While Project Management is often talked about as a whole, there are significant differences across industries. What we might find useful when managing large scale construction projects, just might not cut it when we’re working on a new app or developing a new sports drink.
What makes telco projects so unique?
The telecommunication industry falls into the category of information and communication technology. It’s made up of all telecommunications /telephone companies and internet service providers and plays a crucial role in the evolution of mobile communication and the information society.
The biggest organizations in this sector are telephone (both wired and wireless) operators, satellite companies, cable companies, and internet service providers. What supports all of them are companies that execute infrastructural projects that allow operators and providers to further improve and diversify their services.
These companies often execute massive, complex projects, while also balancing their end user’s needs for easy access and quick service. Meeting people’s needs for faster and better connections as they consume and create content requires significant capital expenditures. This usually means that these projects are executed as multi-disciplinary and cross-functional endeavors that combine engineering and business skills within a regulatory framework. Diversified teams and complex communication structures just add a second layer of difficulty when it comes to this industry.
The fastest-growing within the sector is wireless communication, as more and more communications and computing methods shift to mobile devices and cloud-based technology. This segment of the industry is the anticipated keystone for the continued global expansion of the telecommunications sector.
Where do telcos stand when it comes to project management methodology?
While agile methodologies have gained popularity in the past few years, formal project management techniques have kept their relevance in telco for a few key reasons:
- Long planning and execution cycles
Telco projects can last anywhere from a few months to a few years, however, they mostly gravitate towards the long-term end of the spectrum. The projects are complex in nature, there are many stakeholders involved, and mistakes can come with a hefty price. All of this leads to plenty of work in each of the stages of project planning and execution.
- Major changes are rarely made mid-project
The first reason for the lack of major changes is the in-depth planning that happens beforehand. Once the planning phase is finished, there are little to no unanswered questions. The second is unsurprisingly costs. In a project where many sites and varied assets are involved, even a slight change can mean that we’re going way off the budget.
- Involvement from other major stakeholders
There’s rarely a single party involved in the execution of a telco project and the complexity of work itself requires regular communication back and forth. The initiator of the project, be it internal or external, always wants to have a firm grasp on what they can expect in each of the phases.
- High-value projects mean a high cost of slip-ups
We’ve mentioned this one before and it’s pretty self-explanatory. With many moving parts when it comes to telco projects, budget constraints can get real tight real soon. Having a fixed plan can provide at least a bit of certainty.
- End users dependence on the provided service
How many angry people would there be if their internet connection got cut off for a day or two? Now imagine what kind of losses companies would have if the same happened in their headquarters. Better yet, imagine a fully automated production plant dependent on IoT just shutting down. With all of these a very real risk, telco project management has to be that more diligent.
Documentation is an important part of this. In the worst-case scenario, it provides us with a starting point for a resolution. If we know how it was built, we have a much greater chance of figuring out how to fix it.
These of course aren’t universal to all projects in this field. To see exactly where they stand, PMs should first answer a few questions:
- What is the main goal of the project?
- Is it clear what the sponsor/initiator wants?
- Which is the required stability degree?
- How much time do we have to work on the project?
- Do we have a consolidated budget for the project?
If based on their answers they identify that there is more uncertainty when it comes to demands, goals, and dates, then incorporating some agile practices might be beneficial for the project execution.
Specific challenges in telco project management
While there are many universal challenges when it comes to project management, some refer to telco more than others.
Some of the key challenges we see companies in this field facing are:
- The scope is not clearly defined when the commitment is made
Goals, deliverables, tasks, costs, and deadlines need to be clearly defined so there’s no room for confusion later down the line.
- Not enough resources are set aside for the project
If we’re not realistic at the beginning with what the project is going to cost us, we might end up losing money instead of earning it. Never underestimate the importance of a solid financial plan.
- Conflicts arise between different departments
In high-stress situations, it’s normal for some conflict to arise. However, it should never affect our end goal and the quality of work. Make sure that all responsibility is properly delegated at the very beginning and that there is an open flow of communication between different teams.
- Committing to unrealistic dates
We can never assume that our entire projects will be done in a perfect setting. Things happen and we have to take into consideration that things like weather changes, temporary employee absence, or new regulatory regulations will undoubtedly pop up from time to time.
Examples of Telco projects
Adding capabilities to existing networks
Projects in this category relate to the addition of new features to an existing service in response to customer demands, government regulations, or the deployment of a new service.
The challenge is to avoid or minimize any disruptions to the on-going services because the changes are usually made in a live network. Replacements of obsolete technology are very common, e.g. analog equipment was gradually replaced with digital switches in the world-wide public switched telephone network. In public networks, these changes have to take place without affecting existing services.
We can see this happening with the development and rollout of 5G in recent years. For 5G, the work is being done on both radio access networks and the core network.
On the one hand, the core network is being redesigned to better integrate with the internet and cloud-based services and also includes distributed servers across the network improving response times (reducing latency). On the other, small cells are being distributed in clusters depending on where users require connection. This will complement the macro network that provides wide-area coverage.
Establishing private networks
Private networks are typically used by one enterprise or a government entity for its internal communication, such as air traffic control networks. A federation of enterprises can also use a private network, particularly when the industry is organized in a tiered fashion such as in banking or the global automotive industry.
There have been several examples of this being successfully done by enterprises in the past. European automobile manufacturers have established a network called ODETTE for the exchange of information between suppliers and car manufacturers. Similarly, the Automotive Network eXchange (ANX®) is the network of the Automotive Industry Action Group (AAIG) to link auto manufacturers with their suppliers in the U.S.
Private networks have recently gathered attention following an announcement made by Verizon. They teamed up with Nokia and formally launched the US operator’s international private 5G platform for enterprises in Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Verizon’s self-contained enterprise 5G networks will use Nokia’s Digital Automation Cloud and are geared towards large businesses with manufacturing, distribution, and logistics facilities.
For many of the same reasons formal project management has kept its place in the telco industry, risk management also plays a key role. Oftentimes teams tend to be overconfident about their forecasts and risk assessments, and far too narrow in their assessment of the range of outcomes and their severity.
To make sure not to fall into the same trap over and over again, a five step process for handling risks should be used. It consists of:
- risk identification
- risk analysis
- risk qualification
- risk response development
- risk response control
Besides the 5 steps, there’s one more thing to keep in mind when it comes to risk identification and plans to handle it.
To properly evaluate risks we need as many honest and open perspectives from different team members as we can get. However, this rarely happens.
Once a course of action has gathered support within a group, those not yet on board tend to suppress their objections and fall in line. This phenomenon is referred to as groupthink and is especially likely if the team is led by an overconfident manager who wants to achieve as much as possible, no matter the cost.
The key takeaways when it comes to telco project management are:
- Plan ahead and keep up with industry trends and news
- Know your projects well enough to choose or develop your project management approach
- Don’t underestimate challenges and risks that you might face
The future of communication and data transfer relays on the telecommunications industry. Full implementation of 5G, and subsequently 6G, will without a doubt be revolutionary for many industries. And the projects that make it happen will probably be pretty amazing as well.