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How M1 is striving to be a digital telco

Singapore’s M1 is dialling up its digital chops by monetising its data, building more personalised services for subscribers, and going beyond connectivity as it evolves into a digital telco

Manjot Singh Mann is a rare CEO who is as well-versed in the depths of technology as he is about running M1, one of Singapore’s major telcos, known for disrupting the market when it burst onto the scene in the 1990s.

The veteran telecoms executive with an engineering background and decades of leadership experience, including stints at Hutchison in India and Indonesia, and more recently cloud platform company Pareteum, has been a force for change.

At M1, a subsidiary of government-linked conglomerate Keppel Corporation, Mann has been paving the way for the company to embrace agile development practices, analytics and cloud-based infrastructure as it strives to become a digital telco.

In an interview with Computer Weekly, Mann talks up M1’s digital transformation efforts, including the need to be digital rather than “do digital”, monetising the telco’s data and going beyond connectivity to develop holistic solutions for enterprises and consumers.

What is M1’s general approach to digital transformation?

Mann: M1 has always been a disruptor in the market, challenging the status quo for many years. Almost two years ago, we decided that we have to undergo transformation because, clearly, before the pandemic, the reality was that consumers were looking for more digital services. They were interacting more digitally with brands, not just telcos, but other brands in their lives. So, we decided it was important for us to transform if we were to remain relevant for the future.

We had to transform ourselves from being a classic, good old telco to being a more digitally native telco, which means it’s not just technology transformation. I keep telling our people that there’s a big difference between doing digital and being digital. In doing digital, you typically make a cosmetic change. You continue with the past, but you have a veneer of digital on top of it. That was not what we wanted to do.

So, we created a whole transformation strategy for ourselves for the next five years. Then, the pandemic hit us, but what the pandemic did was to accelerate digitisation. Consumers had to embrace digital more than they did before, with barriers around age and education levels broken as well.

For us, I think the challenge was how to adapt ourselves in this pandemic and continue with our transformation exercise. We are in that journey right now and on the technology side, we’ve had our technology stack built over many decades. And typically, that’s all telco-grade, as we call it.

But going forward, the value of a telco is in its data, not necessarily in the infrastructure. Telcos were called dumb pipes, because all we did was supply connectivity, which is still important and will not go away. However, telcos have to do much more than that. We have to monetise our data and become more digital in terms of how we engage with the consumer.

Could you share more about how M1 is transforming its technology, people and processes to support that strategy?

Mann: We have transformed from having almost 90% on-premise infrastructure to over 90% on the cloud. We were running more than 150 applications, but we now have 30 applications. We also had more than 200 databases, but now we have one data lake which we can mine better.

As we launch bespoke plans that let consumers interact with our services in their own ways, there’s a need for hyper-personalisation. We have a cognitive intelligence platform and a recommendation engine on top of that, making it easier to recommend products and services on a real-time contextual basis.

Singapore, being at the hub of Southeast Asia, can be a beacon of how 5G technology can be used in the enterprise space for larger countries to follow
Manjot Singh Mann, M1

On the people side, the ways of working have to change. Ultimately, you can’t have technology drive people – it’s the people who drive technology. We have been retraining and reskilling our people to help them understand the digital ways of working and agile methodology. The goal is to have them operate as part of a digital organisation so that they are more attuned to thinking digitally, rather than thinking in the old ways and then trying to adapt to the new.

On the processes side, because everything will become digital, obviously our processes have to change as well. A lot of organisations I know have become digital from the outside, but when you go inside, you realise they’re still relying on good old memos to be signed. You have to change from within as well, such as becoming more paperless and getting more robotic process automation into the workforce.

Clearly, it’s a transformation that we have undertaken in terms of technology, people and processes to create a digitally native telco, probably the first in the region. The game is to monetise our data, build more personalised services for our subscribers, and then, as time goes by, add more services to our portfolio so that we can offer more holistic solutions beyond connectivity.

How are you managing that transition, particularly on the people side? The biggest challenge that many companies face is really about the culture, right? If people are used to building applications using the waterfall model, it might take years for them to embrace an agile mindset.

Mann: That’s a very interesting point because for telcos, like any other old organisation, the waterfall methodology is the most prevalent one that people are so attuned to.

I would say we’re not there yet when it comes to embracing agile. We’re still in the process, but we’re not giving ourselves years. We started agile coaching about a year ago, and we are probably 50% there. The way we started this was to understand the structure of the organisation, because you can’t have new ways of working if the structure remains the same.

That does not mean we have to find redundancies and sack people. That was not the objective at all and that’s not what we’ve done. But structurally, how do we change the organisation in terms of people and then align that to new ways of working?

So, we reviewed our organisational structure to see what we needed to change. Then we worked with a company to embed agile coaches within the organisation and started creating structures to support agile ways of working. We started from the basics, such as agile discovery and Scrum, with agile coaches involved to help our people understand those terms and what they mean.

It takes a lot, like you said, from a culture standpoint, but I think the most important piece is our commitment to it. My whole team, including myself, are completely committed to it. Of course, people have to be taken through this transformation process. We are doing that each day, and a lot of that is already starting to show as cultural change. We don’t have to necessarily force it because people are seeing the advantage of it. At the same time, our KPIs [key performance indicators] and measurement processes have to evolve to focus on team-based rather than individual outcomes.

Now, I must also admit that it’s not a one-size-fits-all model. Our digital office – we don’t call them IT any more – and our marketing teams are probably the people who will see the most change. Those in finance, HR and legal will also see that change but to a lesser extent. However, they also have to undergo the whole training process.

Read more about telco transformation in APAC

  • Globe Telecom in the Philippines has moved its legacy systems to the cloud and there is more to come as it looks towards deploying cloud radio access networks and cloud-native applications.
  • Indonesia’s XL Axiata is equipping its data scientists with analytics tools to uncover customer insights and improve network planning, among other goals, in a pilot data science initiative.
  • India’s Jio Platforms built its own machine learning platform to meet the growing data and signalling requirements of new networks.
  • Major telecoms and hyperscale cloud companies in China are leading the charge in OpenStack adoption across the APAC region.

The good thing is that a lot of our employees see this as a way to improve their skills. I think all of them realise that the future is going to be digital, more so in telcos than any other service-driven organisation. And therefore, if they don’t adapt to this, it will be very difficult for them to become relevant in the future. It’s been tough, and it continues to be tough, but I think we are getting there.

What is your thinking around legacy systems that traditional telcos have had to deal with? Moving forward, they’ll need to cater to 5G and cloud-native workloads, but it’s typically not a rip-and-replace exercise. What’s the transition like?

Mann: Yes, it’s not rip-and-replace and it’s not lift-and-shift either. I wish it was that simple, but clearly it is not. But you know, technology is a means to an end. And for us, we want to provide hyper-personalised contextual services in real time. How do you do that with a telco-grade infrastructure? It’s not possible because the way it works is not in that manner. And therefore, we work backwards and look at what kind of technology we have and need.

Not all of our legacy is bad. A lot of our legacy we have kept with us, but we’ve also added a lot of new things on top of that. So, it’s not ripping out the old completely – we’ve taken the best of both worlds, to put it mildly. When I said we are almost 90% cloud-native, very little of the legacy is in place. As of now, we are running both systems in parallel because we still have subscribers on the old platform.

For new subscribers who can easily build their own bespoke plans, we’ve had to create close to six million permutations and combinations to give that ease of service to the consumer. That could not have come from the old legacy technology and so new customers are now getting onboarded onto the new platform.

We are running virtually two technology companies right now in the back end. Many of our customers are sitting on the old technology as they go through this change and when they are ready to re-contract, we will move them slowly to the new platform, and then retire the old platform at some point.

Not all of our legacy is bad. A lot of our legacy we have kept with us, but we’ve also added a lot of new things on top of that
Manjot Singh Mann, M1

Let’s switch track and talk about the enterprise space. I’m sure you know the potential of 5G lies in the enterprise. What is your strategy in the market?

Mann: We are leading the space in the number of use cases on 5G standalone networks, because we believe that the 5G non-standalone architecture is not suitable for enterprise use cases. We are running more than 15 use cases right now, ranging from maritime and health to drones and autonomous vehicles. We’ve also partnered with IBM on manufacturing. On the consumer side, we’ve partnered with DBS Bank to trial 5G-based ATMs. There is going to be a huge opportunity for telcos around 5G, but we don’t know – and it’s presumptuous for me to say – which use cases will come first or become large enough. But having said that, technology always comes first before use cases.

Netflix, Facebook and Amazon did not think mobile-first until 4G LTE speeds were good enough. Similarly, now that we will have 5G standalone technology going live this year, some of these 5G use cases will become more relevant and bigger. Singapore, being at the hub of Southeast Asia, can be a beacon of how 5G technology can be used in the enterprise space for larger countries to follow.

As a subsidiary of Keppel, we are working on multiple use cases within our own ecosystem. For example, we are working with Keppel Offshore & Marine on multiple test cases including autonomous tugboats, as well as blasting and cleaning with drones. We are also working with Keppel Land on smart city solutions. These use cases will definitely provide us with some insights into which use case is becoming more relevant.

Implementing 5G enterprise use cases requires strong IT capabilities, which telcos have traditionally struggled with. How is M1 ramping up its capabilities in that regard?

Mann: That’s exactly what we don’t want to struggle with, and that’s why we’re going through so much change. The partners we are working with on our digital platform are all 5G-ready, whether it’s MuleSoft, Snowflake or ThoughtSpot.

We have also restructured the enterprise organisation so that we are more solution-driven and not connectivity-driven. So, while one team is creating and selling solutions, the other team is trying to integrate the solutions into the back end to see how they work, not just from a connectivity standpoint, but from a platform perspective, so that we can provide analytics to our customers, as well as bill them in a more friendly manner.

As we look at 5G from a solutioning point of view, cyber security plays a big role as well. But how we view security is very different from some of our peers, because we don’t think owning a cyber security company is the best way forward. We have the ability to partner with the best-of-breed companies, and then bring the best security solutions into the mix. For us, creating that integrated solution from the consumer to the back end is something that we’ve done with the new platform as well.

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