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  • John Chambers, PhD

All Aboard for 5G

With 5G’s impending entry, I wonder how many customers and firms have prepared for it, using the technology wave as impetus for their own operational excellence and innovation. Some firms have spent more time in choosing a railway shipping carrier than they have in considering the impact and opportunities of the 5G promise.

When you plan your travel, you generally know where you are going. And why. When you select your class of service, you’re considering your wallet and weariness and the weather. And if you’re looking to your competition, you want to get to your destination faster than they, or at least fast enough to fulfill your trip objectives. Boarding the train that tunnels through distance and diverse terrain, you expect quality, commensurate with your investment. Navigate wisely.

Technology Leap

Transport data rates are expected to climb by one to two orders of magnitude. Imagine mobile data transfer rates 100 times greater than now. Further, that new tunnel of our communications will be selectable, and may offer varying features, like a railcar with tiered classes of service. This is going to be big. While we feel hyped to death, in this case it’s somewhat unfair. This isn’t snake oil and is not likely to disappoint. Will it be as transformative as electricity, per Qualcomm and others’ comments? Well, before we bust a gut with haughty sneers, as every premonition in industry is always met with guffaws of cynicism, please hold on. It may well be. Yes, it may well be, given time.

The speed of transmission offers us dramatic, astonishing if I may say, reductions in business process and content delivery times. We’ve been told that extant, and new, use cases will flourish; mobile broadband might as well drop the “mobile” tag, since location will eventually be irrelevant. Mission critical access shall be virtually ubiquitous. Then there’s IoT, whose dependency on speed and data volume will launch innovation and integration to new levels.

More importantly, what 5G brings is bespoke opportunities and customer intimacy not possible before. But we must know ourselves first. Do we see ourselves as pioneers and designers of our future, with understanding of our flowing processes? Or are we passive, waiting for the telcos and telecom suppliers to lead us, as they lead all their innumerable customers and firms? If you want to be treated as unique, then demonstrate world-class insight into your own operation, leading the conversations rather than being led.

Technology Opportunity

When I began penning this essay, I wanted to list 5G as 5 distinct, competitive concepts that begin with the letter G, but I then realized it sounded as silly as the "five D’s in Dodgeball." I’ll leave that to others’ creativity.

For 5G, walk with care and deliberation, not skepticism. Consider – no! – embrace the scalability, flexibility, spillover opportunities, and availability under network slicing, latency minimization, and “like you’re there” data transfer rates. While innovation is begotten under all those technological promises, flexibility of 5G drives greatest opportunism under various use cases. And that is the operative phrase: use cases. So, what are yours? Do we know them all?

For executives and managers who have latched onto the “use case” reference and run with it, they are ahead of the game, not just with cellular transport technology but with their corporate rigor. Use case understanding and formalization is a foundational expectation for robust and financially optimized business processes. It’s a competitive advantage. Knowing this means you know your firm, and you live and breathe operational excellence and business alignment. For those who hem and haw around the level of formalized use cases, not really articulating them at the ready, don’t panic. 5G is serendipitous. 5G is your reminder, your rap on the door. It’s the train whistle call for jumping on board, like Bogart in Casablanca, a little confused but moving on. There’s no time like the present. Getting your use cases cataloged, even in a basic framework, will pay dividends; and the re-use of the use cases will supplement your firm’s operational maturity and leadership. Business use-case mapping should be expected no matter how your infrastructure is architected.

Despite their quasi-oligopolistic status, large telcos are still as competitively driven as the restaurant industry in downtown Chicago. They will offer network slices and associated performance. So be prepared. Will you be slotted into a telco firm’s packaged-offering, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that, somewhat aligned to your business sector, but not really customized down to your specific and singular value chain?

Organizing Opportunity

If the present IT culture is infected with glaze-eyed nods of passivity, such as, “There’s time. 'Fixed 5G' will roll out in the coming year, and in subsequent years its refinement will evolve and we will deal with it over time,” then you have some recalibration to do. Marrying IT with business futures is an expectation of IT leadership and the board. It’s something you do now. Yes, now. Not when a 5G capability is offered on a telecom firm’s glossy handout.

It’s odd because I don’t see many firms that do not consider themselves “high performance.” Yet, sometimes there is such complacency regarding some new technologies, with an expectation that the suppliers will help guide the way. Partnerships with suppliers are critical, but not at the expense of your own internal preparation and foundational formalization. We may not (presently we can not) implement 5G, but shouldn’t we know our business environment so well, that we shall jump on board with confidence and specificity?

For the strategically minded company, 5G lies at the end of a shortening tunnel; we are nearer to it by the day.

As managers and executives, what are the building blocks to success with 5G? Firstly, let’s understand what success means.

If we think it’s utilizing 5G much as we use a freeway, moving along at a faster pace, then we underplay what is occurring. 5G is going to be the lifeblood of the drones, the immersion of immediate, global information into our infrastructure, remote connectivity as rapid as locally-dedicated data farms. It is the reality of virtual reality, the safety of driverless vehicles, the springboard to Asimov’s three laws of robotics. I didn’t say that you’ll have a life-sized humanoid protecting your every move, but 5G’s speeds will certainly pave the way for advances in the human experience. How are we and our firms contributing to that experience?

Successes for our firms, in concert with 5G’s availability and performance have reduced barriers for your technology visionaries – your IT architects and CTOs. Those visionaries should be able to rattle off your corporate use-cases as fast as they pour their coffees. Your CTO researches the landscape by understanding all your firm's internal processes and activities – the use cases that drive the company value proposition. Or at least she should.

The GSM Association has already developed a framework for verticals – somewhat of a use-case baseline. (For CTO's here is their in-depth futures research). They have structured a taxonomy for business needs. It presently lists sectors in AR/VR; Automotive; Infotainment; Telematics; Road Safety and Efficiency; Energy; Healthcare; Manufacturing; Internet of Things for Low Power Wide Area Applications; Public Safety; and Smart Cities. It is quite high-level but it is an excellent start. Most of our companies can fall into those categories, somehow. But is that really enough? Do we understand our own business processes well enough? Your own use cases should have granularity that will help not only leverage telco offerings, but shall help you constantly analyze your business processes and gaps.

Partnering Opportunity

New technological breakthroughs are the moments that your collaboration models are tested. These are the times that we leverage our IT-as-business-partner value, or we create it. These are the opportunities to collaborate with all lines of business. 5G should be on the agenda, for your monthly IT Steering committee reviews, along with Blockchain, IoT, Cyber Security, DevOps, Digitization, and on and on. You are the educator. Do you know your neighbors’ business processes? Does the senior leadership team?

I’ve written extensively on the necessity for the board and the executive management to be immersed in the technologies and their touchpoints. And I’ve said that they will not be experts, any more than the IT leadership will be expert in Finance’s international forwards strategy nor your manufacturing department’s GMP procedures and machinery. But as leaders, we should understand our Finance’s foreign exchange dependency and Manufacturing’s application portfolio. High level is good enough. No level is unacceptable. Collaboration mandates cross-functional homework at a conversational level. Similarly, the board and senior leaders in the firm should understand the business case for the above-named technologies. The IT Leadership should be the sage, educating the rest of the firm on why these techno-capabilities require the keen perspectives of those other functional leaders and executives.

Before you consider use cases, consider your business processes. If they are not visible, formalized and shared, then now is the time to do it. Every technology offering or game changing aspect in the marketplace is your opportunity to leverage your knowledge of your business processes, or to formally create them. Yours must not be a culture of tribal knowledge. Run your business fast-paced, via explicit knowledge and predictable rigor, not fast-paced via juggling acts of heroism that only sacrifice one customer urgency for another. 5G is yet another technology breakthrough that fuels our leadership accountability. If your board is not already asking you about it, then you should be asking to explain it, not just as a technology but as an innovation springboard. Knowing your IT services and intersecting business services is prerequisite to eliciting your use-cases.

Build your value chain.

Formalize your Business Process and IT Service portfolio.

Catalog and categorize your use cases for 5G’s bold promises.

Finally, as a technology business leader, “It ain’t just about 5G!” The cellular evolution is only another example where a technology leap demands commensurate analysis of your own environment. Preparation for the technology should not be a passive observation that some applications will perform more rapidly through cyberspace, whenever the telecom provider is ready to sell it. That’s not enough. Preparing for the technology should be a proactive demonstration that IT is a skilled business partner as well as technology visionary.

Knowing your 5G use cases is like loading a freight train with your wares. You may not know how to operate the locomotive, but you still have an idea of the train’s value proposition and why you're paying for the railway infrastructure. You certainly also know the value of the wares that were loaded onto the freight cars. Your wares comprise the portfolio of your customer needs. And some of those wares need to be handled differently than others.

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