The Natural Tendency of Natural Events

By Joshua Weinberger Print this article Print

Bad things sometimes happen to good companies.

When I came to BellSouth, the company was just beginning its transformation from a local phone company to an information-services company. It wasn't just a technology transformation, but a business one. The company needed to design what its business was going to be and shift the technology to meet those needs.

Any transformation requires developing a roadmap to define the desired state the company eventually wants to reach. The key is how to get there. Every change is an opportunity to address larger goals. With this in mind, we try to capitalize on what I call "natural events"—issues that we must address as a business: an area-code change, for example, or a new regulation. When systems have to evolve in response, we have to ask the question: Are we sinking money into a short-term solution, or can we use that expenditure to move toward the desired state?

It's ancient history now, but Y2K was a natural event. Even then, we had our desired state in mind, and followed our roadmap. We diverted required changes toward "directionally correct" efforts—the kind that advance the business. We took the opportunity to construct a complete list of all our systems, and prepared to modernize them in the years to come. We wanted the integration of these systems to provide sustainable and expandable service for our customers.

Data is the engine that drives today's business, and BellSouth needed to build a way to share data across the enterprise. Implementing the middleware platform—another natural event—not only gave us a better view across our products and enabled us to offer better combinations of services, but it also allowed us to separate our existing systems from our finance and Web applications. We're now able to isolate components of older systems and retire them. We refresh technology at a faster pace, and develop systems in half the time. We implemented a sales-automation system, for example, in roughly a year; before, that would have taken two.

Later, a rule change required that we provide certain information to our wholesale customers. We could have just modified our existing systems; instead we made a more directionally correct move, opting for a new system. That was a more complex effort, but it enabled us to expand services overall, and also sped our entry into the long-distance market. That was yet another natural event for us, as was our expansion into broadband services. Each time we committed to getting the most benefit out of the investment we were already making.

Transformation is only one dimension of delivering effective technology. We also have to deliver business capability, and, while it's so simple that most companies ignore it, we must keep the place running.

It's a matter of operational excellence. We're making 100,000 changes a month, and each one has the potential to blow the place up. We need to have not only effective change management, but effective processes of recovery, because there are going to be mistakes. We process something on the order of 200 million transactions daily. Even a one-in-a-million shot comes up 200 times a day.

We don't have to go looking for natural events and small-scale disasters; they're always there. During the incident itself, a natural event can be seen as a small version of business continuity—an opportunity to look at a part of the business to ensure it's prepared. A week later, the focus has shifted: What process caused the outage in the first place?

Each outage can be seen as just another natural event, or explored as another process failure. Some people simply put out the fire, but don't fix the cause. They just say, "The fire's burning! Put water on it! Stop it right here!" But if we don't fix the underlying process, we'll just have another incident later. After the recent outage of an uninterruptible-power-supply system, for example, an investigation led to a new process—well-regulated service to assure proper maintenance of critical batteries. We're better off as a result, and now we're in a position to prevent the next fire. That's just the natural order of things.
As BellSouth's executive vice president, chief information, e-commerce and security officer, Fran Dramis is responsible for all information technologies and business continuity.

This article was originally published on 2003-10-01
Assistant Editor
After being on staff at The New Yorker for five years, Josh later traveled the world, hitting all seven continents in a single year. At Yale University, he majored in American Studies, English, and Theatre Studies.

eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.