Linking business issues to technical solutions

Martin Creaner, TM ForumEven though there's a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, for the most part much of the world is still mired in an economic recession that could last longer than anyone expected. The communications industry has been largely spared the fate of other sectors--namely banking, automotive and retail--due in no small part to the critical nature of its offerings and a customer base that simply can't live without their cell phones and televisions.

And in a time of economic uncertainty, many communications service providers (CSP) are taking a much more cautious approach to launching new services, choosing instead to base those types of decisions on business requirements more than rushing out with the hottest new technology.

In many ways, this trend has been felt within TM Forum, which represents over 750 corporate members from the CSP community as well as their suppliers, system integrators, content suppliers and many other players from across the value chain. In the past five or so years, our motivation for much of the work we do within our Collaboration program has shifted to linking our activities directly to business issues as opposed to technical ones.

That's not to say we'd been ignoring the business side for the previous 15 or so years. Quite the opposite, but now those high-level executives across CSPs of all sizes are getting in the trenches to ensure operational and business success, these issues are being brought to the forefront.

So from our perspective, it's more of a repackaging or repositioning our rationale for doing things; it's not a sea change for our organization. But the net result is that rather than diving whole hog into a technical issue, we first see if there is a real business problem to solve before engaging in our work to create standards and best practices for a particular area.

Keeping up with the Joneses

With this business angle to how we approach industry challenges and problems taking hold across our organization and throughout the CSP community, it should be no surprise that this method is catching the attention of C-level individuals within these organizations. And one thing most companies--no matter the industry--want to know is what and how is the other guy doing.

TM Forum Business BenchmarkingWe can actually answer that question through our Business Benchmarking Program, which takes metrics that define specific areas such as operational performance, customer care, billing and more and collect data that compares CSPs to one another. You can imagine what a great ice breaker this program is when we introduce it to CSP executives; after all, who doesn't want to see how they measure up with companies of a similar size and market?

But beyond providing extremely valuable information to our members, we ultimately want the metrics upon which the benchmarking program is based to become commonly used in the industry. If CSPs adopt these metrics either as one part of how they measure different aspects of their business, or they decide to implement all of them and run their business of them, the net result is that as suppliers start guaranteeing that their software will collect the data for these metrics we get into a situation where when we use these terms everyone means the same thing.

This common lexicon across the industry is very powerful, and leads right into a new area we're diving into: financial rules of thumb. These financial rules will show CSPs that by taking certain actions, they can save money straight off the bottom line. For example, now we can look at the total spend for a CSP and identify what portion is opex, what is capex and what other big areas the money is going toward.

What CSPs want is to get to the point where they can point to the pieces of the spending pie that they can directly influence. So if you're a wireless provider, you may not be able to cut out the cost of purchasing spectrum--since that's vital to the business--but perhaps there are other areas where you can make cuts.

So the aim of the rules of thumb is to get the data to show this kind of breakdown. We're hoping to present numbers but in context, so that if a provider needs to cut their IT costs by 25 percent, they'll know if they can get there.

From Soup to Nuts

The financial rules will tie in very well to the overall work of TM Forum, which is all about improving operational excellence and helping CSPs to become lean and more efficient while curbing runaway spending. A lot of other industry groups talk big on strategic issues, but only a handful of them actually have the technical horsepower underneath them to turn them into practical things that will become truly useful to the organization.

While TM Forum is helping other organizations to define and explore the business models of the future for CSPs, we also have the very serious technical know-how to turn that into real things like interfaces, best practice guides and information and data models. This one-stop shop of high-level strategic thinking to technical solutions really sets us apart as an organization that engages with everyone from CxOs to engineers to ensure that the link between technical work and business issues remains strong.

Find out more at Management World Americas, Orlando, Fla., November 9 to 11.

Martin Creaner is currently President and COO of the Telemanagement Forum (TM Forum) and a FierceTelecom columnist.