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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Telecom Needs with TL Viswanathan

Podcast episode 43

Like the famous psychologist’s theory, telecom companies strive for self actualization. But how can CSPs elevate themselves to capitalize on Industry 4.0 in the 5G era? TL Viswanathan, Nokia’s head of product management, believes companies need to do some soul searching if they’re going to succeed.

Below is a transcript of this conversation. Some parts have been edited for clarity.

Michael Hainsworth: TL Viswanathan knows automation will change the way 5G wireless services are created, delivered, and managed. It's a wholesale rebuilding of a business model that saw telecom companies act as little more than wholesalers of 4G. Viswanathan is guiding the industry by adapting a lesson we all learned in high school social science class - Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The base physiological needs become network management. And at the top, the self-actualization we aim for as humans is, for the CSP, the equivalent of service management, including network slicing and network-as-a-service.

But if we're ever going to have a self-actualized telecom industry through automation, we need to fundamentally change the business model from network management up.

TL Viswanathan: Why automation is fundamental, it is across three dimensions. One is that we need to deliver complexity at scale while reducing TCO all at the same time. And I think to deliver that, automation is the sweet spot. Any of these dimensions will not allow us to then deliver to the promise of 5G, so that's the aspect of how we deliver.

On the business model, which is the second aspect that I want to touch on, we have traditionally been pushing services, or pushing capabilities out to the market and hoping that some of them would stick, or there would be consumers or enterprise would want some of those. But with 5G, we have an opportunity to change that to more outside in perspective, looking at actually what enterprises need, and we are allowing enterprises to pull those services from the network, as opposed to pushing them out. And again, for that to happen without automation and without intelligent automation, which is aware of the network capabilities and is intelligent enough to optimize the way the resources are utilized, we can never achieve that. So to give that illusion of infinite capacity and change the business model, again, automation plays a critical role to allow that engagement to change the enterprises as well.

MH: When you say intelligent automation, are you referring to artificial intelligence automation, machine learning systems?

TV: Yes, I'm exactly referring to that, because I think automation and I think machine learning or intelligence are quite intrinsically linked. Because if you look at automation and as you look at automation in terms of what you automate and why you automate, the automation is evolving from fairly basic, repeatable RPA like processes, becoming more complex outcomes as well, areas where we need to go across multiple domains, across multiple technology boundaries. And on top of that, if you really want to change the customer experience, you really need to be learning from the network all the time.

So automation is really the process that is defining the outcome and the way we deliver it, but at the heart of that outcome and how appropriate, how good the outcome is, we need to be able to learn from the network data, which is why when you talk about, and if you think about automation on the Maslow's framework, as you start evolving to the higher levels of automation, that needs to be intelligent and it needs to be learning from the data at all points of time.

MH:Yeah, I'm fascinated by that page you're taking from Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Where does the complexity and scale component come into that particular pyramid as it were? Because as you point out, if we're changing the way we do business with 5G, because we need this automation for that increased complexity and scale, is sort of a virtuous circle at the end of the day, the more you apply automation, the more complex you can get, and the more complex you can get, the greater you can scale.

TV: Right. True. True. And I think one of the challenges we have in the industry is there isn't really maybe a true framework, or an aligned approach on how you do automation, because it's kind of omnipresent in terms of where you can apply it. So maybe the Maslow's pyramid is a good reference point for us to maybe simplify the structure a little bit to understand how do you apply this.

And if you look at the pyramid and the bottom two layers, and if you want to draw parallels to our industry, you can think of infrastructure, the way you set up your infrastructure, you plan your rollout, you manage and operate your network, which are essentially simple repeatable processes like I said, that would be like a basic need. That's something that's already happening. Most of the CSPs today already do that. But they are simple in terms of they largely are single domain automation systems. But then as you go to the 5G promised space of delivering complex services, network slices, mission critical applications, you start to look at a more complex form of automation that can transverse multiple domains. It needs to understand the network. So that's the point where you are also changing your value from efficiency to business, to agility, to time, to value, and customer experience.

MH: So Maslow's hierarchy of needs starts with the base, the basic needs, physiological needs, safety needs. And in your analogy, that's the network management side, something that's been happening for some time. Is security alarms going off, things like that.

TV: Right.

MH: And infrastructure and software management, this is AWS or Azure from Microsoft, that kind of thing.

TV: Right.

MH: And then on Maslow's next level, it's the psychological needs, the belongingness and esteem needs. And that's when we get into the customer management side of that conversation. And that's really where the complexity starts when this becomes a business conversation.

TV: Correct. Correct. Because the customer, at the end of the day, should be abstracted as much as possible from the complexity of the network. They are only interested in consuming the service in its simplest form, in the simplest way, with least amount of effort. So I think while the outcome is simple, to get there, it needs probably the most complex kind of automation. Let's put it this way, that can actually transverse the entire complexity of the network and abstract it from the customer. So in that sense, you're absolutely right that as we go up the pyramid and go from these single domain repeatable process model to a more complex automation space, that's where we'll also see the maximum benefit and value which really starts to touch the customers, it could be an end customer, or an enterprise. And then it also needs to transverse into the way you build and deliver services to them.

MH: And that takes us to the top of the pyramid, for Maslow it was that self actualization, that goal that we all have as humans to become better humans. And the goal for CSPs to become better CSPs is that top level as well, which is service management.

TV: Right. Exactly. And that actually draws a very interesting parallel to the fact that most CSPs today would say that they want to do more than just be a connectivity provider. And what that actually means is how quickly and how effectively can they grow into the vertical value chain. So the service level, and maybe the highest level of the need here, if I draw parallels, would be not only how you deliver network services and build networks services quickly, efficiently, at scale, but how well are you also able to accommodate the specific applications in need for the industries that you address? It could be how do you take on a gaming application, for example, for a consumer and accommodate that within the automation landscape that you have? Because it is that specific knowledge of the domain, and that specific ability to absorb that industry requirement that will go and take our CSPs beyond just being connectivity providers and true partners in that industry for change that we all wish to see.

MH: And as we hit that top of the pyramid, whether it be personally with our own self-actualization or whether it be within that business environment, tell me about that service level management, where you're creating some very complex services, but what you're actually doing is you're creating a relationship with a customer, just like with Maslow you're creating a relationship with yourself and those around you.

TV: Right. In fact, there's one other dimension to that, because this is not just a relationship which is built on best effort. It's a relationship that's built on a commitment to ensure that the applications that the enterprise is depending on you for are delivered at the SLA that is promised. So essentially, this relationship is more like signing SLA and service agreements, as opposed to just providing a connectivity as a service. And that is a very different kind of relationship that our CSPs would now need to embark. And I think to make that happen, again, they need to be able to trust the systems that they are putting in place, the process the sitting and putting in place, and the people aspect of it to ensure that the delivery and the relationship that they are actually getting into with the enterprise can be fulfilled. Because end of the day, this is all going to be about how credibly can we deliver and then maintain those services to the enterprise for this to work.

MH: So then how do we get there? If this was a self-actualization attempt, we could climb a mountain and speak to a Yogi, that sort of thing. But how does the Chief Executive Officer, the Chief Digital Officer, those responsible in the corner offices in a CSP, how do we get them to climb that mountain themselves?

George Glass, the Chief Technology Officer at TM forum, is quoted as saying that, "Everybody immediately thinks automation is a technology problem, but it's actually a deep cultural issue that's 90% people and culture, and 10% technology."

TV: Yeah, and I couldn't agree more. And I mean, it's also very, very typical of the Maslow's pyramid, as you go higher up, it actually becomes more emotive. It's become more a person rather than a physical attribute. So I think it's very similar here as well. I think that the lower levels of the conversation could be more related to technology and how quickly you can get there. But as you scale the pyramid on automation, it is mostly about people, about organization, about process than technology. I mean, technology could be a challenge, but certainly something that is solvable. It's not the barrier.

So again, going back to your question, I think first of all, it is a change that we first need to acknowledge, and it needs to be top down. I don't think we can get to that state of readiness if we approached this bottom up. So I think we need to look at this whole aspect as a top-down initiative. And if you asked me what a CEO, sitting in the corner office, should look at, is to have somebody directly in from the executive team that is responsible for what the nature of this automation look likes, because it needs to be very closely linked to the purpose of the organization itself and where they want to go.

If the path of the organization needs to go beyond data activity provider to be true partners to industries, the automation and the Why of the automation should start from there. Once that is understood, and that trickles down into the organization, that's when you have a lot more alignment to that purpose, so that's important. Then clearly I think there is a need to refresh. I would use the word refresh, re-skill people to make this happen. We can't just take the resources and the skill sets that we've had and hope that this will actually work. And this is not about displacing people, this is about re-skilling people towards the right parts of the organization. And in some cases, re-skilling the resources who understand these domains intrinsically, to apply that to looking at how to automate it.

MH: Now, I understand the benefits of automation to cost control. It would be insane to manually perform network slicing, cloud management, or beamforming. I understand the customer experience enhancement that comes with instantly changing the fabric of a network as they need it. But tell me about service innovation as a top driver of automation efforts and the pressure that a CSP is under from the hyperscalers.

TV: I think that's actually very interesting question. I mean, if you look at innovation as a subject itself, I think it's important to understand that innovation subject is not something that can be bound within an organization. It works best when it is an ecosystem. And that's where I think, as an industry, we need to look at hyperscalers in a more collaborative form than a competitive one, because if you'll go back to... We spoke about the infrastructure, and the automation, and the benefits of that, what CSPs... I mean, we can learn a lot from the way the hyperscalers have looked at the infrastructure problem and looked at the scale of the problem, which is something we still haven't gotten to. So I would say that the infrastructure part is certainly something where there is a collaborative element with the hyperscalers.

But where I think the innovation... There's still space for innovation, it's in the context of why, still. If you look at the public cloud providers, while there's a lot of learning on the... The way they have automated the underlying infrastructure and compute. But again, bringing the end-to-end service together, allowing ecosystem partners, industries, to come onto your platform, to build these services, taking the design environment in that automation life cycle outside your comfort zone and allowing external developers and industry specialists to build those services, is really the space that I think CSPs can play a major role.

And again, the way we build the automation should be such that it allows for the innovation, especially certain parts of that automation life cycle to be kept outside even, off the CSPs environment, to make sure that we allow for that collaboration to happen with the industries.

MH: 40% of CSPs, in a recent survey, said they have some degree of interprocess process automation within a single domain while few have managed automation across network and service domains, or business units, what does that tell you?

TV: I think that tells us a few things. First of all, it tells us that in that hierarchy of needs, we are still pretty much scratching the surface when it comes to getting to what is the impact that automation brings to the customer experience and service management. And the reason for that is also maybe, so far, we have been missing compelling reasons to do so as well. But with 5G, with 5G slicing, we are also getting that compelling reason why we should move to that space.

So I think I'm not surprised with that stat because I think so far the services that we have delivered in the 4G era has largely been consumer-centric where the need was to achieve scale at the lowest cost to reach as many users and subscribers that you can have and you can find. That's where the focus was more on the bottom two layers to automate repetitive processes, which really are labor-intensive. But now with 5G, we start to get that compelling reason to move up. So I certainly expect this statistic to improve as CSPs onboard and embark on the 5G journey. But having said that, it's also important to realize that we can't use the same set of machinery from the 4G era to make that happen.

MH: And how much of that has to do with the fact that, as you point out, 4G was very consumer-centric, but 5G is very enterprise-centric? This is one of the key building blocks of industry 4.0. And at that level, when there's a lot of money on the line with a client versus me and my $100 a month, it behooves the industry to adopt automation as not just as a process, but as a cultural shift, because there are going to be so many more demands on the network once we've got this fourth industrial revolution well underway.

TV: Right. If you look at some of this... The study that was done by Bell Labs, the opportunity size with 5G and the Industry 4.0 is probably as big as the entire consumer market. So like you said, there is a lot of money at stake and opportunity size is really big. That's one.

And secondly, I think if you look at the complexity aspect that you mentioned, I think we expect about 100 times more the number of actions that need to happen in the network to deliver a 5G slice, or a service, or complex that was on top of 5G, as compared to what we had before.

MH: Now, why is that?

TV: So a couple of reasons, as a technology, fundamentally 5G goes from being uni-dimensional, which was more purely about capacity, to being multi-dimensional that adds reliability and latency to that. So by definition, first of all, 5G is a multi-dimensional technology, which means any operative or management system needs to manage all of these aspects at the same time.

In addition to that, in another evolution of the network, moving from physical to virtual and now to a completely containerized cloud native environment, so we're also making that shift, and adopting more and more public cloud services. So if you look at all the three aspects, the way a network looks today is a lot, lot more real-time, a lot more dynamic, that meets management at a much more tactical level than just fire and forget from the past. So if you compare, if you put all these dimensions together, you can see that the operative systems, automation systems, would have to be taking a lot more actions in the network than they did before.

MH: You've said that it's still early days, but there are signs of acknowledgement that we need to convert the organizational design to be able to achieve those key performance indicators. Can you give me an example of a CSP doing it right?

TV: Yeah, I think so far, I would say there are some CSPs that we have spoken to, some who are very clearly stating their aspirations to be zero-touch. And zero-touch could mean, of course, many things, but essentially what they're saying is that they do want to ensure that the resource are deployed effectively in the organization and they're able to achieve the levels of efficiency that they're looking for. And I think Telenor is one such customer who has been more public about what they want to do with automation.

There are also others who have approached this in terms of the leadership where they are clearly defining an organization structure with an executive seat for someone who drives the automation agenda and brings the various silos, if I may say, together, to achieve their objective. So I think we start to see signs of that, of course. And clearly, like I mentioned before, the timing of these changes is very much aligned to also the same set of customers embarking on the 5G journey, because I think that realization has really dawned that if you really want to capitalize on 5G, we need to start making the organizational changes, and give them that learning curve as well immediately.

MH: So whether we're looking at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, or Thiel's hierarchy of needs, we're all pushing towards that goal of either personal, or professional self-actualization.

TV: Absolutely.

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