Typically when you hear succession planning, you think of the executive suite. However, in rural US, CEO succession is not the only thing costing company managers much-needed rest.
Today’s rural networks contain a well-orchestrated blend of legacy equipment such as TDM switches and older access gear alongside softswitches, high-capacity optical rings, complex routers and gateways. With such a blend, planning the evolution of the network in a cost effective manner that meets the growing expectations of customers has become a significant challenge. Even the most modern networks will retain a significant amount of previous capital investments.
That's why, in the race to embrace The New IP, it's important to remember that it's not just the equipment that needs a succession plan -- the technical team's knowledge base needs a refresh too. Unfortunately, the demographics of the technical teams supporting this gear matches the tenure of the equipment. That knowledge gap is creating some major problems for companies that often have less than a handful of technicians familiar with, and capable of configuring and supporting, the older equipment in their networks.
The knowledge gap is typically ignored until the last person capable of provisioning that 1980s era switch announces that he is taking an early retirement. Many of the younger set of new hires are networking phenoms, but have understanding of legacy technology, and routinely ask "what is a TL1 interface?"
So what should rural providers do? Where does that leave them? There are options of course, each with its own benefit and usual downsides. One approach is to label the old gear as unmaintainable, and while that choice makes equipment manufacturers happy, it usually doesn't have the same effect on the company board that must approve the expense.
Another possibility is to steal the guy from the company next door, which may provide short-term relief, but comes with an inflated hiring bonus and collateral damage to your reputation as a cooperative industry player. Service providers always have the option of contracting the necessary skills from companies that are busy collecting those skills like a treasure trove and offering them back to you at a "reasonable" price. However, employing a lower-level technician that has only a basic understanding of the equipment he's managing means you need to be prepared to have a little less control over some of the more vital parts of your business, since you've contracted more knowledgeable third parties to do that for you.
Technical colleges need to be preparing the technicians of today to deal with the networks of yesterday, today and tomorrow. The today and tomorrow are already covered mostly by the current curriculum -- it's the yesterday that's usually sacrificed as budgets and priorities are usually set with the future in mind. Increasingly, it's clear there's a need for the programs that support today and tomorrow to become a learning hub for some of the older technologies.
These programs could be supported in part by various associations and communities of interest, along with financial contributions from the various equipment manufacturers that made their business success from this equipment in the first place. By being offered locally and as part of a college curriculum, graduates will already be trained to support this equipment, pre-empting the need and cost to do this after employment.
Whichever strategy you choose, make that decision soon. Your equipment and the people who know how to run it are not getting any younger.
— Gary Knee, Executive Vice President, CHR Solutions, special to The New IP