Sunday, November 6, 2016

Telcos Undergoing Transformative Changes Due to Surging Data Demand

On 2 September 2009, The New York Times published an article headlined ‘Customers Angered as iPhones Overload AT&T’.
Calling the new iPhone 3GS a “data guzzler”, it went on to describe how the device choked up bandwidth on the telecom operator’s network, resulting in “dropped calls, spotty service, delayed text and voice messages and glacial download speeds”.
This is just one among several such instances of how telcos worldwide have been struggling to keep up with the burgeoning demand for data services. And much as they are trying, the demand surges keep happening in one or other part of the world (India being an apt case in point at the moment).
Telcos are fighting this battle on two counts. On the one hand, they have been upgrading their mobile networks from 2G to 2.5G to 3G to 4G. And, on the other, they have been deploying various information technology (IT) tools to operate more efficiently, reduce customer churn (customers migrating to other telcos) and to serve customers better.
The woes of telcos are not difficult to discern. From providing plain old voice telephone services up until the 1980s, operators now have to also provide text messaging, multimedia messaging, video on demand, gaming, music and several other value-added services on a mind-boggling variety of handsets.
In fact, the demand for data services is far outstripping that for voice services and causing major structural changes to the business models of telcos.
According to a report by Cisco Systems Inc., mobile data traffic will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 53% between 2015 and 2020, crossing 30 exabytes per month by 2020 (1 exabyte = 1 billion gigabytes or GB as it is popularly known. It is said that 5 exabytes of storage space will be taken up by all the words ever spoken by mankind).
One of the key factors in that data growth is the global popularity of smartphones to access the Internet, watch videos, consume news and other content, connect on social media or even plug into work-related applications such as email, analytics tools and customer relations software.
While much of the investments telcos are making goes into acquiring spectrum and upgrading their existing 2/2.5G networks to 3G and 4G, they are also investing significant amounts in their back-end systems that help them run those networks, including network-monitoring tools, billing software, customer experience management (CEM) solutions, etc. According to estimates by Analysys Mason, a research firm, CSPs will spend over $100 billion per year on software and related services by 2020.
In this context, India is one of the emerging market hotbeds where intense competition is playing out in the telecom market, especially for the relatively more lucrative and faster growing data segment. The latest salvo was fired in September by Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd, the latest entrant in the country’s crowded mobile communication space. The company claims to have signed up 16 million subscribers in the very first month of the launch, touted to be the fastest such milestone anywhere in the world.
Among other things, one of the biggest competitive edges Jio has, as far as technology is concerned, is that its network is fully based on Internet protocol (IP), the same one using which all computing devices—from tiny smartphones to large web servers in data centres—connect to the Internet. Having an all-IP network allows a telco to use the same underlying infrastructure for voice as well as data and be more agile in terms of market offerings—which is why even voice can be considered just another app on Jio’s network.
Other telcos, in contrast, have a mix of IP networks and the traditional circuit-switched networks in the circles they operate in (India is divided into 22 telecom circles or geographically segregated service areas). From the vantage point of an all-IP telco, their operations would be more complicated and clunky.
That is not to say that telcos with a mixed network set-up are going to scrap their past investments in 2G and 3G technologies: instead, they will compete by optimising their multiple networks and invest in IT tools that allow them to be more efficient and agile.
According to Ekow Nelson, region head, IT and cloud, Ericsson India Pvt. Ltd, “Some of the telcos are looking for a radical transformation of their business in order to look like a digital enterprise. This is a complete transformation of their relationship with their suppliers and customers. Others are looking towards more incremental changes. There is a whole range of different approaches that the operators have and, of course, some of it is driven by where they see themselves (in the foreseeable future).”
“Part of the transformation comes from understanding that this is really about changing the way you approach and interact with your customers and changing the way you organize yourself,” says Nelson, referring to the digital transformation challenges for IT decision-makers at telecom operators.
For example, according to him, if a telco’s distribution channel is through shops and retailers, that is not digital. “A lot of young people buy services online and they want help online. So if you want to become a digital player, then most of your own operating model will have to shift: you need to build online capabilities that allow your customers to interact and operate with you in a way that is very different from walking into a shop.”
He believes that just as the music industry moved from buying and renting CDs to online audio streaming, so is the telecom sector shifting from buying recharge coupons to self-service portals and apps—that is, a digital distribution model. In the case of India, however, a hybrid model that optimises both physical and digital sales for different geographies and customer profiles looks more likely.
Given that roughly one-third (31.3%) of India’s population, according to the Census of India 2011, is in the age group of 18 to 35—a generation cohort more digital-savvy than the rest—telcos that build a greater connect with them can reap significant business benefits. And one tried-and-tested way to do that is to app-ify most of their offerings and throw as many customised pricing plans at them as IT agility allows them to.
An indication of the importance of an app-driven approach is the recent marketing campaign of Bharti Airtel Ltd, India’s largest telco with an India subscriber base of over 250 million. The ad shows how quickly the new and integrated MyAirtel app can be downloaded onto a smartphone.
Earlier, there were several apps for music, movies, money, news, etc. but the new app comes as an integrated bundle (Reliance Jio’s MyJio app, which launched before Airtel’s new app, works in a similar fashion).
According to Animesh Sahay, senior country director of sales (enterprise and telecom business), CA Technologies India Pvt. Ltd, a provider of enterprise software and services, “For telcos, it is becoming increasingly important as to how they can wrap the entire app in a fashion that they are able to record the customer experience. Today, if a customer has a bad experience with an app, they might give it a try twice or thrice, but after that they are just going to junk it.”
So it becomes very important to know what the customers are experiencing on the app and to get their feedback and tie it back to app development, he says.
A telco can install an app tool to have a view of exactly what the customer is doing, exactly where he had an issue, what the screen looked like when a particular transaction was happening on the app, etc.
In short, the tool allows the telco to replay the same series of steps the customer took and find out what went wrong and where.
Another thing operators need to do, according to Sahay, is to move away from the old, waterfall model of application development to agile development methods by embracing what is called DevOps. DevOps is the combination of development (Dev) and operations (Ops), referring to how the IT teams at most enterprises are divided.
Traditionally, there has been some friction or lack of coordination between the two teams that typically work in isolation. The DevOps movement calls for a greater cohesion between the two and the use of agile software methodology and tools that enable it.
The whole idea of DevOps and agile method is to release newer versions of software or apps as quickly as possible so that new features and benefits could be marketed to existing and potential users.
In addition, given the speed at which mobile technology is moving today, more and faster releases help fix multiple bugs and issues with the software.
The dynamism in the telco universe is causing many to move towards what is known as a catalogue-driven architecture, which allows a telco to dynamically serve up data plans and other service offerings (movie/music downloads, for instance) to customers even if third-party mobile valued-added services providers are involved.
Going forward, most telcos in India, including Airtel, Vodafone, Idea and others, will ramp up their digital transformation efforts to increase data revenue and stay relevant in a fiercely competitive market.
(This post first appeared in Mint:

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Big Data Analytics and the Global Hunger Challenge

(Image credit:

In a world where as many as one-ninth (around 800 million) of the global population of over 7 billion go hungry each day, 33% of the food produced for human consumption is wasted every year.

As regards India, it is home to the largest undernourished and hungry population in the world: 15.2% of India’s population is undernourished and 194.6 million people go hungry every day, according to India FoodBanking Network.

Certainly not a healthy picture—but possibly not one that technology cannot help redress.

According to a new report on, global food waste and loss cost a staggering $940 billion A YEAR, with a carbon footprint of more than 8% of global greenhouse-gas emissions and a blue-water footprint that is 3.6 times the annual consumption of the US.

Such a sorry state of global food chain can be set right with appropriate use of digital innovation, including big data analytics, among others.

In my view, there is opportunity not just for governments but also for large businesses that plug into the huge global food supply chain in one way or another: the opportunity to apply creative thinking led by digital tools to bring down wastage, optimize costs and put more food on the table of poor people.

The McKinsey report suggests that cutting postharvest losses in half would produce enough food to feed a billion more people.

This and other social and economic benefits can be achieved by using technology to improve areas such as climate forecasting, demand planning, and the management of end-of-life products, argues McKinsey. The report quotes examples of work being done by startups and others in this area. For instance, a French startup, Phenix, runs a web-based marketplace to connect supermarkets with end-of-life food stocks to NGOs and consumers who could use them. “The platform enables the supermarkets to save the costs of disposal, gives consumable products a second life, and alleviates some of the social and environmental burden of waste,” it says.

For emerging economies such as India, the report suggests that innovations like precision agriculture, supply-chain efficiencies and agriculture-focused payment systems can make a huge difference.

For one, precision agriculture—which uses big data analytics, aerial imagery, sensors, etc.—is used to observe, measure and analyze the needs of individual fields and crops rather than take a one-size-fits-all approach to farming in a region or cluster of fields.

Startups as well as big behemoths are participating in this huge opportunity (the market for agricultural robotics alone is forecast to rise from $1 billion in 2014 to up to $18 billion by 2020).

So, while the startup Blue River uses computer vision and robotics to determine the needs of individual plants, Big Blue (also known as IBM) has developed a highly precise weather-forecast technology, Deep Thunder, and an agriculture-specific cloud technology.

Needless to say, we will need a basket of technologies from multiple vendors to keep large amounts of food from being thrown away or going waste, to optimize the yield from agriculture, to eliminate or reduce transportation inefficiencies—and do anything and everything to bring down the number of the daily hungry.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

7 Reasons Why the CIO Job Can NEVER be Automated


Dear CIOs, I know most you must be sick and tired by now of hearing all kinds of stories about automate this or automate that, AI, machine learning, deep learning, etc., etc.

It is possible that someone might come up with the idea of “Hey, why not automate the CIO’s job itself?” After all, haven’t we all seen too many threats to the CIO role already, even without automation?

So, here are a few semi-serious reasons why you don’t have to worry about the CIO role self-driving itself into an auto-pilot system:

- Because no AI system can mouth words like “silos,” “vendor-neutral” and “scalability” with as much elan as a CIO.

- In all likelihood, it was a CIO who coined the very concept of automation; so the conceived cannot possibly turn against its conceiver (and be successful in their machinations).

- Because you need someone with real, rather than artificial, intelligence to control all those bots out there.

- Think about it: if one were to indeed automate what CIOs do, then who will complain about budgets being tight or “doing more with less”!

- Because if CIOs get a hang of the conspiracy to automate them out of the market, they will reset the code execution time for the automation function to forever (or eternity, whichever happens to be programmed into their software :)

- Because before “they” can automate it (whoever this they refers to), the CIOs would have reinvented their roles as CAOs (rhymes with cows but otherwise of a different temper)—which stands for Chief Automation Officers!

- And if none of the above works, CIOs will convince the automatons to outsource the thinking part to them and save precious battery resources for other artificial work!

IMHO, forget CIO, I personally don’t think bots will truly replace human beings. They might take up the tedious or repetitive work being done by an army of workers, but they are highly unlikely to manage or motivate teams, lead people by example, inspire trust or become an emotional wonder-pack that humans are.

Now, tell me bot do you think?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Company as a Digital-Driven Organism

It is the season of mega mergers and buyouts. I was pondering the questions of life times of companies, their evolution and long-term survival in the wake of Dell-EMC, Microsoft-LinkedIn, Verizon-Yahoo and, back home in India, Flipkart/Myntra-Jabong.

Among the queries crowding in my mind: What makes companies buy or sell other companies? Why do we get the same old dope about synergies and leave the gory details about layoffs out in all those self-congratulating announcements? Does innovation gain or lose in the bargain? How would consumers of the merged entities fare?

While the above are regular sort of questions, another thought was pounding the gray matter inside my cranium: how does the infusion of new technology, especially digital, change the way companies behave in their environment?

I began to think of an organization as an organism: not a mish-mash of lines and dotted lines of hierarchies or collection of assets, liabilities and other attributes that usually go with a company—but as a living, breathing entity that evolves, grows and sustains itself as well as those associated with it.

At this point, out of the many tabs open in my web browser, one particular headline caught my attention and stopped my musings in their tracks—because it more or less mirrored my thoughts! “Live Business: The Digitization of Everything,” it read.

Among other things, in this amazing and wide-ranging paper, Dinesh Sharma, Vice President of Digital Economy at SAP, notes that the old, machine-like view of a company is giving way to a new, digital reality that thrives on hyperconnectivity, big data and adaptive systems.

One of the analogies Sharma uses in comparing the current industrial/knowledge economy to the upcoming digital/adaptive economy is closed systems versus open systems. Here is a largish excerpt from the paper:

“Auto manufacturers in the United States have traditionally focused on building factories to efficiently produce cars in large quantities. These factories are closed systems: as long as they get a constant volume of input, they produce a constant volume of cars. But the auto industry as a whole is an open system, subject to factors such as customer demand, which companies cannot control. The auto industry has outsourced the “open” part of their system to networks of dealers. The result is that auto makers continue to push cars out of their factories, even when demand drops. When this happens, the market becomes glutted with new cars and prices fall. Dealers can’t sell the cars, and manufacturers are forced to offer incentives and sell cars at a loss just so that they can keep the factories running.”

Adaptive systems, in contrast, writes Sharma, “are a special class of open systems, characterized by dynamic networks of agents interacting with each other and their environments.” He avers that adaptive systems are continuously evolving and shifting, much like the complex worlds of ant and bee colonies, stock markets, biological ecosystems and human organizations, including companies.

For many, many years, companies have been designed as “information-processing and production machines” but that machine view is set to be replaced by, if I may say so, an organism view in which learning is a creative process rather than a mechanical one, just as Sharma argues.

The mechanical view and rigid structures of companies have served us well in the industrial and, to some extent, the knowledge era but these must now be replaced with more flexible, agile arrangements that can be conjured up or dissolved quickly as the need arises or fades.

Hyperconnectivity, which rides on the digital cocktail of social, mobile, analytics, cloud (SMAC) and IoT (Internet of Things), will make sure that traditional and incumbent organizations across industries play by the new rules of market success.

“Hyperconnectivity is an assault on stable environments that have been the foundation of growth in the knowledge economy. The pace of change in the business world is accelerating to unprecedented speeds. For example, a retailer can engage with customers in the moment in a personalized one-to-one online relationship that is immediately known to a sales associate who helps the customer in a brick and mortar store. In another instance, employees build scenarios for the latest marketing campaigns that draw on real-time company data intermingled with live social network feeds. The new reality is that data can come from anywhere at any time in the new hyperconnected enterprise. The modern business needs to exchange data with its environment at unheard-of speeds,” notes Sharma in his research paper.

He identifies three key attributes of a successful digital business: seamless, connected and data-driven.

Things are jarring on all three of these counts when it comes to India: there are gaps in businesses being seamless, connectivity is broken and unreliable and data is just getting seeded into the entrails of business to make up the case for sufficient data-richness (the rewards of which could be reaped through big data analytics or other tools).

But Indian firms are getting there, in bits and pieces, in jerks and jumps, in the fierce competition of Olas and Ubers, in the dot-com launches/relaunches of ABOFs and BabyOyes, the payments frenzies of PayTMs and Mobikwiks—and the mergers and marriages of Myntras and Jabongs.

Needless to say, it is a time of transition for the industry. Companies that have more digital balm to apply to their internal and external joints will be able to alleviate or lessen the pain that comes naturally as part of this transition.

(Lead image courtesy:

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The CIO Role: Very Much Alive and Rising in Influence

Doubters of the CIO role and function, here’s some bad news for you: a new global survey reveals “an undeniable increase in the influence of the CIO.”

The survey, conducted by Harvey Nash, a leading professional recruitment firm, and consulting major KPMG, notes that more CIOs now report directly to the CEO (34%) than at any time in the past decade. And before I share other insights from the 18th edition of this global survey that received almost 3,400 responses from CIOs and technology leaders across 82 countries, let me pull out a happy tidbit: CIOs with a direct report to the CEO are also the happiest (87% report job fulfillment).

While there could be multiple reasons for this “happiness,” my surmise is that such a direct reporting structure would certainly take away many irritants for technology leaders and untangle them from other CXO/peer “issues.”

Another indicator of the increasing CIO influence is that 57% of CIOs now sit on the executive board or other senior leadership committees (up by 50% over 11 years), as per the survey. (I know it’s a long, relatively slow march, but hey, it’s happening :)

Among other highlights is the fact that one in four CIOs now spend at least one day each week outside their core function of IT. The CEO focus, too, is shifting from projects that save money to those that make money (see graphic).

The survey (titled Harvey Nash/KPMG 2016 CIO Survey) reveals that traditional IT priorities are seeing major shifts over the past four years: increasing operational efficiencies has dropped 16%, and delivering stable IT performance has dropped 27%.

These statistics not only point to the growing influence of the CIO in a company but also that they have more time for top/bottom-line improvement and innovation.

What continues to hold them back, however, is what this media release on the survey terms as “the greatest technology skills shortage since the Great Recession almost a decade ago.”

As many as 65% of CIO respondents say they believe a lack of talent will hinder their organizations’ ability to keep up with the pace of change—which is a 10% rise in the past year alone.

For the second consecutive year, data analytics is the most in-demand skill (39%). A high 89% of CIOs are worried about talent retention. (It’s another matter, perhaps, that there have been ample job movements and career shifts within the CIO community itself: 31% of the CIOs have been in their current role for less than two years and 15% moved job last year.)

The changing talent and CIO career dynamics could also be the result of the growing acceptance and impact of Digital.

One in five organizations now deploys a CDO (no, the CDO is not off the radar, though the initial euphoria on a separate digital officer seems to have come down a bit). More important, 58% of respondents reported that their organization has a clear digital vision and strategy.

In his executive summary for the report, Dr. Jonathan Mitchell, Non-Executive Chair, Global CIO Practice, Harvey Nash (a former CIO of Rolls-Royce and a tech veteran), writes: “There is little doubt that our industry is changing rapidly. In the last two years, IT leaders have become newly invigorated. The days of budget cuts and staff losses are well behind us. New challenges such as ‘digital’ have emerged. Was this yet another technology fad? No, was the resounding response from last year’s respondents. Digital is most definitely real and it is changing the way in which everyone thinks about IT.”

While there are many challenges for CIOs in the disruptive days ahead, let’s hope that the CIO role stays invigorated for many, many years to come.

(Lead image credit: This blog post first appeared on