Accelerating network automation: Ensuring automation initiatives are set up for success
In response to rising network complexity and expanding volumes of data flows, network automation emerges as a key solution for telecoms operators to drive process optimisation, particularly where human-driven operations can no longer tackle the complex and dynamic challenges posed by best-in-class telecoms networks.
With intense competition shrinking telcos’ margins on legacy connectivity services, operators are seeking technological innovation that can deliver cost savings and facilitate service innovation. Network automation has become a driving force in today’s telecoms landscape, enabling telcos to take advantage of a near exponential rise in operational complexity by transitioning from a finite process map to the delivery of services that leverage a broader spectrum of inputs.
Today, significant portions of network processes are tied to manual tasks and handoffs. These can be replaced by automated systems to transform network management, upgrades, and capacity optimisation according to Telstra’s Group Owner – Connectivity Enablement, Arturo Cacace.
What is network automation?
Network automation refers to replacing manual processes with intelligent technology to execute, monitor and control business processes. System-level, cross-domain automation streamlines and enhances network operations. It creates more comprehensive feedback loops for network management and facilitates more agile service innovation. However, the success of automation initiatives hinges on careful planning and execution. This article explores four key considerations that operators must not lose sight of when accelerating network automation initiatives:
- Data sources
- Process redesign
- Lean documentation
Data sources: The significance of understanding raw data
Using valid and reliable data, backed by a socialised and understood data glossary, is key to ensuring that data insights are accurate and well-documented. “Golden source data” – one that is well-defined and centralised across the organisation – should be used throughout the automation process. It is a key part of the overarching requirement for telcos to have a structured data governance and strategy in place, in turn ensuring data inputs are carefully chosen, and that the resulting outputs are received and interpreted with consideration of the inputs.
Automating processes without taking data sources into account can lead to flawed outcomes, as any autonomous decisions are meaningless without accurate understanding of the input data sources. Take even the most basic data point, such as call length. Without defining the units being used (minutes or seconds), the definition of the start of the call (when the number is dialled versus when the call is connected) and the definition of the end of the call, this statistic is largely meaningless. This significant dependency on underlying data capabilities means organisations must not only use reliable data, but also document it thoroughly. This practice ensures data sources are transparent and reliable, minimising errors and enhancing the value of the automation as operators look to progress towards cross-domain, closed-loop, intelligent automation.
Process redesign: Automation is just one tool
Morgan Stern, who is the Vice President of Automation Strategy for Itential, says business process redesign is a mandatory step in truly reflecting a “machine-centric” paradigm and driving any successful automation initiative. Automation should not merely replicate existing processes but should look to improve and optimise them. The end goal of any automation initiative must be to identify and eliminate inherent inefficiencies and redundancies, making the process leaner and more efficient (in turn maximising value and minimising operational costs). Success of automation initiatives should never be measured in terms of volume of automations, but by the percentage reduction in time or cost of an overall process.
It is essential to consider both operational and technological constraints and optimise the automated process in line with these. Automation can be a catalyst for process improvement, in essence multiplying the potential benefits to be gained, and this opportunity should not be missed. While automated and autonomous processes can be opaque for many business users, it is important to remember that there are cost implications of this automated process occurring, and any business user automating their own processes should be incentivised to consider process and cost optimisation as well as time saved for themselves.
Process optimisation ensures that, at a minimum, energy costs are curtailed, and at its best, it can lead to reduced hardware requirements and cost reductions for components purchased on a usage-based model. By thoroughly evaluating and refining a process to be automated, organisations can maximise the benefits of automation by simplifying complex processes and streamlining workflows, reaping the efficiency benefits associated with this process improvement.
Sponsorship: Key success factor
Another crucial factor in the success of an automation initiative is sponsorship by senior management. Although operators are starting with tactical and distinct automation initiatives within discrete business units, there is an overarching desire to transition to cross-domain, intelligent automation initiatives. Without the backing of top-level management who sit in similar cross-domain positions, it can be challenging to align across business units and stakeholders to successfully implement automation initiatives that deliver positive outcomes for all stakeholders.
Cross-functional teams are critical to overcome the challenge of the lack of alignment with overarching initiatives and business objectives. Having senior sponsorship to facilitate engaging process experts and domain owners will help ensure stakeholders are committed to the project’s success. They need to take a holistic, end-to-end view, understanding the potential benefits and cross-organisational implications, while also advocating for the value of automation. Without this support, aversion to organisational change can undermine the initiative and result in sub-optimal results when embedding the change into the organisational culture.
Lean documentation for lean network automation
Finally, comprehensive, yet lean, documentation is a pre-requisite for effective automation. Before taking steps to introducing automation initiatives, it is essential to appropriately document existing processes with appropriate knowledge management tools. This serves as a valuable resource for preserving the knowledge of processes within the organisation, even when they are automated and do not need manual hand-offs during business-as-usual (BAU) operations. This enables better integration with new components, while enabling simple edits to be made to existing automations and allowing the process to easily occur manually in exceptional circumstances.
Appropriate documentation also protects against a knowledge gap stemming from a key employee leaving the business, and ensures process knowledge can be passed onto new hires to enable rapid upskilling and continuity. For instance, employee turnover can inevitably lead to the loss of expertise, a key prerequisite to integrating tactical automation initiatives across different domains as part of the wider end-to-end automation. The lack of proper documentation can make it difficult to understand and reverse-engineer the original tactical domain if the employee that created the automation has left the business, potentially derailing automation efforts.
Unlocking the full potential of network automation
In this new age of digital transformation, automation initiatives are reshaping telco operations and framing new opportunities to develop performant and resilient networks. However, their success depends on careful planning and consideration of critical factors. Data sources, process redesign, senior sponsorship, and lean documentation are all key considerations that should not be overlooked. By addressing these factors, operators are more likely to implement their automation initiatives successfully and efficiently, enabling them to unlock the full potential of automation and reap the benefits in terms of cost savings, increased business agility, and new revenue enablement.
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