Change Management

A flexible IT strategy keeps Cox Communications ahead of the curve.

by Aaron Lazenby, August 2010

Scott Hatfield has seen his share of change in the course of his career. He recently ascended from CIO of Cox Communications to the role of executive vice president and chief technology officer, focusing on the strategic importance of IT to the communications giant’s core business. But in 14 years at Cox, Hatfield has also witnessed firsthand the whirlwind pace of technological evolution—from the introduction of digital phones and video to the birth of broadband and high-definition television. Now he’s working on the rise of mobile communications—and beyond.

Hatfield has to stay current on these changes to serve Cox Communications’ more than 6 million customers across the U.S. Customer expectations are high, especially because change is a disruptive force in enterprise IT environments as well—and keeping Cox on top of the customer satisfaction game is a critical part of Hatfield’s role. ”At the end of the day, practically everything we do has an imprint of technology on it,“ says Hatfield. ”Whether it’s the service itself or how you go about getting the service or dealing with trouble or paying for it—it all is flowing through one of the technology platforms.“ Profit spoke to Hatfield about his vision for Cox’ enterprise IT strategy and what it takes to keep customers happy.

Profit: How important is technology to the core of Cox’ business?

Hatfield: Cox is a 20,000-plus-employee company, serving more than 6 million residential customers. The products we’re delivering—video, voice services, broadband services, and wireless—are all very technology intensive.

Our services are being delivered over networks and electronic gear that go from national backbones all the way into equipment that lives in consumers’ houses—cable modems and set-top boxes and everything in between. That is a very complex ecosystem of boxes, applications, and vendors. We’re also a very transaction-intensive business. We handle many millions of customer interactions such as orders and payments. All of those services have to run through a technology organization—to build them, to operate them, and to evolve them.

Profit: How does Cox’ technology-intensive business make your job more complicated?

Hatfield: The onward march of technology has enabled brand-new products and business models, but it’s completely disruptive. So while we fight all the normal battles for customers, technology is changing the core products we sell.

In my time at Cox, we’ve moved from being an analog video provider—that’s all we had 14 years ago—into delivering information services over broadband. Fourteen years ago, you couldn’t get a cable modem in your house—you were on dial-up because that was all there was. There was no Voice over IP. If you were going to make a phone call, it was going to be traditional circuit switch technology. You wouldn’t have thought of getting internet video to your PC because there was no ecosystem for that.

In the world of IT, you need to make investments, and those investments need to have lifespans. You need to set some pace for refreshing your platform. But the more that the underlying business is changing around you, the more challenging that is—everything speeds up, doesn’t last as long, has to get recovered more quickly, and has to be more adaptable.

Profit: How has that rate of change influenced your IT strategies and decision-making?

Hatfield: I think it reprioritizes your selection criteria. You can’t be looking strictly at lowest cost anymore; you have to be conscious of how not just total cost of ownership, but speed and adaptability enter into the equation as well.

I think if you go back a generation in IT, people would build enterprise systems and hope that they lasted for 15 or 20 years. That mentality has certainly given way. You have to be planning architectures that are going to adapt. The last thing you can afford in a dynamic industry is to attach yourself to a platform that isn’t dynamic. It seems obvious, but that’s a recipe for stress. Your business is going to demand change, and your platform isn’t going to enable change, and there’s no solution to that.

If you look at an Oracle environment, you can see the benefits of an integrated technology stack, where version changes don’t all fall on your shoulders, but they come to you in a commercial way. Getting a certain amount of technology refresh out of partners, I think that’s pretty key.

Profit: What have been some of the most disruptive advances you’ve had to deal with at Cox?

Hatfield: The amount of bandwidth available to a home has exploded, and that has enabled all-new models and services. There are all-new classes of devices that people want to use. Mobility is now an assumption—people want seamless experiences from home and business to wherever they go. The amount of innovation in the communications industry is astonishing.

There was a day when, if we wanted to deliver an application to a customer, we iterated through a lifecycle. We had to conceive it, buy it, or write it, and then bring it to market. Now, we have open ecosystems where anybody can write applications and market them. End users are assembling their own applications, and that’s a complete turning on its head of the classic paradigm in communications.

Profit: How do you face that change, and the complexity of an enterprise IT environment, to deliver a seamless experience for customers?

Hatfield: Look, there’s nothing simple about communications, that’s for sure. Yet we have to continually seek the simpler design in order to stay flexible in such a dynamic environment. Simple solutions are going to give you a better long-term answer.

Without some discipline, it’s easy to get very complex solutions. If you build a solution for every product and then try and glue it together, by definition that’s a more fragile design. So it requires an awful lot of discipline; it requires a lot of architecture and planning because simplicity is essential.

If we can have one view of the customer because we’ve got one order entry system, one data warehouse, one provisioning platform, that’s a stronger environment. If we can reuse voice mail appliances and messaging appliances across multiple lines, we will do that.

Profit: What role has Oracle played in achieving that end?

Hatfield: Let me give you an example. We’ve had a pretty big Oracle footprint for some time: we’ve been big consumers of the database, PeopleSoft users for 13 years, and we’ve been running Oracle E-Business Suite on Linux—that was a pretty exciting project. We certainly use parts of Oracle’s BEA suite [Oracle WebLogic Suite]. We use Oracle for business planning and analytics, and we’ve got some Oracle data warehousing technology.

So when Cox decided to enter the wireless business, our belief was that this was a tipping point for us; it was the right time to refresh our IT stack. So we implemented Oracle’s communications suite, nearly completely, in support of wireless. We’re using Siebel Customer Relationship Management, we’re using Oracle Communications Billing and Revenue Management, and we’re using Oracle AIA [Oracle Application Integration Architecture] technology to integrate it all together. I think we’re probably the first communications operator in North America to embrace the Oracle communications stack that broadly.

Profit: What kind of experience does that ultimately deliver to a Cox customer?

Hatfield: The word ”convergence“ is highly overused, but customers really are looking for their services to come together. Their Web favorites at work are not their favorites at home. Their voice mail at work isn’t compatible with their voice mail at home. Their e-mail addresses are scattered around. There’s no sense of a single identity. We believe there’s a lot of value in bringing those services together—and bringing them together requires common underlying technology and platforms.

So the idea that if your Cox phone rings, you want your Cox caller ID to show up on your TV so you can see who’s calling before you get up off the couch. You want that convergence of feature and service. If I tell my service provider about the privileges I want my five-year-old daughter to have, I want that to apply broadly across my services.

There is tremendous value to a consumer to get that convergence out of a package of services. Consumers should get more than just a marketing discount when they purchase all of their services from a single provider. Every one of your services ought to work better because you’re getting it from a single supplier.

The consumer wants all of those services wherever they are, on any device, and they want it in a very converged way. That’s what we’re trying to deliver. That’s our vision of our product in the future.

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Aaron Lazenby is editor in chief of Profit.

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