Friday, November 14, 2008

Succeeding in the New World

It is well accepted today that many of the global economies are facing a slowdown. The combined effect of the mortgage crisis, energy prices and consequent meltdown of Wall Street has taken its toll on even the resilient economies of China and India. The financial services industry is worst hit; other sectors including IT, auto and retail are also on the downturn.

To beat a recession, companies must manage through it with minimal injury, usually through cost cutting. However, it is also a time to emerge stronger for the morning after, by growing into new markets, strengthening supply chains and developing innovative business models. Whatever be the strategic objective, communications technologies and services can play a critical role in helping corporations navigate through the uncertain times as well as prepare them for tomorrow.

Conserve: Traditionally, businesses have focused on cost reduction during a recession, usually, by going after G&A and marketing costs. Global expansion and collaboration do add new administrative and marketing costs and create a situation where businesses have to find new avenues of improving profitability. There is also a need to be increasingly conscious of the impact of business activities on the environment; conserving energy and carbon emissions, along with costs, is the primary mantra in current times. The emergence of hosted or managed services for communications services and applications enables businesses to expand their capabilities without many of the associated costs and overheads.

Enterprise applications including ERP, messaging, and security offered by service providers ensure that all stakeholders can have a seamless experience, irrespective of location and access mechanism. Managed services like messaging and security, not only reduce operating costs but also free up valuable capital resources. The managed services model creates greater focus on core, market-facing business strategies and processes by letting specialist service providers manage the non-core activities. Similarly, data center consolidation and outsourcing can provide major savings through scale of real-estate, power and management. Further, virtualization provides ‘multiplier’ savings in terms of capex utilization, flexibility, power efficiency, disaster recovery efficiency, etc.

There are also several customized “cloud” services to address the demands of specific industry verticals. For instance, hosted contact centers enable mid-sized BPOs to scale their operations with limited up-front capex and pay as they expand their business. Services like public Telepresence rooms, in addition to their power of collaboration, provide considerable savings in cost, eliminating travel and other associated expenses as well as providing other intangible savings in carbon emissions and employee productivity.

Collaborate: Developing countries, growing at over 8.6% p.a. over the next five years, provide significant new market opportunities for large corporations that face demand saturation in the developed countries. This rapid growth in addition to the fact that 80% of global population will be in the emerging economies, makes these markets a must-enter for most multi-nationals. Global expansion will result in globally distributed teams based on the availability of best resources to run global businesses. Supply chains, downstream and upstream, tend to be spread across countries but need to work seamlessly as an integrated, virtual unit. Managing people across locations and building a shared organization culture is the biggest challenge for companies in this new world. Moreover, it is critical that companies create real-time collaboration mechanisms across the extended organization for the creation of new products / services and taking them to market ahead of competition. 

Global Virtual Private Networks (VPN) using MPLS and Global Ethernet solutions enable the creation of secure, multi-location wide area networks with high levels of scalability and flexibility. Bringing new offices online or increasing bandwidth between them or implementing a new application globally has become almost as simple as installation of a plug and play device.

Additionally, businesses can choose from a variety of platforms, including high definition video conferencing (Telepresence), next-generation content delivery networks and converged services, to engage more effectively and in real-time with their stakeholders. It could be a BPO that wants its engagement managers to brief their clients in North America and Europe using Telepresence, face to face every week instead of waiting for the monthly on-site reviews; it could be a fashion products company that uses a content delivery network to provide web-based, video training to its sales teams and agents across Asia the day prior to launch of its next best-seller. It could also be any company whose leadership and management teams use unified communications systems to engage and work as a single team, across multiple priorities, geographies and time-zones.

Innovate: It took the “telephone” nearly hundred years to become a globally adopted and mainstream product. Today, new services and products are launched in days and reach the peak of their life-cycle in just months. The rapid shortening of the consumer adoption cycles creates new opportunities and challenges. The willingness of customers to try and accept new products (and providers) enables companies to enter new markets and challenge incumbents. On the flip side, companies now have very short time-windows to launch services and recoup their investments, before an alternate product comes along or consumer preferences change. Simultaneously, the saturation of traditional markets is forcing businesses to identify new segments that were hitherto untapped or were not suitably targeted. This also requires the identification and adoption of new and/or more appropriate channels that can create the time, cost and focus advantage of reaching a market. The Internet has been at the heart of most innovations in recent years; it continues to be so, particularly with the re-invention of the www as Web2.0.

High bandwidth backbone and access networks and huge cost effective storage are providing the impetus for digitization and online distribution of most forms of content and information. Education – knowledge management and training, in the corporate context – can now be disseminated in a highly interactive and customized manner, across multiple locations using IP-based training and conferencing solutions. Content providers can reach their customers much faster; for instance, an online gaming company with an appropriate CDN solution can deliver new games 4X to 10X times faster than without.

Voice and basic data communication enabled the first wave of outsourcing – contact centers and transaction processing; with advanced video communications facilities, BPOs can create now seek to outsource activities that require intense, face to face interaction and collaborative knowledge sharing. Wireless and mobile technologies have also helped expand the reach of services to markets that were earlier out of bounds. Banks, particularly in emerging markets, can now use mobile ATMs with wireless connectivity to open up whole new, untapped rural markets for financial services.

Businesses have a variety of choices, both in terms of services and service providers. A communications service provider can be more than just a vendor. In the context of the shift to managed and hosted services, the communications provider should be one that has domain expertise and can provide customized business solutions rather than just network connectivity or infrastructure. In these times of uncertainty, it is also important for IT managers to partner with service providers that are financially robust. There are only a handful of communications service providers that have a truly global presence in voice, data, IP and managed services. Given that telecom is still a reasonably regulated industry in most countries and that scale, infrastructure ownership and domestic presence have a crucial impact on service delivery capabilities, IT managers will need to make the trade-off between global coverage and in-depth, local presence in key markets / destinations. 

The world has seen more changes in this decade than it has ever seen in the past. The next few years will probably accelerate this change, in political, economic and social spheres. Collaboration and innovation are the heartbeats that will drive this new networked world. It is a world where the strategic adoption of communications and services will play a decisive role in differentiating winners from the also-rans.

This has appeared as an article or an interview in various publications: 
Asian Channels (doc version)

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