“Technology transformation is a major enabler of our overarching strategy, which is to be a world-class regional digital leader that provides innovative services and platforms that enable the digital revolution of the MENA region, and enrich people’s lives” says Haithem M. Alfaraj, Chief Technology Officer at STC Group.
Alfaraj has considerable experience in implementing new technologies and driving innovative transformation programmes. He has been with STC since 2016, assuming his current role in the early part of last year. A key responsibility in this position is the developing and leading of transformation projects designed to improve the organisation-wide deployment of innovative IT and communications solutions. It has been, he explains, “an interesting and informative experience that required a high learning curve in terms of my leadership, both with regards to technology and the wider company’s ambition and transformation. It also creates an opportunity to develop new digital leadership that can take the company to the next level and support the national transformation of the country’s Vision 2030.”
During Alfaraj’s tenure, STC has been no stranger to innovation. It has pioneered the use of 5G, for example, becoming the first operator to launch live 5G network in in May 2018. In June of 2019, it launched 5G services commercially. These developments, Alfaraj notes, as well as other wider initiatives and technology innovations, form part of the wider transformation he has overseen. “We focused on developing a strong technology strategy that would advance our capabilities and enable our business to be successful – we knew we always had to be at the advanced stages of development when it comes to technologies covering infrastructure, platforms, cloud, applications, AI and Big Data to maintain our leading position in MENA’s digital revolution. At the same time, we worked on our operating model to ensure it was both agile and collaborative.”
A key focus for Alfaraj was to ensure that STC’s technology transformation supported the organisation’s wider DARE strategy. This outlines the key pillars under which the business looks to expand: Digitise by becoming a data driven, technologically agile organisation focused on enhanced experiences; Accelerate core asset performance through cultural and technological change, as well as growing both B2G and B2B market segments to lead the market; Reinvent the customer experience through the personalisation of interactions with technology to create new, attractive journeys; and Expand aggressively by pursuing all opportunities for growth related to services and applications, platforms and connectivity and infrastructure.
Digital and technology are key aspects of realising DARE, he notes, outlining how he focused on certain domains such as services and application, AI and analytics, platforms and connectivity, and infrastructure. However, much of the overall development was driven by the desire to reinvent STC’s customer experience. “Going through this transformation provided an opportunity to baseline our current operations and architecture and better understand our business performance,” says Alfaraj. “In so doing, it was apparent that our legacy infrastructure wouldn’t have been able to meet the requirements of the new services we were looking to introduce or meet the expectations of our customers in terms of the quality standards we expect to deliver. As an example of our digital transformation, in the wholesale domain, technology demands and gaps are covered by digitisation, which is a result of agile partnerships adapted during the innovation phase of the solution. These partnerships resulted in improvement of time-to-market, cost reduction and automation of processes.
“If you look at technology and operations as a sector of the business, then our customers’ experience and achieving true customer-centric operations have been fundamental principles in our transformation,” Alfaraj continues. He details how this has been achieved, including through a focus on baselining and reimagining customer journeys and stories through in-depth customer-design thinking with our business units to ensure they are in line with the company’s capabilities and create an evolution to customer satisfaction.
“Our objective,” he adds, “is to make customer experience a competitive advantage and a true differentiator for us in the market – something we have successfully managed to do over the last few years.” Key aspects of that success include leading the region in investing in technologies that continuously measure customer experience, revamping assurance and operational processes to make service and customer experience the priority, establishing a dedicated service performance and customer services unit, and creating new KPIs and KQIs that are aligned with a customer-centric approach. To achieve these objectives, STC leveraged its data and analytics capability it has built over the years to not only improve customer experience, but also to generate revenue and optimise cost. This capability includes employing AI techniques such as machine-learning, NLP and RPA to introduce efficiency into its operations.
With regards to specific technologies, connectivity and speed of connection have been a large focus for Alfaraj and his team. STC already has the highest mobile speed and the most reliable network in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, yet it continues to improve this through investment in its ‘backbone’ – data centres, transportation networks and each individual layer of its overall network. “Our new MySTC app has also had a significant impact,” he notes. “This is entirely in line with our digitalisation vision, and facilitates the purchase of smart devices and SIM cards through the app store, complete with free delivery. It also covers fixed services with intelligent customer support capabilities.” On 10 November it was announced that MySTC had received the ‘App of the Year’ Golden Award at the Network PGs 2019 IT World Awards, an event organised annually in San Francisco to recognise excellence in technology worldwide.
To achieve such significant change requires effective relationships with key partners and vendors. Here, Alfaraj explains that the business has collaborative platforms at every level of the organisation. “Going through this transformation has actually opened doors for us to have better strategic dialogue with our partners and to explore new technologies and solutions with them,” he says. “For all new or emerging technologies and services, such as 5G, telco-cloud, virtualisation or network transformations, we adopt a collaborative development ecosystem in which we work together as partners to identify and deliver optimal, agile, robust and high-quality solutions to our customers. For more mature technologies and services, we prefer an ‘off the shelf’ approach that is efficient, cost-effective and allows for faster delivery of products through their lifecycle.”
STC works with many of the largest tech and telco brands, including Accenture, for digital telco transformation, Ericsson, Huawei and Nokai for 5G development and IoT, Redhat for cloud technology developments, and Teradata and SAS for Big Data analytics. Accordingly, says Alfaraj, STC has “vast experience” in managing successful collaboration. To do this, he explains, the business approaches each collaboration with firm guidelines in mind that cover such areas a joint planning and strategising, business alignment and planning, executive engagement, technical integration and field readiness, and more.
Naturally, greater use of technology brings heightened risk, particular in terms of cybersecurity. Being a digital leader, STC well understands the risks and how critical they are to a successful technology transformation, particularly with the adoption of cloud and IoT solutions. The company invests in three key areas: people, process and technology. “This includes hiring the best cybersecurity professionals and consultants and training a large pool of Saudi graduates in the latest preventative security technologies, all in line with our vision,” says Alfaraj.
In addition, the company has established a strong cybersecurity governance, risk and compliance capability within its cybersecurity sector. This combines policies, standards and audits for use in the STC partner ecosystem to ensure consistency in all operations. In terms of technology and partnership, STC has invested in security technologies to complement the governance aspect of protection, deploying the largest Threat Intel programme and Anti-DDoS capability in the Kingdom. These two programmes, as well as several others, have protected STC and the Kingdom at large from major globally known cyberattacks, guaranteeing not only STC’s continued service, but the business as usual for every STC client (Government, Enterprises and Consumers). High-level partnerships with giants like Saudi Aramco, Cybersecurity Center under the World Economic Forum and FIRST.org have been forged to solidify STC’s contribution to local and global Cybersecurity. With the continuous evolution of technology security risks, STC is mandated to sustain and ensure full command around risks mitigations and proper controls.
Looking more broadly, STC intends to continue leading the digital revolution in MENA in line with the transformation Alfaraj describes. One example of this is the company’s contribution to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 programme, which includes objectives around digitalisation and extending high speed internet access to all citizens. Steps the business has already taken in this area include streamlining of its vision with that of Vision 2030, adopting a digitalisation framework to significantly lift the nation’s digital potential, improving infrastructure and technology, and upskilling its workforce.
In the latter, Alfaraj is resolute in his belief of the importance of people. “Any transformation is about people and how we work – we knew from the start that this journey would be about enhancing capabilities, increasing collaboration and developing new ways of working,” he explains. “Our change management was built around three themes; clarity, capabilities and commitment. We made sure everyone knew of all the changes every step of the way, we invested significantly into building our capability across the company, and we were fortunate to have a management team committed to driving that change. That has brought real innovation in the way we run our operations, and it was important to our overall success - once the leadership adopted the changes, the rest was a chain reaction right through the organisation.”