25 Aug Digital Transformation Journey: how IoT becomes IoE
Digital Transformation has been one of the most hyped concept over the past few years. The “Marketecture” around this hype, however, continues to confuse most laypersons about what this actually means. This can be a reflection of an estimated market size of $665 billion dollars by 2023, that forces companies to jump in to get a piece of this huge pie ; We, however, personally believe in being very clear about what a solution means before executing it.
This blog is about both deconstructing this hype, but also how it can be realized in the form of a solution at AN10, allowing us to have a legitimate stake at making these claims. We will thus present a view clear in terms of what and how to realize enterprise-level Digital Transformation. We, at AN10, did this using a suite of applications and an executable work-flow engine (WFE) as the platform for delivering our transformation. This journey is both unique in that it shows how we can leverage our IoT roots, and link them to processes and people, using a workflow engine, to deliver Digital Transformation via the Internet-of-Everything.
Since the Digital Transformation area is in its relative infancy, its landscape looks much like the proverbial ‘blind-men and the elephant’. Thus, every one marketing a Digital Transformation solution has a different view — and therefore a different solution — which is perfectly justified given lack of any standard definition. The view here is then, perhaps truthfully, of just another blind-man.
Since this area is in its relative infancy, the Digital Transformation landscape looks much like the proverbial ‘blind-men and the elephant’….. The view here is then, perhaps truthfully, of just another blind-man.
The Different Aspects of An Enterprise’s Digital Transformation
Broadly, and with a reasonable amount of consensus, Digital Transformation is meant to affect three different areas of an Enterprise: Customer experience, Digital and Connected Operations, and Digital Business Models.
- The customer experience aspect works towards increasing the efficacy and availability of customer touch points, from which an Enterprise can glean useful information to improve engagement with its customers. Effective digital use of this customer feedback also means better design thinking, leading to improved quality of service to its customers. This comes from data about customers being gleaned from “Mobile-first” execution of applications, and has seen the greatest amount of practical implementation.
- Automating operations and removing any of the friction in their execution in the second major push. While digitizing the customer experience is an outwards activity for enterprise, optimizing their operations through digital synergy in an inwards activity. This aspect has gained a tremendous amount of traction recently, especially in the Telecom sector. This traction is because Telco’s shrinking revenues require a quick fix towards profitability — removing operational inefficiency is the fastest route to that realization. AN10’s execution of Digital Transformation is focused on realizing such an inward drive — although its architecture can easily extend to outward facing, customer experience transformation as well.
- Digital transformation of the Business Model implies exploring new ways of generating revenue using digital delivery mechanisms. This includes packaging your solution either as an online service, providing a platform over which applications can be built (e.g. an IoT platform exposing an API for devices connected via a Telco network) or connecting consumers to producers of content (e.g. Spotify), or exploring a Free/mium model that can seamless move between a basic, free-version of service and an advanced, paid-version. This sort of transformation requires lots of strategic thinking for legacy enterprises and hence it is furthest from widespread execution.
We next focus on how Operations can be transformed using the digital way.
Operational Transformation: Removing Friction in Process Execution
Enterprise management function typically follow the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle by Deming, to calibrate their vision and convert it into action. This continuous-improvement cycle requires the ability of management to take observations from their previous cycle, suggest improvement and implement them going forward.
However, a modern enterprise is recognized by its organization structure, or departments, that allows people to work in specialized areas. These departments at scale tend to become silos where it is difficult to get insights about their operational metrics, with these silos becoming an impediment to removing cross-organizational inefficiencies. Even more pernicious is that even after inefficiencies have been identified, processes to remove these inefficiencies take forever to be implemented.
In the Telecom (and Towerco) sector, the PDSA cycle interacts with a more daily operations cycle: that in which an issue/ticket is created (typically from a fault, alarm, or customer complaint), which then results in creating a work-order that gets assigned to people (or a group) with appropriate skills to resolve the issue. This operations life-cycle gets completed when the cause for an issue is remedied and the ticket is closed. The management then needs to look at the issues that did not meet their SLAs, study the steps taken and understand how the processes followed can be improved.
Technology can help and remove these concerns, i.e. digitally transform operations :
- It allows monitoring the effectiveness of existing operations through increased internal touch-points and metrics for operational activities
- Allows using this fine-grained data for analytics and improvements in the processes
- Enforces the resulting process improvements by digitally monitoring every step of operational activity, with hooks through mobile applications, geo-fencing, or possible a work-flow engine that prevents any “out-of-process” operational activity.
We explored the market and most existing solutions focused on a subset of these components (faults, ticketing, work-order, work-force management) and provide a technology solution that provides touch-points and effective tracking of some component of an operational life-cycle.
Another set of solutions focused on providing not just the above components individually, but also bundled together a visual process designer that was enforced within their own eco-system of applications.
We believe that such solutions have a major stumbling block: any enterprise is a brownfield environment where each silos uses different software and process management tools. Any new digital transformation needs to not only digitize all processes, but also integrate with legacy solutions.
Digital Transformation of Operations: The AN10 approach
At AN10, we believe in leveraging our cutting edge technological know-how to solve the most challenging and exciting problems. We found that the Digital Transformation was just one of those conundrums, and we decided to realize a version that we can confidently deliver to our customers who need to optimize their operations.
We thus built a flexible, micro-services based solution to enable this transformation, whose high-level architecture is shown above. While the basic components act as micro-services and target every element of an operations cycle — Alarms, ticketing/issue management, Work-order management, and work-force management — the “light-bulb” part is the executable workflow engine (WFE) that orchestrates the flow of a single operational activity through these digital software components.
We found, in our engagement with our customers, that for a digital transformation strategy to succeed it is essential that top-level management buys into this approach (this is validated by industry research as well ). Thus, a strategy that demonstrates immediate implementation of decisions at the management, enabling the Planning to Doing part of PDSA, will go a long way in getting that buy in (as much as technology can!).
An executable WFE does exactly that! It allows processes defined in a standardized modeling language, like BPMN, to be built by the top management which then get pushed into the WFE. Then, with an appropriately built adaptation layer — built using RPA, APIs, web-sockets, or pub-sub mechanisms — the WFE ensures that process and its constraints get immediately implemented. This enforcement spans across the suite of software built to implement operational logic, each perhaps for a different organizational department (silo). Thus, not only does the WFE implement the management decisions immediately, its interaction with different legacy solution intrinsically breaks any cross-silo barriers.
Our main differentiation, while the micro-services with APIs are an integral component to the digital transformation we provide, is a process management system that allows designing processes that can select, in BPMN parlance, external service tasks, to implement functionality provided via these individual (modern and legacy) services. The interface to these external services allows specifying process specific variable, with SLAs and escalation paths implemented within the BPMN model itself.
A new process that is designed in a visual notation such as BPMN, once decided and endorsed by the management can go into operation instantly, without the need for any configuration or code changes in any independent software component.
What the above implies, and this blows your mind when you realize it, is that a new process that is designed in a visual notation such as BPMN, once decided and endorsed by the management can go into operation instantly, without the need for any configuration or code changes in any independent software component.
An additional requirement that comes with such a solution is the need to build a proper process organization and management software. This allows management to not only build their processes, but then keep them separated by their purposes (for organization purposes) as well as with versioning to allow provenance of their PDSA decisions. This software also provides the touch-points to track and identify inefficiencies, e.g. the step in a process contributing to the most delay.
While it is easy to integrate with the modern software that provide RESTful APIs, web-sockets and pub-sub mechanisms, it is clearly a challenge to integrate with legacy software. We are finding, however, that with the WFE itself being API driven, one can build individual adapters (perhaps using RPA, legacy APIs, or a information syncing process) that require a one-time effort. However, once such adapters are built, and their services exposed through a process management framework, they become just-another-service from the perspective of the management team.
We at AN10, hope and believe that the journey for Digital Transformation of Operations is now clearer. We found that our ethos as an IoT/IoE company fits in perfectly with the scope of enabling Digital Transformation. Since the process of digitization involves a mobile first approach that is augmented with real-time updates about different physical assets, or location and movement of these assets, we see that embedding our core strength in dealing with internet-connected devices becomes a strength. The additional element of adding an executable WFE into the mix allows us to provide a novelty factor that we are quite proud of.
Affan Syed is Head of Engineering at AN10. LinkedIn