Telecom shoppers look for off-the-shelf bargains

Telecom shoppers look for off-the-shelf bargains – off-the-shelf software

Chris Bucholtz

Thrifty shoppers who eschew tailor-made products for off-the-shelf options are a common sight in department stores but are less frequently spotted at telecommunications companies, in which specialized software and hardware solutions have long been an accepted way of life.

Today, however, telecom companies are discovering they have less time and money to solve problems with, as competition promises to spawn a less patient and more demanding breed of customers in the near future.

As a result, managers are looking at existing software products in new ways. The solution is often more efficient, more elegant and more readily available than the customized products of the past.

U S West, for example, used Adobe Acrobat, a popular application for electronic publishing, and the Internet to re-engineer that most mundane of network management tools: the manual.

Traditional troubleshooting frequently requires managers to leaf through vendor manuals to locate problems with equipment and devise solutions. The manuals are often appended with the carriers’ individual techniques for dealing with problems, and new editions are released frequently.

To streamline this system, and to quicken response time to network alarms, U S West went no further than the neighborhood software store, said Jim Harmon, technical consultant for U S West’s Service Assurance for Synchronization Focus Group. By using Acrobat, U S West “flow-charted the troubleshooting process, creating a point-and-click method for working through problems,” Harmon said. Managers can answer questions prompted by Acrobat about network conditions, and their responses will dictate the next page it presents.

“Then, we put these Acrobat pages on a Web site on our company intranet so that anybody in any of our offices with a browser can use the same system when they have a problem,” Harmon said.

The electronic format allows vendors to make changes to the manuals instantly, saving time in getting information to the field and saving money on printing costs. “It also takes up a lot less room on your desk,” said Harmon.

Most important, the new system has had a significant impact on response times. “It’s been huge,” Harmon said. “We were averaging 10 hours per ticket from the time [the ticket] came in to the time it was fixed. That’s gone to below four hours now.”

TDS, a local and cellular service provider, is hoping for a similar increase in productivity. Last month, the company finished the first phase of installing an off-the-shelf system centered around Sun Microsystems servers, SAP financial software and an Oracle database to replace its existing procurement process. After only a month in operation, the new system has cut what had been a five,day closing period to three days.

“Most of the effort centered around rethinking how we did things,” said Jerry Gleisner, vice president of corporate systems for TDS. “Once we examined our goals, we saw there were products on the market that were available ready to be implemented.”

TDS was able to put the new system into service a little more than a year after first evaluating the need for a new process, a time frame that would have been virtually impossible for a custom solution.

“When you build a custom solution, you spend most of your time building the architecture,” said Mike Polelle, systems development manager for TDS. “The fact today is that, in most cases, the basic pieces of the architecture are already out there.”

But for companies accustomed to building problem-specific solutions, “it takes a willingness to honestly look at the way the business has operated in the past,” Gleisner said.

“Under the old model, you’re building a custom system just to do things the way you did them before. When you opt for an existing package, it’s really an opportunity to look at your business and re-evaluate your approach to the problem,” he added.

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