Cloud services by design are intended to be used remotely, this enables additional access opportunities to a mobile workforce potentially using multiple devices. This may yet prove to be the biggest benefit to organisations, increasing flexibility, reducing costs and improving efficiency.

Now selling that standardised application to end users by promising them access from home on their new smartphone or tablet starts to become a whole lot more attractive...

*Unfortunately the 'cloud' has gained popular support over the last couple of years whilst I was distracted by my MBA. The remotely hosted business applications I used to deliver pre-dated the 'cloud' concept, so in theory I lack cloud experience. The fact the same applications now reside in the cloud without any technical change appears lost on most recruiters/HR teams.

Monday, March 21, 2011

To tweet or not to tweet?

It’s Twitter’s fifth birthday today and judging by the comments left on most of the media articles I have read covering the milestone, there are still many people unconvinced of its value.

As far as the social media industry is concerned Twitter is widely regarded as second only in influence to Facebook. This doesn’t seem to be reflected in the opinion of the general public, indeed even amongst my largely ‘technology-savvy’ friends. The general gist of most conversations I’ve had seems to be ‘what is the point’ and ‘why bother’.

Despite this apathy it is difficult to argue that the micro-blogging site hasn’t already had a significant impact on many peoples’ lives. Much of the unrest recently seen in the middle east has been associated at least in part with rebels using social media sites, including Twitter, to organise demonstrations. The site has also been used extensively from within countries suffering under various government regimes to make the outside world aware. Many recent news stories, including Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, have also been initially notified to the world via tweets. If nothing else this shift to people-reporting must be impacting traditional news sources.

In commercial terms there still seems to be some ambiguity around how the site makes money, for its owners and users. Though Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has indicated that the site is already generating revenue through advertising, it would seem the ‘real’ revenue source has yet to be uncovered (judging by the sky-high valuations of his organisation). As far as users are concerned, especially businesses, the value generated by tweeting currently seems to be pretty intangible. There are an increasing number of companies offering insight and strategies or how you can generate revenue from Twitter (and similar social media applications) but the discipline is still in its infancy.

From a personal point of view, I use Twitter as a filter on the wider internet to steer me directly to things in which I have an interest. By following other users with similar interests to my own I am exposed only to links posted by others to web pages/articles/information that I want to read. I no longer need to ‘surf’ the internet, I just look-up the links posted by others. This makes the whole exercise far more efficient, especially when I’m using my mobile phone. I have also found Twitter particularly helpful for real-time updates on football scores and traffic problems... information that is often delayed elsewhere.

I have received a number of significant tangible bonuses from using Twitter over the last couple of years. The top three of which are:

Ticket to MWC11
Easily the most valuable benefit (in monetary terms). I managed to snag a free ticket to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona courtesy of BlackBerry. This provided a great opportunity to take a good look at the latest developments in the mobile industry and more importantly gave me the chance to catch up with many friends and ex-colleagues I hadn’t seen for a while.

Crisis at Christmas
In response to a link requesting volunteers over the Christmas period I started an ongoing involvement with the London based homeless charity Crisis. As well as helping out at their annual Crisis At Christmas event, I have also helped with a number of other fundraising and support events. In addition to the obvious benefit of helping others in a less fortunate position, I have made some really good friends.

Tour of local distillery
My most recent treat was a last-minute chance to visit a local gin distillery based just around the corner from where I live. Sipsmith is the first gin distillery opened in London for almost 200 years and already has some great stories about its location and product development. The ‘tour’ included a chance to meet the three ‘smiths’ behind the operation and a chance to sample their products (including a particularly enthusiastic tasting led by the creator/designer of the gin). Overall a fabulous evening I only discovered by following tweets.

Based on these three benefits alone I think I can justify my continued use of Twitter; now if only I could find a real use for Foursquare...