TORONTO (05/16/2000) - In an industry where change happens at the speed of thought, how do you mobilize your IT resources to respond effectively?
That's the question CIO Paul Nelson faced five years ago when he joined Rogers AT&T Wireless, Canada's largest national wireless telecommunications company.
At the time, the advent of digital technology was transforming the industry.
The number of players was about to double and competition was fierce to be first to market.
The company's IT group was also going through a major transition. It had been building a fairly traditional set of competencies, complete with a large development staff. At the same time, it had outsourced most day-to-day operations to Rogers Shared Services. And it was leasing a third-party billing system.
Nelson and his IT team had to make some tough decisions: should Rogers continue to build a traditional IT organization, or would another model better support the business strategy? And should the company continue to operate as a mainframe-based organization or make the move into client/server computing?
"For a company like ours, with double-digit growth and a very competitive environment, it's critical that we bring new systems quickly to market," said Nelson. "It was clear we needed a more responsive, flexible approach."
THE SHAMROCK ORGANIZATION
Change was in the air and Nelson had the right skills to meet the challenge.
Before coming to Rogers, he had established a reputation as a change-maker within the airline industry. For the six previous years, he served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The Gemini Group, a joint venture between Air Canada and Canadian Airlines. Nelson led Gemini's successful effort to combine the two airlines' reservation and inventory control systems with the Apollo computerized reservation system. This became Canada's largest private data network.
When Nelson joined Rogers AT&T Wireless, he welcomed the opportunity to lead the process of change. He found his model in the work of Charles Handy, an organizational visionary, and Peter Keen, a leading IT consultant now based in Virginia. Known as the "shamrock organization," it features three core groups.
In the case of Rogers AT&T Wireless, the three groups function as follows:
1. A small core staff of 135 IT professionals is accountable for the systems that drive revenue and market share, contain costs or improve customer service; 2. An outsourcing team (Rogers Shared Services) operates the company's networks and computers and supports non-strategic applications such as accounts payable or human resources; and 3. Temporary workers work closely with Rogers AT&T Wireless systems integrators to implement new applications. Rather than build systems from scratch, Nelson's team goes out in to the marketplace and buys and then customizes packaged solutions developed specifically for the wireless industry.
In itself, this structure is not particularly unique or new. What's different, according to Nelson, is the extent of the partnerships with outside vendors.
"We probably look the way that a lot of IT organizations are going to look in the future," says Nelson. "As systems integrators we have to be pretty nimble and take technologies that come from a variety of different suppliers and weld them together."
For example, the company is now implementing a $200 million customer care and billing system purchased from an Israeli solutions provider, Amdocs. A technical staff of roughly 150 (100 in Tel Aviv; 50 in Toronto) people from Amdocs has been working closely with Rogers AT&T Wireless IT professionals since mid-1998.
As Nelson points out, it would have taken years to build this solution from scratch, "and there would be no guarantee it would work or fit the needs of our business by the time it was ready. Our system will have completed the national launch in June and we believe it's a world class solution." (see "Mammoth Integration Project" sidebar below) "We're no longer in the business of lengthy application development projects," he adds. "We have to make things happen fast. We are systems integrators rather than system builders. Our role is clearly strategic."
RETHINKING TECHNOLOGY STRATEGY
While creating the new IT organization, Nelson's team also rethought its underlying technology strategy and practices. First, they worked to establish a common set of processes across Rogers AT&T Wireless and Rogers Shared Services.
In the past, there were many ad hoc procedures that did not work well together.
These were reengineered to ensure consistency and support a more proactive approach to the needs of the business.
"Instead of moving from crisis to crisis, we're in the business of aggressively preventing crises," says Nelson.
Second, the two organizations worked together to establish a new IT infrastructure. Previously, the company had operated a very traditional, mainframe-based shop. "We didn't have a single operational client/server system," recalls Nelson. "And most of our core business systems were dedicated overnight to batch processing. In a business that runs around the clock -- with customers using cellular phones all hours of the day and night -- this was not providing optimal systems availability."
In addition, Rogers operated numerous stand-alone midrange systems, with islands of data that didn't talk to each other. In fact, data was replicated in four or five different places. As a result, executives could be sitting at a management meeting with different sets of numbers, adding to the complexity of business analysis.
The solution: Rogers AT&T Wireless and Rogers Shared Services worked together to map out a new client/server infrastructure. It would ensure the use of common storage systems, network devices and desktop systems across the company.
And it would move the company from a mainframe-based, batch-processing environment to real-time client/server computing.
"We have to be extremely responsive in the way systems work," says Nelson. "If people have a problem, they want to have it resolved right away. With our new infrastructure we've added another seven hours of availability every day."
Today, the new organization poses some distinct human resource challenges. It calls for a strong production services group to monitor quality, oversee service level agreements and manage change. To be effective in this role, staff must develop strong business skills, above and beyond traditional technical skills.
"Fortunately, we've been able to attract and retain a good nucleus of people with a strong knowledge of the wireless business," says Nelson. For some, however, the transition has not always been easy. "Some of our staff simply wanted to write code and to build small client/server applications," he recalls. "They found the adjustment difficult."
Professional development is therefore a top priority within the IT organization -- and for Nelson, personally, as well. He says it's part of his daily job to keep abreast of what's going on in the business and he encourages others to take time out for learning. He and his colleagues spend several days every year attending conferences and learning from other organizations facing similar challenges.
"This is a business that runs on brain cells. The smarter and more educated our people are, the more successful we'll be."
STRING OF SUCCESSES
How effective is the new approach at Rogers AT&T Wireless? Its power is evident in the speed with which the company can introduce new solutions. For example:
- Five years ago, Nelson led the development and implementation of an automated data-entry system. Built in just six months, this system handles daily change requests regarding customer service and frequent sales promotions. It has yielded major business benefits, including significant productivity improvements, cost savings of $5 million to $6 million annually and revenue increases. In fact, Nelson says that without the system, the company would never have been able to introduce its highly successful Two-in-One offering, which resulted in close to 40,000 new activations in the first three months.
The activation process would have been too long and error-prone. With the system, it takes a couple of minutes, with zero errors. - The company was first to market with its digital cellular network, launching its new service in the fall of 1997. A team of 50 internal IT staff and more than 200 people from the business side worked with Ericsson and Nokia to build and launch the network in just six months. Today, Rogers AT&T Wireless is the largest digital carrier in Canada, with a network that reaches more than 90 per cent of the Canadian population. - Two years ago, the company rolled out an award-winning fraud system in just six months. The project team included Coral Technologies Incorporated, a Colorado-based business vendor (since acquired by Lightbridge of Boston). The solution has reduced Rogers' fraud losses -- estimated at $2million to $3 million monthly -- approximately 90 per cent. - Also in 1998, Rogers AT&T implemented an authentication system. When a phone is cloned, the con artist will typically run up several thousand dollars worth of charges in a few hours. The authentication system helps eliminate the grief for customers by validating the identity of the caller. "Without authentication, it's hard to tell who is customer and who is criminal," says Nelson. His team worked with U.S.-based AT&T Wireless to install the solution in just 90 days.
That's not all. Nelson's team has a strong record of delivering projects on time and on budget. There's minimal development backlog. And its average monthly cost of supporting a subscriber -- a key industry metric -- is the lowest in North America.
"When I see the company making its targets -- whether in terms of growing its subscriber base, delivering a high level of customer service, or containing churn levels -- I know we're doing exactly what we should be doing."
ONE-STOP NET SHOPPING
Meanwhile, the Rogers AT&T Wireless technology group continues to move fast to support new marketing initiatives and new ways of doing business. Take the company's latest Internet initiative, sponsored by Nelson. Soon the firm will launch the first Web site in North America featuring converged services (i.e. seamless voice and data services across a range of wireless devices). It will offer one-stop shopping for the full gamut of the company's products -- everything from cellular phones, cable and the @home Internet service.
"Our wireless products lend themselves to being sold and serviced over the Net.
The phones are small and can be easily shipped. The activation process is automated. We can deliver and activate a customer's phone within 48 hours of receiving their on-line order."
Can Rogers AT&T Wireless deliver on the promise of fast, convenient on-line shopping? One Rogers executive tested the site recently. She ordered the product, had it delivered and returned it, using the return packaging provided.
She received an e-mail acknowledgement of her return within 24 hours of delivery and a credit-card credit within three days.
"That's the kind of service we are aiming for," says Nelson. "We want to provide flawless execution and service through all our channels."
The Internet initiative has all the hallmarks of a Rogers AT&T Wireless project. It is being developed with the help of a technology partner, EDS. It will launch quickly, in just over six months, and it's a market first.
Nelson does acknowledge that there are organizations where this approach would not fit. For example, some companies are simply more comfortable with running an internal self-sufficient IT group. The deciding factor, ultimately, is what best fits your business. "In the end, we are enablers. That's all. We have to do what the business requires."
"We have two main tasks today," adds Nelson. "To stay focused on providing innovative solutions to business problems and to ensure that our staff take advantage of training opportunities to continue to increase their business and technical skills. I take heart in knowing my team can play a major role in supporting that effort."
Sidebar: Customers Will Benefit From Mammoth Integration Project By Darlene Shura CIO Canada The new IT infrastructure and organization at Rogers Wireless AT&T has paved the way for a brand new customer care and billing system.
This system required a mammoth integration effort, lasting the better part of two years. When it launches in late June, it will provide end-to-end functionality to support all major business processes that touch Rogers AT&T customers -- from sales, to service activation, to billing. In real time.
The goal was to create a single source of data, bringing every core business system seamlessly together. In effect, the project team is building a master data warehouse that feeds a number of smaller data marts; these in turn will supply data to the company's marketing information, revenue management, campaign management and end-user computing systems.
For example, call detail records for the company's three million customers will be transmitted instantly from the field to corporate databases. This information in turn will be posted to accounts receivable and used to create monthly bills. Business analysts will also access the data to study call patterns for the purposes of developing new rate plans, as well as to project revenues.
That's not all. If a customer should call to discuss their service, the same data will pop up immediately in front of a Rogers AT&T service representative.
Should they take any action on behalf of the customer -- such as issuing a credit -- the system will track the activity. "It makes everyone very accountable," observes Paul Nelson, CIO.
As an important next step, the company is now Web-enabling its customer care and billing system. A Web-based customer self-service application will launch later this year. Customers will be able to perform a number of tasks on-line, via any standard Web browser. For example, they'll be able to check their usage, pay bills or turn voice mail on and off -- entirely at their convenience.
"We believe we are substantially ahead of our competitors in providing this level of Web-based service," says Nelson. "Based on what we see in the marketplace, we are confident we are building a gold-standard solution."
Darlene Shura is a freelance writer specializing in information technology and IT management. She is based in Oakville, Ontario.