Technological advances enabling the real-time consumption and distribution of data have disrupted industries and forced organisations to transform and digitise.
The telecommunications industry, in particular, has had to adapt quickly to the constant movement of digital information, and firms along the value chain are still in the process of adopting new strategies that take advantage of data in motion to optimise solutions for users.
During a recent virtual roundtable hosted by FutureCIO/Cxociety and Confluent, leaders of major regional telcos agreed there is a need to enable the processing of real time data and remove organisational data silos to become more competitive and efficient in the current environment.
Those needs were highlighted by the outbreak of COVID-19 when telcos scrambled to restructure their suite of products and services to meet the changing demands of homebound customers.
"By using real-time data, we've seen a good lift in our campaigns. One such offering is airtime loans, that allows customers to cope with connectivity needs especially now with the pandemic, growing with three times better results," said Dan Natindim, vice president, enterprise data office at the Philippines’ Globe Telecom, during the roundtable, which discussed the benefits and challenges of harnessing data in motion to make strategic decisions.
A central nervous system for telcos
Damien Wong, vice president APAC at Confluent, explained that data in motion is one of the four major technological innovations he has seen organisations embracing to drive digital transformation.
The other three technologies are cloud infrastructure, which enables data on demand, machine learning and artificial intelligence, which help companies automate, and mobile devices, from which users can now stream content on the go.
“Data in motion, which uses real time inputs and streaming analytics to dictate how a company responds to ongoing events, is the driver of a telco’s central nervous system and essential to its survival in the current environment,” Wong continued. A leading technology powering data in motion is Apache Kafka, an open-source software platform handling real-time data feeds, which is being improved and distributed by Confluent.
Embracing data in motion involves a paradigm shift from data at rest, where the data is stored and processed only later.
“In today’s digital world customers demand data available in real-time. It is no longer viable to run a business on yesterday’s data. Security information is one of many examples where data in motion can be seen as a necessity,” explained Hans Jespersen, vice president, customer solutions engineering at Confluent.
More recently, carriers have also merged with media and entertainment firms, many of which use data in motion to analyse user streaming habits and content preferences to channel targeted advertising to their screens.
“Meanwhile, real time data will also be needed as telcos start rolling out edge computing, which involves storing data in smaller devices closer to the location where it is needed to avoid routing code back to a central server,” Jespersen said.
Still a struggle to embrace data in motion
The importance of harnessing data in motion for long term survival is clear, yet many telcos are held back by budget constraints and resistant corporate cultures when attempting to implement the changes needed.
“We are dealing with historical data most of the time and it will take a lot more effort to progress towards analysing near-real-time data,” she said, adding that StarHub is expecting to process even higher volumes of data once 5G and new services like the Internet of Things kick in.
Kow shared that tapping raw data for insights is a “very complex process” many companies struggle to deal with given the lack of capacity and data analytics support.
“While we are able to provide connectivity and capture all the data, it is challenging for us to transform this data into actionable insights for the benefit of customers,” she said.
Andri Irwanza Humardhani, group head, enterprise data management at Indonesia’s XL Axiata, pointed out that his company still finds it difficult to maintain data integrity, that is, ensuring that raw data is properly processed and validated before distribution.
“We have been working on which data to make available to customers. There should be a way to ensure not just speed in delivering data but integrity across data,” he said.
For Chew Yew Chong, head of data science and customer value management at Malaysia’s U Mobile, which currently uses Apache Kafka for operational efficiency, budget limitations are the biggest barrier to committing capital towards real time streaming. From Microsoft to SAS, investing in data processing infrastructure over the years has not been cheap for U Mobile, Chew said.
“On one hand, we need to keep the business going, but on the other hand, the industry is evolving so fast with new streaming technology and mobility. Yet, it would be unviable to invest in new streaming technology at this juncture without being able to quantify the returns,” said Chew, who will be holding back on big investments until the returns are quantifiable.
He added that integrating many existing data sources under one real time system will take some doing. The way he sees it, “until more confidence is provided by the experts in the form of success stories and measurable benefits are published,” further investments in real time streaming will have to be put on hold.
Empowering employees key for take-off
Not every telco has resisted the move to embrace data in motion though. Singapore’s M1 Limited, for example, has already restructured the way data is treated across the company.
“There is data steward representation for all data elements. There is a governance framework in place and a data management tool that is constantly validating and checking data for changes in attributes,” said Nathan Bell, M1’s chief digital officer.
M1’s goal, he said, is to ultimately achieve data democratisation. The carrier is now in the process of migrating functions from legacy to new infrastructure and setting up a factory to make sure data is cleansed before being available for analysis by the business. This is to inspire more confidence in the data both internally as well as externally.
“When our teams trust the data enough to act on it, it empowers them. We now have call center agents who have become product owners because they are excited about the outcomes that will be achieved for their teams through better access to data when serving customers,” said Bell. He added that M1 encourages its employees to experiment freely with data. “We let them learn that way, so long as restrictions against exporting data with data management are in place.”
Andri of XL Axiata agreed that buy-in from each company’s employees is key to spearheading change and embracing data in motion. “Human capital is needed. We need training and upgrading of skillsets to assist the transformation. The challenge is how to have an open mindset.”
Ultimately, telcos will need to adopt real-time streaming tools and invest in the right infrastructure to remain competitive over the long term. Confluent’s Wong put it aptly: “We don’t advocate that people discard all legacy systems, but we do need something to complement what user expectations are driving organisations to do,” he said.