Businesses should see network as a platform for innovation and growth
The whole point of a network is just to connect stuff, right? Connect people to people, people to machines, and machines to machines.After all, it’s a cost center not a growth engine. At least, that’s the way it’s treated by most businesses these days.Most, but not all.
In each industry there are a few companies that think differently about the network because they think differently about their business. For these companies, it is a growth engine and a platform for business innovation upon which they deliver amazing new services and create enormous new value.
How can a network fuel business innovation and growth? To understand how this dichotomy can be true, and understand how and why the network should be treated as a strategic asset and revenue growth center, we need to unpack two truths.
- First is the customer connection and co-creation are at the heart of modern business models.
- Rapid delivery of products and services is necessary to support business objectives in a modern business model.
The modern business model
Two things are probably happening in your industry. If not, they’ll happen soon.
- The things you make are getting smarter and are able to talk to you, or each other, or other things, or all of the above.
- What you build into your product is only part of its ultimate value. Your customers are helping to build its value, too. Maybe they’re rating your product for other customers. Maybe they’re giving your other customers advice on how to use or fix your product. Or maybe your customers areyour product (think Facebook, Twitter and Airbnb). The world is going digital. It’s pervasive in your personal life, and it’s coming to your company, too, ready or not. In the digital world, customers help create value. But here’s the conundrum: We live in a new world—where networks that enable co-creation and rapid product delivery are a must—but our networks are built for the old world—where we just build stuff and sell it to people. This new world needs a new network.
A new network?
Here’s where the second part comes into play. If you’re a digital business, you need to be able to change things fast. Amazon makes a change to its production environment every 11 seconds on average. How well do you think your network, or the average business network, would do in this type of dynamic environment?
Modern networks are built for continual micro-changes and have automated a high percentage of the “work” needed to produce the change. This means automating workflows and processes, from mundane network-level provisioning and configuration work to sophisticated interoperation with the storage layer, applications, security and even the user.
Imagine each and every process is the smallest possible version of itself. It stands alone and can be mixed and matched with other processes to create work streams. Imagine the same for each function in a network or the broader IT infrastructure. For example, routing isn’t a function, rather each and every step that a router does is a standalone function, like DNS look up, or route selection.
With this environment, a business can rapidly create new services, products and offerings. The underlying digital infrastructure can respond in real time using automated systems. This is what we mean by making the network into a platform for business innovation. People’s time and talent can be focused on creating value for customers, on creating platforms and environments in which customers can create value for themselves and each other, and where partners can do the same. The result is not simply that the network gets out of the way, but that it accelerates and enhances the ability of the business to innovate and drive new revenue.
How far out is this network utopia?
Getting started isn’t all that hard. As William Gibson once said, “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” The technologies to do this exist today, and the move to more software-oriented systems will only accelerate the time to value. Google, Facebook, Amazon and other companies do all of this now, and they get huge competitive advantage in time and cost as a result. You can absolutely start down the same path today. Your most significant hurdles will be culture, skills and current processes, which have to be re-evaluated and re-aligned in concert with the goal of innovating at the speed of modern business.
It isn’t necessary to change everything all at once. Most companies begin by automating the physical infrastructure—moving from switches and routers to fabrics, automating network workflows, and implementing basic policy engines. Then they graduate to more advanced capabilities that add agility, such as software-based controllers and software-defined networks (SDN), replacing physical elements with software using virtual network functions (VNF). And eventually they add intelligence in the form of machine learning and advanced analytics.
As you do this, not only do you raise the strategic value of your infrastructure team, but you raise the business value of your infrastructure. It advances from being primarily about connectivity to being primarily about revenue and innovation. It becomes a growth engine for your business, and the network becomes a platform for innovation.