Have you got a dirty data problem? Too embarrassed to talk about it in public? Is it sapping your business vitality? Well you're not alone, and the good news is that 2007 has been widely touted as the year when the telecoms industry finally starts to sluice away its data blockages. So, without getting too anal about inconsistent data semantics and all the other symptoms that you may be experiencing, the message is that 'new-age' therapies are available to help you deal with these problems quickly, effectively and reliably, enabling you to become the business you've always wanted to be. Paul Hollingsworth looks at the mismatch between business and technical issues and the challenge of continual data and business transformation
The sad fact is that even mentioning data migration or data management issues is a sure fire way of getting most business-level executives to instantly turn off and stop reading. It’s ‘dull as ditch water’ to use a common British idiom. But just before you give up on this article, let’s go back to that water analogy. You might not be all that interested in your home plumbing either, but it has this habit of grabbing your attention when the sink is backing up or when there’s no water coming out of the tap doesn’t it? At this point the solution is usually very expensive and involves an overpaid plumber simultaneously tutting and sniggering over his bill. And if you’ve ever been in a plumbing-centred crisis like this, you’ll know just how stupid and out of control you feel. Which brings me back to data.
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Business managers hate the idea of data migrations primarily because of fear of the unknown and that horrible out-of-control feeling they get every time they have to think about them. Having signed off a project they have absolutely no certainty over when that project – if ever – will deliver real, hard business benefits. They also know it'll almost certainly overrun on cost or time, or both. And the really scary thought is that this could be the one in every five projects that's doomed to fail completely, having burnt through millions of dollars in the process.
Statistics from the likes of the Standish Group, which has made a business from analysing IT project failure, make grim reading. In 1994 when Standish first began collecting data, around 84 per cent of IT projects were deemed to have failed in some aspect. Ten years later the figure had improved, but still stood at 71 per cent.
Here in telco-land, I regularly come across architects who say that they can't remember a single successful data migration. Which is rather worrying given that in 2007 we are standing on a fundamental pivot point in our industry. Behind us lies the halcyon days of relative tranquillity when change was relatively slow and profit margins plentiful, while ahead of us lies the uncertain future of cut-throat competition with increasingly complex services delivered at increasingly fast speeds. Transforming from a tier one telco, to a strong, next-generation service provider is no mean feat. It involves transforming business norms, organisational structures, but also IT systems, architectures and data. It means learning a whole new content-driven, media-rich language, and requires companies to get fitter, leaner and more agile (both on an operational and technological level).
On a business level, we can articulate what is required to respond to the change drivers our industry is facing. For example, we need to:
• cut costs and improve revenue management
• innovate and get products to market more quickly
• retain customers
• increase or at least stabilise ARPUs
• comply with regulation and legislation
• use business information more effectively.
But this is where the gap between business and IT becomes so very obvious, because translating business goals into technical strategies requires getting to grips with 'issues' that we have been putting off for a long time, such as consolidating and upgrading supporting systems, migrating data, transforming architectures and so on.
Surveys undertaken by UK-based Kognitio have highlighted that 57 per cent of respondents thought that decision makers did not have the information they needed to run their business optimally. The issues identified were the disparity of data, the sheer volume of data, the scale of the task to access the required data, unavailability of data and speed of access. Another survey unveiled in January found that 56 per cent of decision makers in 100 companies polled admitted that they had been discouraged from undertaking data migration projects because of the risk, cost, time and resource needed for such projects.
But in telco-land we now have a new reason to pay attention in the form of agile, lean new entrants that are extremely adept at using data to analyse and improve their business and their offer to customers – such as Google-coms and Walmart-phone. It's easy to underestimate how such companies can transform the market. Look, for example, at the telecoms arm of UK retailer Tesco, which in less than two years became the third largest prepaid mobile phone company in the UK. It acquired around half a million customers in its first twelve months, and has since added more than a million to this. And that's in a saturated mobile market where customers have to be prised away from competitors. Tesco Mobile states that it has done this by providing better customer service and understanding their needs – all of which requires good, accessible customer data.
Of course you might take the line that fighting the retail fight is just not for you, and you're quite happy just to provide the pipework and go wholly wholesale. But don't get too complacent. Even then your partners are still going to demand data from you, and to be a successful value-added wholesaler you're going to have to get much better at providing it. You're also going to need to get better at managing your cost base, which also requires better data management. And to get from where you are to where you want to be probably means some form of data migration.
There's just one other little factor you mustn't forget. The industry formerly known as telecoms is no longer a market that will stand still or even change at a leisurely rate. So whatever solutions, systems or architectures you come up with absolutely have to accommodate the need for change. Otherwise you risk entering a never-ending project hell, whereby even if you deliver your clearly defined, properly scoped project on time and to budget, in the meanwhile the requirements have changed and the new solution cannot cope with them or support unknown and unforeseen ongoing change.
So before you throw up your hands in despair, remember that some data migrations – even very complex ones – are delivered on time, to budget and with a low risk profile. One feature of such projects is that they have business and senior executive buy-in. They combine business and technological strategies and deliver against both. To help you become one of the winners, here are five uncomfortable questions we suggest you should consider:
• Will your data migration project deliver on time and at budgeted cost?
• Are you comfortable with the risk profile you are assuming?
• What happens if it doesn't work?
• How much is it costing your organisation for every day of delay?
• How flexible is your new architecture, will it be able to respond to inevitable change?
Paul Hollingsworth is Director of Product Marketing at Celona Technologies