Telekom Srbija's Chief Strategy and Chief Digital Officer shares her approach to equipping employees with new data, analytics and AI skills to help accelerate business transformation.
How Telekom Srbija is teaching data literacy to accelerate transformation and scale AI
Digital transformation is more than a series of technology projects for Telekom Srbija; it's a comprehensive change for the business, its employees and customers. A key part of this journey is educating people about new ways of working and using digital services. Natali Delić, Chief Strategy and Chief Digital Officer at Telekom Srbija, talks to Inform about how the operator is working to improve data literacy in its organization.
Telekom Srbija Group has 11.2 million customers across multiple markets (Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Germany, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Switzerland), the largest of which is its home market of Serbia. Led by Chief Executive Vladimir Lučić, who was appointed in December 2020, the operator unveiled a new strategy in late 2021 that embeds digital transformation into every part of the organization.
“Digital is everywhere … it is the leitmotif that goes through everything we do. It embraces new ways of working, new platforms, new systems at the technology level; how we address our customers and offer our services; and how we improve our processes,” she said.
The goals for these changes are to improve customers’ experience, build new revenue streams and improve operational excellence. The telco believes the impact of the digital transformation should be reflected in how customers are able to engage with the operator and consume services.
The strategy is starting to deliver results based on the growing use of digital services. In the last 12 months, Delić said there has been an uptick in consumers viewing digital content, using security applications to protect their smartphones and data, as well as going through digital self-service channels. In the B2B market, the operator has seen greater uptake of ICT and cloud services. As for its own operations, the operator has been embedding intelligence and machine learning into business processes.
“Overall, we are doing well and doing the right things. But now we want to do them even faster,” she said.
Raising data literacy
To speed the pace of digital transformation and be able to implement AI at scale, Telekom Srbija’s workforce needs to evolve and learn new skills. “We need to build data-driven organization and that requires improving the level of data literacy as well as implementing new technologies and new ways of working across the organization,” said Delić. To achieve that, the operator is developing education programs for its staff.
There are different levels of skills and education required for different parts of organization, but everyone needs to understand and use data and analytics more so that they can one day work alongside AI and get all the benefits from AI-infused operations, she explained.
“Expert knowledge in data science, ML and AI is needed, but to be able to have AI at scale we need first to ensure that we have data for training those algorithms, and that requires annotation and labelling. We also need to continuously monitor, audit and tweak AI, and that will be done by product managers, customer care agents, sales agents, compliance and data privacy experts and all other employees whose work will be touched by AI. So everyone needs to learn about data and analytics and AI,” she said.
The operator is working on an education strategy to improve data literacy that will be pitched at multiple levels within the organization. For example, a course designed for business process IT engineers would be different from one aimed at customer services. Customer care agents do not need to know how to programme an algorithm, but they do need to know how to understand the results and to validate the algorithms and will need to be included in data management processes.
“Different levels of understanding data analytics are needed in the organization. We’re working with human resources to create a comprehensive data literacy program that will tackle these challenges,” she said.
Building trust and overcoming fears
Understanding data and the concepts of analytics and AI can reduce fear and mistrust. “The problem is not only that people fear they will be replaced by an algorithm, but it is also lack of trust in the results of the algorithm because they cannot explain it. They cannot explain it because they do not understand things like statistics and probability and their jobs have not required them to,” she explained.
This is a wider problem that she sees at other telcos and in other industries, as she often discusses possible solutions with her peers.
“The gap is now quite big. Changes have happened faster than people have adapted to them. Continuous learning is mandatory in a digital world, but not everyone is open to it. Generally, I think we are lagging behind what technology is offering,” she said.
The operator has also supported a lot of upskilling because it is generally difficult to attract data scientists or machine learning engineers to the telco industry, she added. One of the ways employees learn new data skills is by working with partners on specific projects. While delivering ML algorithms, for example, partners also help with on-the-job training for the telco’s ML team. After a few projects with partners, the team has acquired sufficient knowledge and experience to start working independently on new ML projects, she explained.
Partners speed the journey
Another way Telekom Srbija is accelerating the pace of change is through strategic partnerships. For example, the operator has been part of Vodafone’s Partner Markets alliance for the last two years. The pair have worked together on digital transformation projects in the areas of business processes and technology platforms, which has helped the Serbian operator to “become more digital,” said Delić. The telco has also partnered with Vodafone Procurement Company, collaborating to improve sourcing and operational costs.
It also recently started working with Amazon Web Services (AWS) on the cloudification of its internal systems and want to become an AWS service partner to support its B2B offerings.
“No one can see great results on their own. We are the biggest player in this region, but we are small from a global perspective. So strategic partnerships are important to us,” she said.
Keeping up with change
Delić lives by the maxim, “be the change you want to see.” She said she has built up a “tolerance to uncertainty” by continuously challenging and pushing herself out of her comfort zone and tries to pass this ethos on to everyone “inside and outside the company.”
She pointed to ChatGPT as an example of rapid change that is proving helpful for overcoming the data literacy challenge, “because everyone is talking about it and trying it on their own, and this is helping them to understand it and to see the benefits of such tools in their work and life.”
“We need the ability not to stress too much about changes, but to dive in and adapt. The only way to do it is continuously stay informed, learn new things, and expose yourself to new ideas,” she said.