India is one of the fastest-growing mobile phone markets in the world with more than a billion subscribers. Harmeen Mehta is Global CIO of the largest mobile operator in the country, Bharti Airtel, which serves about 280 million customers. This is part two of a three-part interview with Mehta, which originally ran in its entirety in our Digital Leader Network newsletter. In this installment, Mehta talks about the company’s digital transformation and what it means for operational and business support systems (OSS/BSS). In part one she discussed why operating in India is a unique challenge, and in the final installment we’ll discuss the complex relationship between telcos and over-the-top players, and the new kind of culture telcos must embrace.
DB: As CIO, what does digital transformation mean to you? Does it include network transformation as well as IT transformation?
HM: I see digital transformation almost as being two types. One is a customer-facing digital transformation, making the telecom more consistent and transparent, and simplifying things and exposing them openly, honestly and fully to our consumer base. But to do that, a large part of your transformation has to be internally focused and hence very inwardly led. The major part of that is the network transformation to a digitally enabled network.
In telecom, the network is part of the core product you sell, but it also plays a bigger role. In countries like India and Nigeria, the entire country’s digital transformation is powered by telcos and the ability of telecom networks to be able to carry all that traffic and enable digitization. We connect the dots across the country between consumers and corporations; we connect the world’s content and internet into the consumer’s household. Hence, the network transformation and digitization of that becomes doubly important.
DB: Bharti Airtel has already embarked on digital transformation. Where are you in the process?
HM: I would say that over the course of this year, we will become very advanced when it comes to consumer mobility, and maybe to some extent also TV services and broadband. We’ve started on our network digitization, but we’ve got a long way to go over next 12 to 24 months. And the same goes for internal digitization. There’s a large part of the internal workings of Airtel that we’ll just make a start on, but we have a long way to go over the next year. That’s very much consistent with the three-year roadmap we set for ourselves: We set out to start the consumer side first and then the network and the rest of the internal operations.
We’ve done a lot, but there’s much more to do. It’s such an evolving space – the art of what’s possible today and what technology allows for is mind-boggling. A few years ago, a lot of this would not have been possible. Plus, the world and the consumers are evolving so fast that there’s always much more to do. But I guess that’ the exciting part of the job.
DB: Can you explain what you mean by internal transformation? Does that include OSS/BSS or is that part of the customer transformation?
HM: I consider BSS/OSS very much part of the consumer or customer digitization. When I talk about internal systems, I mean getting employees to be more digital – getting finance, back-end operations and employee engagement fully digitized.
DB: We’ve been hearing from a lot of operators that there is a need to completely rethink OSS/BSS and move to something far more agile? Do you agree? How will tomorrow’s OSS/BSS architecture be different?
HM: I absolutely agree. In fact, we are in the middle of a BSS transformation, and while we’ve moved leaps and bounds from where we were before, there are a lot of things I would do differently if I were to start such a journey today. With regards to traditional BSS/OSS, I predict that if that’s how your telecom runs in five years, you’ll be dead in the water. You’ve got to massively change the concept of BSS/OSS; otherwise you’ll slow the digitization of not only your organization but also the consumers.
Think about the amount of time traditional BSS/OSS takes to roll out a product versus how you see the Internet companies rolling out new products. That’s who you’re competing with. The competition in telecom is no longer just with telcos. Today you’re competing content companies, media companies and others. In our case we have a full-fledged bank that’s powered by our consumer strength on the telecom side.
Digitally enabled services require agility, fast time to market and disruptive thinking, which means that you have to break a model apart in order to create a new one. Hence, you need an BSS/OSS that can keep up with that. It must be very nimble and run more like microservices and less like a monolithic stack. You need to be able to containerize it, deploy it in a virtualized cloud environment and do continuous innovation, build, deployment and development – continuous everything. That’s not happening. The slowest part of transformation in telcos is the BSS/OSS, and that’s really got to change over the next half decade. I don’t think we even have a decade to do it.
DB: You mentioned that you would do some things differently if you could start over with your BSS transformation. What would you do differently?
HM: Primarily, we would have had a greater focus on leveraging emerging technologies and modern software development practices. We had a tendency to continue with older, proven COTS [commercial-off-the-shelf] platforms when managing our core CRM [customer relationship management]and billing functions to reduce delivery risk and minimize data migration exposure. While this works fine, it takes prohibitively long to deliver, and the new systems still do not provide the agility and automation features desired (despite OEM advice to the contrary).
In addition, usage of separate COTS platforms for different functions has the side effect of replicating the same dynamic data across many systems. This requires costly data mapping and reconciliation efforts and in worst case actually impacts the customer when platforms become out of sync. Better to leverage on-demand architecture to ensure data is sourced from a master system when required.
That said, there are no silver bullets when it comes to transformation. We are decommissioning core business systems that have grown organically over many years and are embedded in every business function. This will take significant time and effort no matter the approach.
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