Innovate or die

Annie Turner
21 Jul 2011

At a very diverse and animated T8 debate among more than 30 top communications industry executives held at Management World 2011 in Dublin this past May, there was general agreement that change is necessary and urgent and that innovation is the key.

This was underlined in a report published by Juniper Research the week after the Dublin event. It stated that revenues billed by operators will be more than $1 trillion annually by 2016, but that mobile network operators’ costs will exceed revenues within four years unless they take action.

Against this backdrop of soaring costs, we are moving into an era where “users will want any type of information at any time on any device they choose, sometimes while doing 140 km [almost 90 miles] an hour on the autobahn or freeway – it’s our jobs as engineers and technologists to be ingenious and figure out how we are going to enable this,” was how the CTO of one of the world’s largest telecom groups put it. No doubt the speaker’s CFO is equally exercised about how they are going to make a sustainable profit from doing it too.

This report seeks to look at barriers that are preventing progress, present some different approaches to this trillion dollar question, suggested by some of the industry’s most eminent executives and other sources, and some general principles of innovation.

One key topic is the barriers to innovation within operators. They largely seem to come down to corporate culture, which particularly with the financial crisis that started in 2008, appears to have exaggerated the conservative, inward-looking corporate culture, to have even more emphasis on the work ethic of ‘keep your head down’ rather than do anything to draw unwanted attention to oneself by putting forward ideas that run contrary to day-to-day operations or corporate trends.

Grand corporate plans and the boardroom are rarely the birthplaces of innovation, but if properly run, they should, one way or another, provide an environment in which innovation is possible and nurtured. Ideas that are massively successful are often incidental or accidental or just plain lucky, and timing is all.

The point is not to worry that you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, just to have the wits to recognize the possibilities of a good idea when you see one and have the courage to try it out. In particular, realize that putting out ‘work in progress’ is a great idea (Google+ being a great example), if it is described as such – you’ll never get a bigger lab than the outside world or better feedback than from the general public. It might not be polite or what you were expecting, but that doesn’t matter.

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