Mobile operators have their roots firmly in the utility services space. Indeed, many business customers still think of them largely as providers of voice minutes, perhaps with a little bit of data access or mobile email thrown in as a peripheral part of the deal.

Yet while they sometimes struggle to get their efforts recognised, most mobile players today are capable of delivering far more than that. Their service offerings are typically now quite diverse and comprehensive.

When Josie and I were recently reviewing our plans for researching mobile operator propositions for the business sector, we therefore ended up looking at a number of different dimensions and solution areas, the main ones being:

- Convergence of fixed and mobile communications
- Mobile email and other forms of messaging
- Full blown unified communications
- Communications enabled business processes
- Remote access to corporate applications
- Operator hosted business solutions
- Communications management solutions
- Professional services in relation to the above

To one degree or another, we have seen initiatives from most of the larger mobile players in most of these areas over the past few years. Those part of a larger group have been collaborating more with their sister organisations in the fixed telecom business, consulting and managed service business, and so on, while others with more of a mobile pure-play background have grown into new areas either organically or by acquisition.

Across the board, we have also seen mobile operators partnering a lot more with players in the IT space in acknowledgement that activity in many of the areas mentioned crosses the traditional separation between the IT and communications domains.

This extension of capability and propositions is interesting when looking at the dynamics of the industry in general and the way in which the supply side of the equation is changing. From a customer perspective, it also raises the question of whether mobile operators have now evolved enough to be regarded as genuine strategic suppliers to the enterprises they serve.

Before continuing with this line of thinking, it's probably worth defining what we mean by the term 'strategic supplier'. It's something I personally spent a lot of time looking at when writing the supplier management chapter of 'The Technology Garden' book.

While it is tempting to regard suppliers that you spend a lot of money with or rely upon heavily for operational purposes as strategic, we prefer to put the emphasis on organisational synergy. By this, we don't mean some woolly 'feel good' factor, but the existence of a relationship based on genuine trust and mutual understanding at a level that matters in terms of overall business direction.

A good test of strategic status is whether you call a supplier and take their advice on key issues before making highly significant business or technology decisions - not necessarily in every case, but in the areas relevant to their sphere of experience and expertise.

With this definition in mind, it is not unusual for big IT incumbents such as SAP, IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, and so on, to be regarded as strategic. Large consulting and outsourcing firms also often acquire strategic status.

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So what about mobile operators?

Well to date, I can't recall an example of a senior manager proactively calling out a mobile operator when asked to name the top three or four strategic ITC suppliers to their business. This is clearly a function of the limited utility-centric relationship that has traditionally been place, but is it time to reconsider our view of the operator community?

When we consider that many of the organisations we speak with during our research highlight changing working patterns within the workforce and the impact of advanced communications on the way they operate as strategic front-of-mind issues, a convincing argument could be made to invite mobile operators more into the planning process. After all, on paper at least, they would seem to have a lot to contribute having gone through their own analysis of requirements, dependencies, practicalities, etc when constructing their portfolios of offerings.

In practical terms, however, we need realistic about what we can expect in terms of maturity. We have come across mobile operator initiatives, for example, that have started by pulling together a few talented guys from the existing business and asking the get up to speed from a standing start in a new area. The trouble is that teams such as this on a steep learning curve often don't know what they don't know, and this really isn't a good starting point for developing even a tactical advisory relationship with the customer, let alone a strategic one.

In other cases, operators have been smart enough to hire good managers in from other domains, e.g. the IT sector, but even then, it can take time to assemble and optimise offerings, delivery processes, and so on. While the thinking might be quite mature, challenges might still exist at the execution level while experience is gained.

Of course many of the new offerings we see emerging have arisen from the acquisition of going-concerns, or the back-ending of products and services with resources from established sister companies or partners. Where this is the case, there is a better chance of robust thinking and delivery, but even this is not enough in my opinion.

To step up to the role of strategic supplier, mobile operators really need to demonstrate a clear understanding of the overall communications, collaboration and remote access landscape, how it is evolving, and how to help customers figure out which things to do in which order to move forward efficiently and effectively in the context of their businesses. This has to include both the customer internal view, e.g. how certain initiatives and systems are likely to impact others and vice versa, and the industry view, with a clear articulation of how the operator fits into the overall supplier landscape.

There are all kinds of other things we could point to, including coherency of offerings and operations across geographic boundaries and a proven track record of delivering on the basics, for example, but at the end of the day, it's meeting minds on big picture philosophy, objectives and requirements that matters - and, of course, a willingness to do what is needed to establish and maintain a high level, trusted and open relationship.

So are they there yet? Well at an operator community level I would say no, mostly because their activities are not as mature and joined up as they need to be, though some are starting to get pretty close. Earning a seat at the top table is not going to be easy though, as there are plenty of other contenders and a range of incumbents who are already providing advice and guidance in the areas we have mentioned.

Having said this, perhaps there is an opportunity here for customers looking for fresh input and ideas to start developing stronger relationships with operators as they continue their journey from utility, through solution provider, to strategic partner. Different perspectives can, after all, sometimes be useful to shake up our thinking, and let's not forget that those with something to prove are often willing to try a lot harder when it comes to relationship building.

By Dale Vile, research director at Freeform Dynamics.