AT&T's Saxena: How transformation raises all boats during outset of COVID-19 pandemic

Due to its software-defined networking (SDN) efforts and a culture that embraces change, AT&T was able to turn on a dime during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

From March through May, AT&T grew 16,000 communications services and did it ultra-fast with an 80% improved cycle time, according to AT&T Business' Sorabh Saxena. In addition to providing vital connectivity services to its customers, Saxena said AT&T enabled 100,000 of its employees to work from anywhere in less than two weeks.

For its union workers that typically did not work remotely, AT&T installed a package of software, which included configurations, on their laptops. An AT&T team built the digital imaging program, which takes one image and installs it on thousands of devices, from scratch.

Because AT&T already had its digital transformation plan underway for several years, it was able to quickly pivot during the pandemic.

"We anticipated what COVID-19 would do to the surge in volume," said Saxena, executive vice president for customer service and operations. "We organized 30-plus stakeholder teams, because that's what it takes end-to-end, and six command centers. We provided multiple enablers for these teams.

"One of the biggest (enablers) was our collaboration tools for them to work in so they could see what the predecessor step was doing. We put all of it into a co-create manner with nothing but the customer in mind. So that created massive parallelism. It took out wait periods. We call it 'fix it forward.'"

Fix it forward meant that if there were an error in a previous step, the next team would fix it instead of passing it back. Along with the 80% improvement cycle, Saxena said "200 innovations took place in a very short period of time."

"We're collaborating live through our biggest collaboration tools," Saxena said. "We completely redesigned processes."

AT&T connected its instant messaging applications with its business support system (BSS). AT&T also built robotic process automation (RPA) scripts, which helped it automatically create  instant messaging groups with 16,000 of them on a per service basis.

"By looking into our BSS, this brought in specific individuals that were being assigned," Saxena said. "They work on that particular order they were being assigned to do a test, turn it up, or to do a design. It brought them all together automatically into this collaboration system, into this collaboration cube, as we call it.

"And we supported them. Think of all of those as individual order based groups that were automatically created where they were strategically invited. We also created foundational groups, meaning a group— like the architectural groups or subject matter expert groups or technology groups—where all of them could go if they had a question. So we have the subject matter groups as a horizontal foundation that are laid on top."

Sorabh Saxena

AT&T also created a new orchestration tool on the fly that included a single pane of glass for all of the work in progress. If a particularly important task was earmarked as a COVID-19 related issue, the corresponding group or groups were notified in order to take immediate action.

RELATED: AT&T: Damn COVID-19, it's full speed ahead for 2020's goals

"We were relentlessly innovating," Saxena said. "We were extremely energized as a whole team and we were absolutely rising to the call."

AT&T's transformational journey

AT&T first outlined its virtualization transformation back in 2013 as part of its Domain 2.0 initiative. The following year it announced its goal of having 75% of its core network functions virtualized by 2020, which it has recently achieved, by using SDN. AT&T's transformation included using its internally developed ECOMP, which is now part of ONAP, and SDN to virtualize and put into production critical network functions.

AT&T also embarked on a cultural transformation as well. While Saxena played a key role in the telco's SDN and virtualization efforts, he transitioned over to his current role in 2017 to bring some of the same thought processes to AT&T Business' enterprise customers.

"First and foremost, you have to identify a North Star," Saxena said. "When you are leading a group of thousands of people and serving, in our case, three million plus customers across the globe, the North Star helps unite everyone towards a goal. Our North Star was the triad of value, which is to say operational excellence, revenue growth, and next-gen customer experiences.  Quite often, companies give one of these goals to one team. They likely hit it, but inadvertently do damage to the other two.

"So we want to be very open and transparent and enlightened about our approach that we have to hit all three. That is what creates long-term, sustainable benefits for customers, employees, and all stakeholders alike."

To deliver on the triad of value, Saxena said the "how" was a very important part. The four key pillars for the transformation framework are people, process, technology and culture.

"In my firm belief, often one or the other gets ignored, but you have to have all four work in harmony and in balance to deliver true transformation," he said. "We just enhanced what I call 'leading with listening.' We listen to the voice of our customers and the voice of our employees. We used what the voices were telling us, along with data and analytics and best-in-class practices, to put together a transformation office that took all that input, infused it with data and facts, and recruited everyone's hearts and minds in what I call 'democratizing innovation.'"

As part of its transformation efforts, Saxena said AT&T recruited 300 subject matter experts,

Saxena said AT&T has delivered more than 500 initiatives over the last two years or so to its transformation framework, which has led to several J.D. Power awards for enterprise and SMB customer satisfaction.

For the cultural framework, Saxena said businesses could learn from three foundations that AT&T has built.

"The first is be the best at what you do," he said. "Second, make everybody around you successful. And then the third is, do something every day that you will not get credit for. And how do you do each step? The first one is all about introspection. Feedback is a gift. It needs to happen perpetually, continually. At every meeting, we ask questions, during the meeting and after. 'What could I have done better? Please let me know what I can do better for you.' This robust, very humble self-aware approach provides the opportunity for continual improvement of the individual.

"The second one we talk about is your positive intent. Support each other's path. Be a link that is connected to make the chain stronger. The third is, as I said, do something every day that you will not get credit for. It basically shows that it's a giving culture."

Changing its network and culture enabled AT&T to switch gears during the coronavirus pandemic, both internally and for its customers. Transformations are difficult, but rewarding, according to Saxena. There's always more to do.

"We put in a transformation engine that built our transformational DNA, which allowed us to be very adept at adapting," he said. "That proved itself during this completely unfortunate and unexpected turn of events. We learned a lot during this crisis. So how do we industrialize some of the re-engineering processes, some of the new technology, the continued bottomless collaboration across our employees and customers?  That's what we are working on now.

"We have full confidence in our drive for continuous improvement. We will hold on to much of those gains across the four pillars so that we can deliver the products that business customers want at an even higher level because our journey never stops. Our pursuit for excellence never stops."