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Software-defined technologies explicitly change the way functions and activities are organized and managed
By: John Rauser
Apr. 9, 2017 05:00 PM
Software-Defined Technologies: Transforming the Value Stream
Software-defined is a concept that refers to the ability to control some or all of the functions of a system using software. The concept is sometimes incorrectly characterized as a buzzword or marketing jargon, when in fact it has a clear meaning that needs to be understood by organizations looking to keep pace with change.
When technologies become software-defined, there are major systemic benefits for organizations that use them, including lower costs, higher quality products and services, and less risk.
At the same time, software-defined technologies require major organizational changes for incumbent enterprises to adopt and use effectively. This often involves expensive and risky transformation projects that reengineer the value stream to take advantage of decoupled components, reduced dependencies and new management capabilities.
Today we will look at the origins of the "software-defined" concept and how its application presents both opportunities and challenges to the enterprise.
The beginning: ‘Software-defined Radio'
As you can imagine, for businesses that operate large-scale radio deployments such as wireless telecom providers, technology decisions are hugely impactful. They can last decades and demand large upfront planning and capital costs. Keeping pace with change is extremely expensive and difficult.
Base Transceiver Station
In 1995, the term Software-Defined Radio (SDR) was coined to describe the commercialization of the first digital radio communication system, and this development changed the way these services and products can be delivered.
On the technical side, in becoming software-defined, many functional limitations are removed from radio systems. For example, by simply reprogramming the software, a device can have its frequency spectrum changed, allowing it to communicate with different devices and perform different functions. This has enabled a quick succession of technical advances that were previously the domain of theory and imagination, like ultra-wide band transmission, adaptive signaling, cognitive radio and the end of the "near-far" problem.
On the business side, the changes are equally profound, having a significant impact on the value stream of enterprises throughout the wireless and radio industry, and the industry itself. A wireless telecom provider employing software-defined radio can easily add new features to its network, adapt its systems to take advantage of new spectrum bands, or reconfigure itself when a new handset technology like LTE 4G becomes available. A telecom provider iable reconfigure its infrastructure by deploying updates to software rather than by buying new hardware can take advantage of huge operational savings while eliminating capital expenses.
SDR therefore provides significant strategic advantage to these businesses, introducing adaptability, modularity and agility to the organization where it was previously rigid and inflexible.
Taking advantage of SDR, however, is a long, transformational process, needing a lot of capital and a significant departure from the status quo. Not only does it require changing all infrastructure over to the new technology, but it also requires the business to think differently and reengineer the value chain to take advantage of the new capabilities.
Having looked at where the concept came from and a few examples of modern software-defined technologies, I propose the following definition for what it means to be "software-defined":
Software-defined means some or all of the functions of a system can be managed and controlled through software.
Some key attributes of a software-defined technology:
1. The functions are abstracted
2. Software controls functionality
3. Functional components are modular
Adoption through Transformation
For those enterprises, however, especially those locked in the middle of a legacy lifecycle, software-defined technologies present a significant challenge. Adoption requires rethinking the value stream and integrating with legacy systems. As stated in the book Lean Thinking,
"We are all born into a mental world of ‘functions' and ‘departments,' a commonsense conviction that activities ought to be grouped by type so they can be performed more efficiently and managed more easily" (p. 25)
Not only do software-defined technologies present a threat to the enterprise in the hands of startups, they also explicitly change the way functions and activities are organized and managed. Adoption demands rethinking how, where, when and by whom functions should operate in the value stream. This entails changing culture, reorganizing roles and team structures, and reengineering the value stream. This kind of change must be driven through risky and expensive and expensive transformation projects.
Traditional enterprises therefore face major challenges with developing competencies with new software-defined systems. Leaders in these organizations will need to be highly flexible and open to a paradigm shift in how they think about their work.
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