Catch-22 and Telco Innovation

By Dave Duggal, founder & CEO, EnterpriseWeb LLC

Originally Posted: January 21, 2022.

It’s been a long time since I read Joseph Heller’s classic, Catch-22 or enjoyed the movie with Alan Aarkin in the lead role. It is a hilarious portrait of paradoxical organizational decision-making.

Speaking of which… I’ve joined this new group, The Telecom Ecosystem Group (TEG), which is exploring challenges in Telco innovation. As opposed to being yet another formal industry standards organization, the TEG is an informal group of respected industry veterans looking to identify common failure patterns across initiatives to see what lessons can be learned and problems avoided. If we recognize the patterns, perhaps we can address stumbling blocks and attain objectives – escape the dreaded Catch-22.

To provoke a conversation, below are three related Anti-Patterns I’ve identified over the years.

Anti-Pattern 1: Disaggregation and unstated assumptions

General trend away from “monoliths”. Desire for modularity and open interfaces to invite innovation and competition. However, beyond the aspirational goals there is an underlying presumption that a solution composed of disaggregated solution elements will be: 1) as performant, stable and secure as the monolith it replaces (i.e. Carrier Grade); 2) that it will add transformative new capabilities (i.e. composable telco, programmable networks, end-to-end automation, etc.), which enable new services; and 3) that it will ultimately drive costs down.

Anti-Pattern 2: Disaggregate first, automate later

Disaggregation tends to quickly lead to interface development activities with industry standards bodies with little or no attention paid to how the discrete interfaces will come together as new solutions. For convenience, the industry tackles the small/understood problems first, leaving big/misunderstood technology questions. Standards bodies tend to punt the problem to developers and waive off profound technical issues with vague references to “AI”. Disaggregating first, without a unified programming model, increases the number of solution elements and provides no means to compose or manage them – yikes! The organizational/cultural focus on expedience and risk avoidance, ends up putting the entire initiative at risk.

Anti-Pattern 3: The Empire Strikes Back

The inevitable complexity of disaggregation initiatives leads to incumbents offering bundled “integrated” solutions with limited open interfaces, which don’t meet objectives of open innovation/competition, but provides an implementation, which saves face and is easy to push through procurement. Incumbent vendors know this game and work standards bodies to steer initiatives this way. Rather than break lock-in, it cements it and the industry moves past another well-intentioned failure.

To infinity and beyond!

I’m not a pessimist and this post is not a paean to the Monolith or the status quo. I’m simply sharing a set of failure patterns that I’ve noticed with the hopes that with we can break out of this Catch-22 and realize the composable Telco.

The question to you is – is it crazier to challenge the process, or to keep repeating it…

If the Innovation Challenge resonates with you, please consider joining us at the next TEG Colloquium, January 26, 2022 at 0700 PST.