Industry Spotlight: North Highland’s Jason Serotta on the Human Side of Digital Transformations

August 13th, 2019 by · Leave a Comment

With all the M&A going on, all the new automation capabilities, and new  technologies like 5G, AI, and more on the horizon, the telecommunications and internet infrastructure sector is never sitting still.  Companies in any sector must manage change, but in this sector keeping up is a never-ending project with no vacations.  With us today to talk about handling the next wave of challenges wrought by digital transformation is Jason Serotta, Media, Entertainment, & Communications Global Thought Leader at the management consulting firm North Highland.  Prior to joining North Highland four and a half years ago, Jason spent 8 years at Verizon.

TR: What does North Highland focus on, and what role do you play?

JS: North Highland is a management consulting company that focuses heavily on human transformation, program and process management, digital technology, and overall strategy. We partner with our clients to solve their most strategic problems across the organization.  What we've realized is change management approaches in the past have worked, but they're not bringing employee engagement, the “what's in it for me,” along with the ride. So, we incorporate tactics designed to stimulate favorable employee commitment.

For example, when a large UK telecom was implementing an operating model change with massive shifts in technology and processes impacting 80% of the organization, North Highland built out a foundational story on the purpose of the change. It went to all employees to help people understand the strategy in a clear concise way. After launching the new strategy with an extraordinary all-company-away day and a nationwide campaign, nearly 90% of employees reported feeling excited or very excited about the future of the company, with a 64% increase  in Net Promoter Score.

TR: What types of transformational changes are the largest communications companies facing right now?

JS: It's a little of everything. After so many acquisitions, telcos are asking questions like: "What's our core business?  Are we a wireless company, a broadband company, a media company, or a conglomerate now using loss leaders to drive growth? Where are the threats coming from, and are they new to the industry?”  AT&T has acquired several distinct and quite different organizations. Now, the entire company is focused on retiring debt which is not necessarily forward thinking.  But in the same breath, what do they want to be when they grow up? How do you keep an asset like HBO successful without giving it away to fund other businesses, such as mobile or broadband? In the short term they’re going to struggle until they figure out where the sweet spot is for their products and services.

When you look at T-Mobile and Sprint, network and operational integration come to the forefront. Verizon tends to focus more on the mobile space and IoT these days. While they still have broadband, they haven't gone after high-profile acquisitions like AT&T has in video and media, and they're focused on making sure they're the strongest network possible for 5G evolution. Should they double down more in wireless or go after areas where they see Comcast and AT&T playing?

Medium sized players like Cox Communications are being squeezed. Comcast is the big player there but as it shows interest in mobile, should Cox do the same? How do they compete with companies like AT&T and T-Mobile who will soon offer 5G in rural areas, potentially taking opportunities from Cox.  As Comcast goes deeper in mobility, it will need new products that integrate heavily with the home services they offer today. They’ll look to employees and vendors for help with that.

TR: How do you prepare an employee base for shifts of this type and not lose your way?

JS: That's the magic question. Typical change management tells you to start with your stakeholder list and impact analysis and go through communication and training plans with a check-the-box mentality. The human engagement side of that translates those messages at each level. But, the message at an SVP level is not the same as for VPs. And, when you go to the director level, managers and line employees, the message has to be completely different. You have to commit time, effort and resources to align with what matters to them: how their jobs are changing and what the potential impacts are to the company.

Your understanding of competitors, what you learn from them, and how you translate that knowledge into products and services can get departmentalized if you don't communicate effectively to each level of the organization. You get pockets that have all the information, but it never truly gets disseminated.

TR: How do you keep employees motivated in a changing work environment?

JS: When communicating with employees, it’s about a hierarchy of needs: “Do I still have a job? Is there something I should do differently to keep my job? Am I comfortable in what I'm doing?”  Anytime there's change, people become uncomfortable. To keep them in that comfort zone you have to let people know what the impacts are to the overall organization - and that everything will be okay. Share that there’s a clear point you're trying to get to as a company.

Some companies have provided training on newer technologies for employees. AT&T, for example, provided reskilling for employees who were focused on legacy or decommissioned technologies to ensure they remained relevant. The whole concept of “What's in it for me?” is the key to it all. Each employee at every level wants to know how a change will impact them, and if you don't put it in their terms the transformational change is definitely at risk.

TR: And how well are telecommunications doing at this overall in this era of changes?

JS: A handful have realized and accepted that top-down communication doesn't always work. The same message told by executives is not going to have the same impact at different levels.

 Many are communicating that the company needs to change but provide little in the “how.”   These companies are trying to change their customer journey, but they haven't explained to  employees what that really means and how it will affect the way they work. It’s as if there are two separate teams, the “business as usual” group versus those focusing on the future, but not much integration in between. The impacts, implications and paths to course correct that customer journey must be in the forefront to ensure success.

TR: Has the rise in automation changed how telecommunications companies work internally?

JS: Yes, but in different ways than you might think. Automation is not necessarily replacing jobs, rather, it's replacing how people think about their current jobs. Self-healing networks are a good example. How do you use data and artificial intelligence to predict when a network may be failing and use that knowledge to help customers?  AI can measure things like battery and signal strength and predict when a device is going to have issues.  You can start using AI to predict customer complaints and concerns; maybe you redirect a cell tower in situations where you couldn’t have in a manual setting. AI can help gather information in a timely manner, but we have to integrate it into the business in a way that humans can use it effectively.

TR: How do we do that?

JS:  The key is storytellers. It's very simple to say, "I've noticed an anomaly." You can get a bunch of data scientists to tell you that. The difficulty lies in the context.  For example, the storytellers need to connect those anomalies to congestion due to a large concert or conference or another event in a major city.  For one carrier’s broadband network, we did an analysis to understand something we call the "top talkers." We identified the people who were potentially causing congestion.  We found it was the uploads, not the downloads. You'd think that a hundred people running Netflix at the same time while using social media and playing Candy Crush on their phones would cause congestion, but based on how the network was built, there was a lot less capacity for uploads.  One person uploading YouTube videos had more impact than 100 people streaming Netflix.  Once you know the story, you can address customers’ desires and ensure that the network stays healthy.

TR: So how do you foster and enable these storytellers?

JS: I think it’s a joint conversation. Data and analytics teams often need to be pointed in a direction. What we've seen in companies is that teams are waiting for a problem to solve instead of trying to look at data in different ways.  They should be incorporating business logic to identify problems that exist. Businesses should use data analytics as a business partner, not a cost center. If you view it as a cost center, the focus is "How can I save money for the company?"  But the sweet spot is "How do I create a better experience for our customers while reducing processes within the company?"  Data will point you to where customers are successful and where they’re falling out.  This is how we streamline the user experience to create the desired end result – happy customers.

TR: In what ways are we at risk of losing the human touch in the telecommunications marketplace as a whole?

JS: As companies try to become more national, their conversation and messaging with customers loses the local feel. When you're not communicating in a local manner, it feels like a big conglomerate and you lose the personal relationship.  In addition, companies are shifting toward a self-install-first mentality.  What's critical is not losing the human touch and making the process simple and defined. If it’s too long or complicated, customers will fail because they miss a step or don’t read the instructions.  The human touch requires that you don’t throw everything in the kitchen sink at them, but rather make the process simple to set up and operate going forward.  If installing a broadband CPE device takes 25-30 minutes to go-live and the company says, "Look, it is what it is,” that’s hardly the optimal customer experience. Even when a field tech comes out, if it takes 30 minutes to reboot, your product was not designed with the customer in mind (internal or external). It sends the message that the company doesn't care and the customer’s – and employee’s - time isn’t valuable.

TR: So what will it be like to work in the telecom industry beyond 2020? How will it change?

JS: It's going to be a lot less focused on services and more on the products themselves. Data is now the central point for almost all aspects of what we consume: voice is now VoIP, video is streaming, and home automation uses the data network as a backbone.  As you start looking at the consumer, it’s about selling a lifecycle based on data. How do you encourage and engage customers to be more active in the consumption and use of data? Companies need to train their executives and employees to rethink metrics to fit that model.  Start thinking holistically instead of everyone having a full P&L. Some businesses may be loss leaders or break even to engage customers in other areas. That's going to cascade into pricing, bundles and a different way of thinking about how customers consume data, rather than buying standalone services like phone, internet or video.

TR: What is a Chief People Officer? Is it actually a thing yet and will it be?

JS: It exists in some places. Think of it as the separation of HR as a business function from HR as an engagement function. Typically, HR has become very much about preventing or minimizing risk within the company: basically, not getting sued while also doing basic functions like recruiting and benefits. The Chief People Officer is more focused on how you engage employees and make them excited to come back day after day. How do you make sure they're remaining relevant - with training and compensation for the right metrics?  How do you recruit, motivate and retain the best talent?

TR: One thing we hear everywhere right now is that 5G is imminent.  What challenges does the industry face in rolling out 5G?

JS: The telcos are notorious for saying “If we build it, they will come.” It's an engineering-first approach after which you tell marketing, "Okay, go figure out how to sell it."   If you remember when 4G LTE came out, there were a handful of expensive devices, but everyone was comfortable with 3G at the time.  Providers tried to charge a premium for the LTE network, but customers resisted because they couldn't use it everywhere. It took time to figure out large scale use cases that really took advantage of what LTE could offer, like Netflix, Uber, gaming, etc.  By 2018 LTE hit 78% penetration. You see this in gigabit broadband as well, where very few use cases truly require gigabit speeds right now. With 5G you run that same risk.  Companies must start looking for the tipping point. If you only launch in five cities, you have to make sure people want to buy 5G devices and pay more for the network - when LTE is pretty darn fast with broadband and home WiFi to supplant it.

TR:  So what use cases do you think are the right ones to drive 5G growth?

AS: When Microsoft was entering the phone market with Windows phones, they focused on the consumer market instead of the enterprise.  Tt the time with Blackberry on the decline, they could have gone after the enterprise market first, locked in those revenues and then focused on consumers. If you concentrate on the broad consumer market, most are saying,"I've already spent up to $1,000 on a phone, why should I spend more on another phone if the speed will feel roughly the same and the device can't do that much more?"

I think when you look at pockets for 5G’s initial use, it's most likely the IoT space for  healthcare, connected cities or smart vehicles.  Other areas include things that require low latency and quick response rates or lots of transactions, like gaming and the financial industry. While the consumer is the sexy play, it doesn't translate as well in today's market. Yet, companies are likely to task their employees with how to focus on the consumer market when those use cases aren't necessarily there yet.

TR: Thank you for talking with Telecom Ramblings!

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Categories: Industry Spotlight · Wireless

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