Telecoms operators are all too keen to talk about digital transformation and the greater flexibility associated with the move to software-driven networks. But it's not all about the technology; the people behind it also make a difference. Telcos are at different places in this journey, but many now realise that their employee base needs to be as agile as the technology it supports.
There has been much discussion in recent years of telcos emulating the Internet and technology giants, who, unencumbered as they are by legacy systems, have become famous for having flexible working structures and allowing their employees to fail fast, in the process fostering a culture of innovation. We have been talking about it for a long time, but it is finally happening, exacerbated to an extent by Covid-19. The mindsets of telecoms operators and their staff are changing.
"The employee mindset needs to keep up with the network, which itself demands an agile and fast-acting workforce to run it," says Keri Gilder, CEO of Colt Technology Services.
Gilder introduced a new organisational structure at Colt in November 2020 with a view to fostering greater collaboration and innovation, and enabling Colt to respond quickly to technological change. This reshaping included the creation of a Strategy and Transformation team, which itself houses an Incubation team. This team "gives our employees the freedom to experiment continuously and allow mistakes and learnings to happen rapidly to fail forward," Gilder says. She explains that Colt also has an Innovation Swap Programme, which allows some employees to switch to the Incubation team for a five-month period while their own role is temporarily backfilled. "[This] is a prime example of how team structure, driven by the need to be agile and innovative, has become more flexible," she says.
Many telcos have yet to embrace this agile way of working. But others have been doing it for some time and have committed fully to the agile approach.
New Zealand's Spark, which was an early adopter in the telco space, has adopted agile ways of working across its whole organisation over the past three years and is still putting employee culture at the centre of its plans: indeed, the development of what it terms 'growth mindsets' – in which employees are encouraged to think differently and adopt learnings from overseas market to solve problems, amongst other things – forms one of the four pillars of the new three-year strategy it shared in September last year.
The company has "highly engaged people empowered to make a difference in the work they do. And that's absolutely what we need in spades as we head into these next three years," said company chief executive Jolie Hodson, presenting the new strategy. "When we are successful, we will have a highly engaged team who are capable of adapting to the fast-changing environment around us."
Spark has solid foundations to build on. It began its transition from traditional telco to digital services provider in 2013 and by 2018 was ready to commit to the agile way of working; in February of that year it set up three frontrunner agile tribes – the agile model uses language such as tribes, squads, scrums and so forth to categorise employee groups – and within three months announced plans to go even further, reporting improvements in customer-centricity, speed to market and, according to then-CEO Simon Moutter, "empowered and engaged employees with greater productivity. This has given us confidence to go faster in our agile transformation." Going faster meant moving to an 'agile at scale' operating model.
"This was a bold strategy to transform our business. We have changed our culture and our ways of working," said Hodson. "I'm really proud of how we've matured our agile ways of working. It's helped us to grow employee engagement to +66 [NPS metric]... over the last three years."
Spark may have been an early adopter of agile working practices, but others are following suit. Speaking at his company's capital markets day in May, Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Hoettges said 30% of the telco's staff work in agile teams, and in Germany it has more than 300 so-called scrum masters coordinating these agile workers.
BT is also making changes. "There is a shift in skills, definitely, and there's an absolute requirement to be current with the software-development capability, the latest ways of working, as much as anything else," says Mark Murphy, Director of HR, Technology at BT. "We're becoming an increasingly agile squad-based delivery organisation rather than a typical waterfall software release type of IT team. That's a way of thinking and a way of working more than a technical skill."
While agile ways of working – and thinking – have been around for some years, the Covid-19 pandemic has really highlighted the need for a flexible workforce.
"Unlike tech companies, most telcos are relatively hierarchical. During the pandemic, however, they began cutting through established decision-making frameworks to enable change to happen much more quickly and pervasively. Shifts like these will be critical to future success," said McKinsey & Company analysts in an April insight, A blueprint for telecom's critical reinvention.
Some telcos are already echoing these thoughts.
"The standard, more bureaucratic and hierarchical organisational schemes, with a strong top-down approach, is no longer as effective in today's very fast-moving world," says Gilder. Colt's global IQ Network provides high-bandwidth, flexible, on-demand connectivity. "Real-time changes and automation involved in Colt's API-driven solutions mean that DevOps teams, in particular, need to review and build on application development consistently. This shift needs an open employee culture, where individuals have the independence and confidence to challenge the status quo and drive changes forward," she says.
"The pandemic has accelerated the change in employee mindset and culture, driven by running more software-driven networks," says Gilder. "However, we're not fully there yet and have more to [do to] transform all of our employees' mindsets. At an individual level, the capacity to adapt to a more CI/CD approach will naturally vary. However, education, training and development of new skills and ways of working can help all employees to work differently."
Telecoms players' drive for sustainability also plays into this mindset change.
"New ways of working, new ways of thinking and the agility and flexibility needed in building the software-defined networks of the future lend themselves to creating sustainable changes," Gilder says. "We must unlearn stepping on a plane to go to a meeting, we must unlearn old ways of dealing with space and power and network deployments to step into a more sustainable future."
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