Addressing the skills gap – Are telcos AI ready?

Aaron Richard Earl Boasman-Patel, Vice President AI & Customer Experience, TM Forum

Originally published on, republished with kind permission.

For telcos to get the most out of artificial intelligence (AI), they must not only find the necessary technical skills but also ensure that the entire company understands the value of the technology.

My last blog focused on how AI augmentation is the future for telcos because it not only allows them to deliver superior customer experience in an increasingly competitive marketplace, but also helps them cut costs, remain competitive and launch new services across complex ecosystems, from autonomous cars and fleet management to healthcare and beyond. I concluded that the biggest challenge doesn’t seem to be the implementation of the technology but the upskilling and retraining of human employees.

According to a study from Oracle and Future Workplace, 72% of human resources executives surveyed said their organisations do not provide any AI training programme. Now, that study might not be telco-specific, but it certainly illustrates the challenges that AI brings when implementing it in a business.

SOURCE: EY, 2017

Indeed, the shortage of AI specialists, ranging from data architects and scientists to distributed systems engineers and directors of AI and machine learning, is a well-known issue, highlighted by an EY report which found that more than half of AI professionals believe lack of talent is “the greatest barrier to implementation within business operations.”

How to solve the skills challenge?  

This is a recurring question for me, especially when one reads headlines proposing that “AI is a $200-billion opportunity.” Surely it is only a $200-billion opportunity if a company has the skills to implement and use the technology.

Communications service providers (CSPs) need technically trained people who know how to handle data, create data models and algorithms, and implement and maintain AI and machine learning applications. However, finding these people is not easy, especially when data scientists and AI/ML specialists are in such high demand and there are so few workers available with the necessary skills. In addition, filling these roles is expensive and competition is high. Can operators really compete against the likes of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and IBM?

They can, but they must be smart about it. Firstly, service providers can look at retraining their current staff. Rather than employing a wave of new people, they can employ a few specialists and use them to retrain and upskill existing staff, many of whom have the interest and aptitude to be retrained.

Suppliers can help

In addition to in-house training, operators can partner with their suppliers who often have the expertise and technical know-how. Although there is a trend toward bringing operations back in-house, this partnering model is very familiar to service providers as many have out-sourced operations to vendors in the past. Suppliers and operators can cooperate on building out and implementing AI, leaving skilled specialists onsite to help with training, implementing and operating new AI applications.

Suppliers are also aiming to fill the skills gap in AI by making training courses available to the public. Microsoft announced in April that it is opening its Professional Program in AI to the public, which provides job-ready skills and real-world experience to engineers and others who are looking to improve their skills in AI and data science through a series of online courses that features hands-on labs and expert instructors. Similarly, Huawei has launched its HCNA-AI training programme to bridge the talent gap in the industry.

Service providers should ensure they enrol their employees in programmes like these to upskill their workforce. This will be by far the most efficient and effective way to ensure they have the skills for an AI-driven business.

Service providers may also need to start looking further afield for recruitment. Emerging economic powerhouses such as India are leading the way in developing IT and AI skills amongst its population, and India has seen a boom in its IT sector in recent years. Telcos could also learn from companies like Google and Amazon who have invested internationally to expand their talent pool.  Amazon, for example, has set up an AI-focused lab near Cambridge, whilst Google has set up one in Toronto.

More than technical skills

Service providers also must consider what other kinds of skills they will need to get the most out of AI. Is it only about employing mathematicians and data scientists, or do we fundamentally need to re-examine how a business is structured and consider who else needs to be AI trained and ready?

This latter question hit home as I was reading an article that quoted Intel’s Navin Shenoy, Executive Vice President and General Manager of the company’s Data Centre Group as saying, “I find it astonishing that 90% of the world’s data was generated in the past two years…and analysts forecast that by 2025 data will exponentially grow by 10 times and reach 163 zettabytes. But we have a long way to go in harnessing the power of this data.”

Even if we had a magic wand and could fill all the open AI positions, would that really help telcos harness the power of their data? Unless operators understand the problems they are trying to solve, which new services they need to offer, and the kinds of experiences they want to provide for their customers, the value of AI technology will be limited.

Indeed, in order to harness the true power and potential of AI, the whole company – from the board and CEO all the way down to product development and marketing – needs to embrace AI, understand why it’s being implemented and the customer and business benefits.

AI is not just for the IT and operations department. If companies look at it as “only for technical people”, then adoption will be slow and the business benefits won’t be realised.

Summing it up

What is clear is that we are still in the early days of development and deployment of AI. Service providers still have a long way to go to truly embrace the technology. They urgently need to make their organisations AI ready and this needs to be lead from the top down with all departments understanding AI, its role and impact for the organisation. Similarly, operators need to urgently start filling the skills gap. By far the best approach is to retrain and upskill their existing employees by partnering with leading AI suppliers who have the skills and technical expertise readily available. By hiring a handful of AI experts in addition to upskilling their existing employees, they will be prepared to successfully embrace the power of AI.

Aaron is an Advisory Board member for FutureNet World, learn more about AI at FutureNet World, 26-27 March 2019 at 99 City Road Conference Centre, London. The theme for the event is ‘Network Automation and AI’ and will feature ground breaking content and practical use cases.