Open Books

Reviews of Recent Titles on Open Systems Subjects

The Lean Communications Provider
by Elizabeth K. Adams and Keith J. Willetts
252 pages; $29.95
ISBN# 0-007-070306-X



By Jim Johnson

The Lean Communications Provider
It has been a long time since the breakup of AT&T, but the benefits of competition between telecommunications service providers are only now beginning to be felt by most of us. The long-term effects of the deregulation and de-monopolization of the telecom industry are hard to predict, but it is certain that business customers will be offered new services that are better, cheaper and faster than ever before. Many of these services will provide features that customers can't conceive of today. Furthermore, this trend toward market-driven competitiveness and innovation is not limited to the U.S., Europe or even so-called developed countries; some of the best ground-floor telecom markets can be found in Third World nations, where state-owned or state-controlled telecom monopolies are being privatized.

What exactly is meant by telecom provider? The meaning of the term has changed dramatically in just a few years. Enabled by telecom reform legislation, the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) are pushing to get into the long-distance business and data services. Cable TV companies are moving to offer high-speed Internet access and to compete with the RBOCs. It seems as if anybody with a right-of-way, including rail companies and municipal governments, is laying fiber-optic cable and going into the wholesale data pipe business. Long-distance carriers are pushing to get into more local markets as well, while fighting with these newcomers and each other over their existing customer bases.

As with any significant, rapid change, there are casualties. Telecom monopolies have spent decades offering technology-driven services based on what was convenient for them, instead of market-driven services based on actual customer needs. Likewise, protection from market forces has bred an internal culture that provides more "customer relations" than "customer service." The inevitable culture shock brought by competition is impacting more than middle managers; technical people, long shielded from market forces and free to enjoy slack work environments and cultivate technological perfection, are now expected to meet high performance standards and "get it out the door."

If the above scenario sounds like something out of a book on business process reengineering (BPR), it's no coincidence. The sudden move from no competition to intense competition has made all telecom industry players case studies in the science of increasing business effectiveness. Many of the new players are exploiting the sluggishness of the incumbents by utilizing the flexibility of their new organizations and targeting the most profitable niches. For the big old-timers, reengineering is a matter of survival, but habits are slow to change, and institutional inertia remains a problem.

A Reengineering Guide

Keith J. Willetts is founder and president of the Network Management Forum (NMF); he is also a senior vice president at TCSI, a provider of object-oriented products and services, and was previously with British Telecom. He has published articles on network management systems. Elizabeth K. Adams is managing director and COO of the NMF, and has over 25 years of experience in network operations, service management, business process reengineering and systems integration. She also has managed WATS/800 services for AT&T and served on the 1984 divestiture team.

Willetts conceived the NMF in 1987 as a way to get industry leaders to support common, consistent approaches to network management. In recent years, it has evolved into an organization consisting of over 150 companies in over 30 countries that is confronting service management issues.

In their book, Willetts and Adams have produced what is essentially a reengineering guide crafted for telecom service providers. Its four sections comprehensively cover the problems faced by the industry, possible integration solutions, comprehensive strategies for implementing such integration and achieving service management excellence. They emphasize the concept of the "lean service provider" as the model that will prevail in the future and point to interdepartmental handoffs as a prime target for cutting inefficiency. They also focus on the automation of business processes from start to finish: "automating process flow-thru." They explore not only the processes within a provider but processes between customer and provider, between provider and networking technology, and between providers. The conceptual centerpiece of their presentation is the "three-legged stool": providing excellent value, providing excellent quality and continually offering new ways to improve the customer's life.

Willetts and Adams put forth three interlinked NMF programs to facilitate effective organization for service providers. Their service management automation and reengineering team (SMART) provides structures that define the information exchanges between customers, providers and underlying technology. The open management interoperability point (OmniPoint) program emphasizes the selection and integration of the standards and technology used to automate processes. And service providers' integrated requirements for information technology (SPIRIT) produces a set of procurement specifications that conforms to standards agreed upon by major service providers around the world.

Overall, the book offers a heavy BPR orientation; most managers of telecom services will find it useful, as will account reps and analysts who deal with telecom service providers and thus depend on a "big picture" of an organization. Front-line staffers and techs may find it interesting or educational, but they will likely consider it too abstract to be functionally useful in their current positions.

The reading of this otherwise dense material is lightened by the authors' frequent use of (sometimes irreverent) humor. Their use of case histories, examples and colloquial recountings of their professional experiences likewise assists in the turning of pages. They do not hesitate to be opinionated, but the reader who considers the authors' comments to be overly broad or cavalier is advised to review their extensive credentials.

The focus of this book is narrow, but if you fall within its target audience you will benefit from reading it. The authors make no bones about pushing the NMF and its programs; they are true believers in the role of NMF as a facilitator of leaner, more effective organizations. However, even if you don't share their enthusiasm for the NMF, their concepts are valid and helpful in getting a grip on how your organization can become more competitive, whether it's an incumbent struggling to adapt or an upstart trying to upset the giants.

Jim Johnson is a certified personnel consultant and the principal of Options Unlimited, specializing in the placement of Unix professionals in the Washington, DC, area. He can be reached at