High frequency change and the telco – are you ready?

A new book from applied futurist Tom Cheesewright argues that companies must change to deal with change. What does it mean for the telco?

If you think of a change consultant as someone whose job is to identify who to “let go” and how to assuage those forced into new roles as a result, then a new book from author Tom Cheesewright might be a tonic. 

The book – High Frequency Change – is not by a self described change consultant. Instead Cheesewright describes himself as an “applied futurist”. (If you want to know what that is then there’s a good description of how that title came about in the book.) But in literal terms, what this book offers is a practically-minded consultation on the nature of change, where it comes from, and what to do about it. 

Cheesewright’s theory is that although change feels to many like it is happening quicker, in fact it is the nature of change that has, er, changed. The frequency of really landscape-shifting changes – think industrial revolution, internal combustion engine etc – doesn’t really alter. The equivalent change that we are living through – roughly described as the information/internet revolution – is taking decades to play out, just as with other mega-changes.

Instead, Cheesewright posits, we are indeed subject to a much higher frequency of smaller changes that are, in themselves, big enough to disrupt individual companies or even sectors, but are not themselves era defining.

This is high frequency change. Within our period of mega change, companies are being hit by fast-moving, smaller waves of change that have the potential to knock them off course or destroy their business. The question is – what do they do about it?

In fact, as its jumping off point, “lots of people think change is happening so fast today you can’t keep up” is probably the least examined statement in the book. Do lots of people think this? Cheesewright says many of his consulting clients express this opinion, so we can take that as one set of data. In any case, it doesn’t really matter as this book is not about the actual changes per se, but how to develop and prepare ourselves, as individual and as organisations, for change.

From process optimisation to functional flexibility

In this book Cheesewright argues that companies tend to define themselves by optimising the delivery of a certain set of services. They gear their operations around that and good companies become good at doing what they do ever more efficiently. They structure support functions and units linearly to channelise service delivery. All is good, until it is suddenly very bad.

When a change occurs that undermines their business model, these good, well run and managed companies are powerless to act. The idea that “good” companies go under as well as poor ones is well made, if not full of hope.

Cheesewright’s counsel is that the focus of modern company leadership should be to design organisations that are able to adapt to change itself. That might mean becoming more adept at picking up data from the edges of their organisations, and then knowing what to do with that data, so that businesses become more receptive and perceptive. 

Organisations may also relinquish top down, centralised micro-control, and place trust in the functional units of their businesses to run themselves and offer their functionality as a service both within the business and externally to other partners. This means that when change comes, or an opportunity to be an agent of change arrives, businesses first of all have the vision to react or act, the predictive capability to know what play to make next, and finally the operational flexibility to do so.

If all of this sounds like the Amazon model then that’s because it is – more or less. Amazon is the prime (geddit) example of a company that has designed itself to go where it may need to go, not where it is now. Apple can do this too, via its huge cash piles if need be, but Apple pretty much acquires and iterates its way to new business models once it has mined out a seam of iPods, iPhones etc. Amazon is set up specifically to generate new business models as the core of its being.

So what can we make of this prescription in the telco and network operator space? It seems to me that telcos are well used to grappling with the issue of high frequency change, even if they have been on the losing side too often. They have seen voice and messaging revenues subside as VoIP and IP messaging apps supplanted on-net services. They have seen media delivery move away from them, and then perhaps back towards them. They have lost out in the “social” space, despite their initial confidence in “owning” the contacts book. On the upside they see opportunity as enablers, or as direct participants, in adjacent areas such as financial services and payments, marketing and advertising, utilities and energy and a whole range of data-fed and network-enabled “digital services”. 

If they were to follow the medicine this book recommends, they would be moving their different functions to act with greater freedom. Billing and IT needn’t be tied to specific services. Services needn’t be tied to a vertical network architecture. Is this happening? Yes, sort of. It is after all what we mean by the “network as a platform” based on cloud native functions decomposed as re-usable microservices, and also by (dread term) “digital transformation”. But could we argue it is happening at the sort of speeds that Cheesewright might identify as high frequency? Doubtful. 

And what of us poor humans caught up in the high frequency change era? As individuals we can make sure we continue to develop our education and skills, so that we can add human value to a work landscape that is increasingly automated. These human values are prediction (to an extent), contextualisation and judgement. For network strategists and engineers this is particularly relevant as automation encroaches ever further into operations. Do you have the skills to turn what you do into a function that can be exploited both within and outside the business?

Can you, to borrow an example from the book, take up roller skating in mid-life? Should we all become futurists, as Cheesewright self-knowingly chuckles?

This book reveals a lot about how companies are thinking about the challenges they face today, with lots of examples drawn from Cheesewright’s own experience. It is structured into very easily digestible sections and seeks to be practical rather than merely kicking around the theory. In fact if I have a criticism it is that I wish some of the sections had been drawn out for longer – a few are barely longer than a page – and that Cheesewright had allowed himself more time to develop certain thoughts rather than moving onto the next one. 

For example I think his plea for the primacy and absolute necessity of teaching creativity as a process in education, and the way in which lifelong learning will become vital, deserved more than a final section that felt a bit bolted on to the whole. 

But these are niggles maybe that reflects my own lack of a flexible mindset, and maybe he can develop these themes further in his next book…