Just as was predicted long ago, much of the technology underpinning telecoms networks these days has become a commodity. As a result, the areas that service providers now need to concentrate on instead involve finding the most efficient ways to set up, manage and control the myriad processes and events that take place on top of those enabling technologies.
Even the most high performance and cost-effective network infrastructure is next to useless if the various management systems that control services, fulfilment, tariffing, billing, customers, resellers, and third party content providers are not able to interoperate efficiently. Business rules and logic that require the interaction and consolidation of data from different points in different systems will remain impotent abstractions in the world of day-to-day business. Missing or inaccurate data mean lost revenues and exposure to potential fraud, while the existence of fault-lines in what should be seamless and highly-automated processes ultimately degrade the entire customer experience.
It was with these somewhat daunting issues in mind that Alun Lewis recently sat down with Rui Paiva, CEO of business process specialist WeDo technologies (above), to get a feel for the scope of work ahead for the industry in these areas - as well as the kinds of solutions that WeDo has built a profitable business from across the planet in the space of only a few years.
AL: Rui - Business Process Management - as such - and the subsequent need to take an entirely fresh approach to business assurance is a comparatively new discipline for the telecommunications sector to engage with. What do you see as the drivers that are taking the industry on this journey?
RP: In a single word - complexity! The telecommunications infrastructure that covers the globe is complex enough by itself but, when you add onto that all the other business processes and systems that turn the physical network into a viable business, then you have to step out from a world of comparatively well-understood technologies into a far more fluid and fast changing environment. That also involves marketing, managing third and fourth party relationships, corporate hierarchies and strategies - as well as serious financial discipline.
The comparatively flat structures of traditional telecommunications networks and their related business processes are having to become increasingly multi-dimensional - and management systems are accordingly having to evolve to manage that transition successfully. Service providers are having to move from the ‘one size all' model that served the industry for nearly a century into something that far more closely resembles a modern retail environment with customer choice, competition and churn being a sometimes harsh reality.
That therefore means that the whole back office environment is going to have to change - and change fast - but with the least capital and operational expenditure possible, given the difficult times that the whole industry is going through at present.
AL: A broad range of challenges indeed - but how does WeDo technologies see the industry facing these?
RP: WeDo essentially began life in the early 2000s focused largely on revenue assurance issues and our first customer in this area was Oi of Brazil - logical enough given our Portuguese origins. Now, the core issues involved in building and managing revenue assurance systems and processes are highly representative of the wider problems that the industry faces across the whole range of both back and front office functions.
For a start there are obviously the billing and tariffing activities. On top of that you have to add systems that manage the relationships, revenues and rewards with the dealer and reseller communities. Finally there are systems that support the actual customer relationship - and these naturally have to extend into both financial and operational areas if churn is to be minimised and service agreements fulfilled successfully. All of these obviously also have to be seen in the context of the mobile industry which brings in even more complexity through the need to manage and reconcile roaming issues, as well as the ever-growing portfolio of value-added services that make up the marketing mix - such as ringtones, content and games.
The result of this work then was our RAID solution - now available in version 5.1, released earlier this year, and deliberately engineered to resolve difficulties around assuring cost-margin relationships and make sure that prepaid accounts and activities are properly validated to ensure that revenue leakage or fraud is eliminated.
That work - and all the subsequent contract successes that we've won from a range of Tier One and Two service providers in other parts of the world - these clearly showed us that while a service provider might have the best sub-systems available, if these weren't able to interact efficiently and provide appropriate management information to higher level commercial and operational management systems then the entire enterprise would suffer.
AL: So what's the specific WeDo strategy for resolving these issues?
RP: At the top level it's all about making sure that the right information, in the right format, is available through the right system, to the right people, at the right time.
Let's take a typical company structure, with board members at the top, departmental directors next and line managers and operational units further down the hierarchy - with the usual cloud of consultants hovering around at different levels. While the board members decide on corporate strategy and investment levels and oversee overall KPIs to meet specific business and financial objectives and ambitions, the actual systems that are going to deliver on those KPIs are necessarily built and managed at lower levels within the organisation.
Now, it's one of those uncomfortable inevitables of the often tricky relationship between IT and the entrepreneurial spirit that there ends up being a mismatch between the actual systems in place and the wider needs of the organisation. Even with the best designers and system tools and platforms, corporate objectives and processes will obviously change quite substantially over time as market conditions change, new competitors enter the fray and new services and technologies are introduced. On top of that, the task of translating the corporate KPIs into metrics relevant for each operational activity on a day-to-day basis is an implicitly non-trivial process - as is the reverse process of delivering appropriate and relevant feedback to the board in a short enough timeframe to support complex decision making.
It's all very similar to the classic analogy of steering the supertanker - but with the added complication that all the different members of the crew are effectively speaking different languages - while some are also apparently deaf and dumb and limited to a repertoire of basic sign language! It's essentially an extremely serious game of Chinese Whispers being played out here between different experts, disciplines and departments.
As a result of all this, many service providers are drowning in data while simultaneously lacking the meaningful information that has to be combined from different lower level sources to ensure good decision making. My original academic background in computing and statistical science - as well as some early projects that I was involved with in simulation and decision support systems - ended up giving me an invaluable insight into issues like these at a very basic level. When you scale up these problems into a multi-million dollar organisation, it soon becomes clear that they can have a hugely disproportionate effect on corporate performance and agility.
AL: If that's the strategic background - what then is the WeDo technology approach to solving the problem?
RP: It's basically about joining the gaps between the different systems and functions in an intelligent way, ensuring that information flows upwards into the higher level management systems and provides both operational and strategic management with a truly holistic perspective on performance. That perspective may be focused on revenue leakage, for example, or on the profitability of dealer and reseller relationships, the relationship between different handsets and profitability and service take up and so on. By introducing a mid-level integration module structure and using the extremely extensive range of system interfaces that we've developed, it becomes a straightforward process to extract data from the various databases involved, associate it with other relevant information - such as events - in a properly dynamic and flexible way and then present it to the higher level business process management systems.
We've also developed a range of very powerful graphical interface tools that allow the creation, modelling and management of different business processes and KPIs in a drag-and-drop way to reduce the need to spend time and money training staff in specialist techniques. There's no need to understand the underlying network or elements to get the kind of information that people require to do their day-to-day jobs. It's straightforward, for example, to set alarms and alerts based on strategic or tactical commercial criteria - the RAID system and architecture does the necessary interpretation and mediation.
In addition, we also find that this approach is starting to pay dividends when it comes to addressing newer issues, such as the growing legal requirement in many parts of the world to provide law enforcement agencies with access to customer data - the so-called data retention systems. We're currently carrying now just such a project for what was essentially our very first customer - Optimus Telecomunições in Portugal.
AL: WeDo is a comparatively recent entrant to the marketplace - can you give us some background on how the company got started and where you are now in terms of growth and customers?
RP: Certainly. Perhaps the most important thing for people to understand is that we're owned by the Sonae Group - the largest non-financial services company in Portugal - and that gives us a financial and commercial stability and credibility that's very important in developing long term, mission-critical relationships with our customers.
I became involved with their mobile brand, Optimus, working as the CIO there in 1998, following an earlier period in my career with HP where I learned a great deal about how to set up and run a successful international company. To cut a long story short, in 2000 Sonae asked me to look at setting up a company to target the growing opportunities in the IT and Telecom sectors. We were essentially given a blank sheet of paper and a few, very simple objectives: be multinational, be big, focus on the telco industry - at least initially - and concentrate on software.
Over the years, we've put a great deal of effort into creating what we believe is a world-class model for business operations. You often hear a lot of noise and high-level dictats from many companies about the need for transparency, investment in human resources, strategic planning and so on that usually fail to be translated into reality on the ground. In contrast, myself and my executive colleagues like to feel that we've built a corporate structure and processes with the same rigor and reality that we approach a customer's problems and we've taken the best from what we've learned working for companies in the past like HP, Oracle and IBM.
Part of this approach involves what we call our ‘White Book' - a web-based tool that shares best practices, processes, activities, job openings and employee skill sets - and even salary levels - in an open and transparent way. Our employees seem to like it as around half of those who leave the company end up returning!
Supporting this, we have a further set of subsidiary sources that focus deeper across activities in specific operational areas like HR, marketing and sales. We also invest in constant, iterative business modelling and scenario planning exercises to ensure that we remain focused in what is such a fast changing and increasingly interconnected industry - hence our recent and successful expansions into other areas such as retail, finance and the utilities where they are experiencing very similar problems to those that we were set to address in telecommunications.
This strategic perspective also extends to our approach to acquisition, as exemplified by our purchases of a telecom fraud specialist called Praesidium, from the UK, Cape Technologies from Ireland, Tecnologica from Brazil and Brainware from Portugal.
We now employ around 380 people at sixteen offices scattered across the globe to support our growing spread of customers - companies such as Digicel, France Telecom, Oi in Brazil, Orange, Orascom, Telefonica, Vimpelcom in Russia, Vodafone and many others.
Alun Lewis is a freelance communications journalist and consultant