Building the learning telco

Organisational learning is key to telcos’ success in the Coordination Age

Developments in technology and organisational digital transformations increased the pressure on learning and development (L&D) departments in telcos. L&D departments, many of which were compliance-focused, were tasked with upgrading telcos’ entire skills inventories to ensure that workforces were fit for new ways of working (e.g. AT&T’s “Workforce Reskilling” effort announced in 2016).

What was perhaps under-appreciated initially was that the need for L&D would not go away:

  • Telcos continue to operate in dynamic environments that are inherently unstable (e.g. pandemics, climate crises, new and evolving technologies);
  • Traditional telco revenue streams have remained under pressure, requiring new and innovative thinking to identify opportunities for growth.

The VUCA acronym (first coined in 1987) – standing for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity – provides a useful framework to describe the current telco environment.

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The telco’s highly VUCA environment

learning telco

Source: STL Partners

Telcos have made changes to organisation structures in order to accommodate this reality, e.g. “flattening” the organisation and decentralising decision-making to accelerate the pace at which organisations can take action (absorb change and innovate).

Additionally, they are recognising the importance of learning to this process. Workforce skills must remain relevant and collective corporate intelligence must evolve to decide and inform winning strategies.

This type of “organisational learning” requires conscious efforts on the part of both the organisation and individual employees. It is not enough to make L&D the sole responsibility of an L&D team, or an HR department and to task them with identifying appropriate content and courses to push out to employees.

Organisations need to foster an environment where learning is encouraged and enabled in pursuit of organisational improvement, customer satisfaction, innovation and growth. After all, it is impossible to improve/do something new without learning in the first instance. Learning tools, processes and practices are required – and barriers to learning should be removed.

Learning barriers can include:

  • L&D teams creating bottlenecks to learning (e.g. restricted course access)
  • The existence of knowledge silos
  • Beliefs that “knowledge is power”
  • A lack of clear goals around using knowledge/new capabilities for improvement (i.e. learningto create behaviour change)
  • No incentives for individuals or teams to engage in learning
  • Uncertainty about processes for capturing and sharing learning
  • Fear of failure inhibiting trials in order to learn something new.

This report considers the key practices associated with organisational learning and identifies lessons from telcos who are progressing towards becoming a learning organisation.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • The value of organisational learning
  • Enabling organisational learning
    • Types of learning in organisations
  • Organisational learning in practice
    • Learning as an organisational priority
    • Identifying learning purpose
    • Content-based learning
    • Person-led learning (knowledge sharing)
    • Process-led learning
    • Trial, reflection and practice
    • Recognition and rewards for learning
  • Towards learning organisations
    • Findings
    • Evaluation
  • Conclusions
  • Index

Related Research

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Stakeholder model: Turn growth killers into growth makers

Introduction: The stakeholder model

Telecoms operators’ attempts to build new sources of revenue have been a core focus of STL Partners’ research activities over the years. We’ve looked at many telecoms case studies, adjacent market examples, new business models and technologies and other routes to explore how operators might succeed. We believe the STL stakeholder model usefully and holistically describes telcos’ main stakeholder groups and the ideal relationships that telcos need to establish with each group to achieve valuable growth. It should be used in conjunction with other elements of STL’s portfolio which examine strategies needed within specific markets and industries (e.g., healthcare) and telcos’ operational areas (e.g., telco cloud, edge, leadership and culture).

This report outlines the stakeholder model at a high level, identifying seven groups and three factors within each group that summarise the ideal relationship. These stakeholder and influencer groups include:

  1. Management
  2. People
  3. Customer propositions
  4. Partner and technology ecosystems
  5. Investors
  6. Government and regulators
  7. Society

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1. Management

Growth may not always start at the top of an organisation, but to be successful, top management will be championing growth, have the capabilities to lead it, and aligning and protecting the resources needed to foster it. This is true in any organisation but especially so in those where there is a strong established business already in place, such as telecoms. The critical balance to be maintained is that the existing business must continue to succeed, and the new growth businesses be given the space, time, skills and support they need to grow. It sounds straightforward, but there are many challenges and pitfalls to making it work in practice.

For example, a minor wobble in the performance of a multi-billion-dollar business can easily eclipse the total value of a new business, so it is often tempting to switch resources back to the existing business and starve the fledgling growth. Equally, perceptions of how current businesses need to be run can wrongly influence what should happen in the new ones. Unsuitable choices of existing channels to market, familiar but ill-fitting technologies, or other business model prejudices are classic bias-led errors (see Telco innovation: Why it’s broken and how to fix it).

To be successful, we believe that management needs to exhibit three broad behaviours and capabilities.

  1. Stable and committed long term vision for growth aligned with the Coordination Age.
  2. Suitable knowledge, experience and openness.
  3. Effective two-way engagement with stakeholders. (N.B. We cover the board and most senior management in this group. Other management is covered in the People stakeholder group.)

Management: Key management enablers of growth

management-leadership-vision-growth-indicators

Source: STL Partners

Stable and committed long-term vision for growth

The companies that STL has seen making more successful growth plays typically exhibit a long-term commitment to growth and importantly, learning too.

Two examples we have studied closely are TELUS and Elisa. In both cases, the CEO has held tenure in the long-term, and the company has demonstrated a clear and well managed commitment to growth.

In TELUS’s case, the primary area of growth targeted has been healthcare, and the company now generates somewhere close to 10% of its revenue from the new areas (it does not publish a number). It has been working in healthcare for over 10 years, and Darren Entwistle, its CEO, has championed this cause with all stakeholders throughout.

In Elisa’s case, the innovation has been developed in a number of areas. For example, how it couples all you can use data plans and a flat sales/capex ratio; a new network automation business selling to other telcos; and an industrial IoT automation business.

Again, CEO Veli-Matti Mattila has a long tenure, and has championed the principle of Elisa’s competitive advantage being in its ability to learn and leverage its existing IP.

…aligned with the Coordination Age

STL argues that the future growth for telcos will come by addressing the needs of the Coordination Age, and this in turn is being accelerated by both the COVID-19 pandemic and growing realisation of climate change.

Why COVID-19 and Climate change are accelerating the Coordination Age

COVID-19-and-Climate-change-Coordination-Age-STL

 

Source: STL Partners

The Coordination Age is based on the insight that most stakeholder needs are driven by a global need to make better use of resources, whether in distribution (delivery of resources when and where needed), efficiency (return on resources, e.g. productivity), and sustainability (conservation and protection of resources, e.g. climate change).

This need will be served through multi-party business models, which use new technologies (e.g. better connectivity, AI, and automation) to deliver outcomes to their customers and business ecosystems.

We argue that both TELUS and Elisa are early innovators and pathfinders within these trends.

Suitable knowledge, experience and openness

Having the right experience, character and composition in the leadership team is an area of constant development by companies and experts of many types.

The dynamics of the leadership team matter too. There needs to be leadership and direction setting, but the team must be able to properly challenge itself and particularly its leader’s strongest opinions in a healthy way. There will of course be times when a CEO of any business unit needs to take the helm, but if the CEO or one of the C-team is overly attached to an idea or course of action and will not hear or truly consider alternatives this can be extremely risky.

AT&T / Time Warner – a salutary tale?

AT&T’s much discussed venture into entertainment with its acquisitions of DirecTV and Time Warner is an interesting case in point here. One of the conclusions of our recent analysis of this multi-billion-dollar acquisition plan was that AT&T’s management appeared to take a very telco-centric view throughout. It saw the media businesses primarily as a way to add value to its telecoms business, rather than as valuable business assets that needed to be nurtured in their own right.

Regardless of media executives leaving and other expert commentary suggesting it should not neglect the development of its wider distribution strategy for the content powerhouse for example, AT&T ploughed on with an approach that limited the value of its new assets. Given the high stakes, and the personalised descriptions of how the deal arose through the CEOs of the companies at the time, it is hard to escape the conclusion that there was a significant bias in the management team. We were struck by the observation that it seemed like “AT&T knew best”.

To be clear, there can be little doubt that AT&T is a formidable telecoms operator. Many of its strategies and approaches are world leading, for example in change management and Telco Cloud, as we also highlight in this report.

However, at the time those deals were done AT&T’s board did not hold significant entertainment expertise, and whoever else they spoke with from that industry did not manage to carry them to a more balanced position. So it appears to us that a key contributing factor to the significant loss of momentum and market value that the media deals ultimately inflicted on AT&T was that they did not engineer the dynamics or character in their board to properly challenge and validate their strategy.

It is to the board’s credit that they have now recognised this and made plans for a change. Yet it is also notable that AT&T has not given any visible signal that it made a systemic error of judgement. Perhaps the huge amounts involved and highly litigious nature of the US market are behind this, and behind closed doors there is major change afoot. Yet the conveyed image is still that “AT&T knows best”. Hopefully, this external confidence is now balanced with more internal questioning and openness to external thoughts.

What capabilities should a management team possess?

In terms of telcos wishing to drive and nurture growth, STL believes there are criteria that are likely to signal that a company has a better chance of success. For example:

  • Insight into the realistic and differentiating capabilities of new and relevant markets, fields, applications and technologies is a valuable asset. The useful insight may exist in the form of experience (e.g. tenure in a relevant adjacent industry such as healthcare, or delivery of automation initiatives, working in relevant geographies, etc.), qualification (e.g. education in a relevant specialism such as AI), or longer term insight (which may be indicated by engagement with Research and Development or academic activities)

[The full range of management capabilities can be viewed in the report…..] 

 

2. People…

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Management
    • Stable and committed long-term vision for growth
    • …aligned with the Coordination Age
    • Suitable knowledge, experience and openness
    • Two-way engagement with stakeholders
  • People
    • Does the company have a suitable culture to enable growth?
    • Does the company have enough of the new skills and abilities needed?
    • Is the company’s general management collaborative, close to customers, and diverse?
  • Customer propositions
    • Nature of the current customer relationship
    • How far beyond telecoms the company has ventured
    • Investment in new sectors and needs
  • Partner and technology ecosystems
    • Successful adoption of disruptive technologies and business models
    • More resilient economics of scale in the core business
    • Technology and partners as an enabler of change
  • Investors
    • The stability of the investor base
    • Has the investor base been happy?
    • Current and forecast returns
  • Government and regulators
    • The tone of the government and regulatory environment
    • Current status of the regulatory situation
    • The company’s approach to government and regulatory relationships
  • Society
    • Brand presence, engagement and image
    • Company alignment with societal priorities
    • Media portrayal

Related research

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What can telcos learn from Silicon Valley?

Silicon Valley: The promise of “Open” Innovation and agile experimentation

Until the early 2000s, Closed Innovation, based on a model of internal, centralised research and development, was the de facto way for companies to protect intellectual property and gain competitive advantage. Latterly, assisted by the tailwinds of increasing connectivity, there has been a shift in mindset towards Open Innovation – sourcing and acquiring external expertise, scanning the environment, and tapping into ideas and input from beyond the four walls of the business. Today, the array of innovation models is varied and ever-expanding: scouting, crowdsourcing, idea competitions, collaborative design and development, spin-outs, corporate ventures, incubators, joint ventures, in- and out-licensing of intellectual property, consortia, innovation platforms and ecosystems to name but a few. Increasingly, this activity is taking place in clusters – auspicious geographic concentrations of interconnected companies and institutions – the most famous of which is Silicon Valley.

Thanks to a unique confluence of assets – the presence of tech giants and leading research universities, an abundance of venture capital and skilled labour, a disruptive culture, and a relatively benign regulatory environment – Silicon Valley is one of the world’s leading hotbeds of innovation.

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Hundreds of organisations of various sizes and industries – even those with plentiful local R&D talent in their home markets – have been drawn to the Valley in the hope of importing outside-in innovation, identifying new products and partners, and harnessing its ecosystem to solve strategic problems. Telcos are no exception: since the early 2000s, telcos’ core businesses have come under increasing pressure from OTT players as well as wider market forces to innovate and grow. Open Innovation is the antithesis of telcos’ traditional, vertically-integrated approach of translating their own R&D efforts into internally-developed products and services, typically tightly linked to their existing customer bases and offerings. Operators are hoping some of the Valley’s magic dust of disruptive thinking and speed of execution will rub off on them.

However, insiders sometimes quip that the Boeing 747s flying out of San Francisco International Airport have “amnesic” properties. The executive groups that typically descend upon the Valley, hoping to learn from its incumbents both large and small, take copious notes and leave fired up about re-energising innovation in their home base. But once back within the corporate environment, the seeds of innovation struggle to germinate and the majority of initiatives fail to generate any substantial return on objectives. There appears to be a degree of cognitive dissonance between the expectation of such engagements, and their impact.

Other approaches to the Valley, from CVCs (Corporate Venture Capital investments in start-ups) to environmental scanning and venture-building, are better established, with hundreds of corporate outposts currently in place. Four major routes to outside-in innovation, with illustrative examples are shown below.

Four major routes to outside-in innovation

Open Innovation

Unfortunately, truly transformational success stories are few and far between (gains tend to be small or incremental in nature) and there is a long tail of failures and missed opportunities.

For STL Partners, this raises a series of questions:

  • What are telcos hoping to learn from Silicon Valley and how are they going about it?
  • What are the challenges they face in implementing and operationalising what they learn?
  • What can they do differently to overcome some of the common pitfalls of Open Innovation to drive more significant successes?

In addition to its own primary and secondary research, STL Partners explored the challenges and opportunities in depth with Jean-Marc Frangos – Executive Fellow at INSEAD, Executive in Residence at the Plug and Play Tech Center, and Advisor to the Telecom Council of Silicon Valley and former Senior VP of BT’s Innovation function. Located in the Bay Area, Jean-Marc benefits from a 360° view of the disruptive technologies, revenue opportunities and shifts in the in the Valley landscape, and advises European and Asian players on how to integrate such innovations into the incumbent telecoms environment.

What are telcos hoping to do in Silicon Valley?

There are currently somewhere between 300 and 500 corporate outposts in Silicon Valley, as varied in their industries, size and depth of operations as they are in their motives, which are not exclusively tech-focused. The majority have a relatively small footprint, such as those acting as an innovation “antenna” or corporate venture capital (CVC) office, although some have established a more structured presence, for example an innovation lab or R&D centre.

Despite the diversity of these outposts, their common goal is to sense and respond to technology shifts, whether they be disruptive opportunities or disruptive threats. Many of these corporations may be struggling to keep pace with innovation in their own industry and are looking to infuse their organisation with a more entrepreneurial mindset and attract creative talent to gain competitive advantage. In the case of telcos, most are already facing disruption while the remainder can see it looming on the horizon.

The key drivers for innovation outposts include:

  • Keeping a finger on the pulse of trends originating in the Valley;
  • Scouting emerging technologies with a view to investment, incubation, acquisition or some form of collaborative partnership and identifying new channels to market, new business models or new people/processes;
  • Acquiring expertise or best practices from outside the organisation that can be internalised (e.g. to evolve the corporate culture) with a view to accelerating the innovation cycle from start-up through Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to initial production.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
  • What are telcos hoping to do in Silicon Valley?
    • The dominant innovation outpost models in Silicon Valley
    • What to learn in Silicon Valley: Four levels of learning
    • Increasing acceptance of evolving business models
  • What should telcos do differently?
    • Purpose: Match effort to expectation
    • Whom to learn innovation lessons from in Silicon Valley
    • People: Who goes to the Valley, and who stays home
    • Practices: Dos and don’ts
  • Telco dynamics and challenges
    • Ambidextrous transformation is a hard art to master
    • Two-speed IT puts the brakes on digital culture
    • Capital-intensive infrastructure companies have a bigger turning circle
    • Design thinking must infuse the transmission belt
    • Telcos may struggle to win the battle for tech talent
  • Conclusion
  • Index

Related research

 

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End-to-end network automation: Why and how to do it?

Automation, analytics and AI: A3 unlocks value for operators

STL Partners has been writing about automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics for several years. While the three have overlapping capabilities and often a single use case will rely upon a combination, they are also distinct in their technical outcomes.

Distinctions between the three As

Source: STL Partners

Operators have been heavily investing in A3 use cases for several years and are making significant progress. Efforts can be broadly broken down into five different domains: sales and marketing, customer experience, network planning and operations, service innovation and other operations. Some of these domains, such as sales and marketing and customer experience, are more mature, with significant numbers of use cases moving beyond R&D and PoCs into live, scaled deployments. In comparison, other domains, like service innovation, are typically less mature, despite the potential new revenue opportunities attached to them.

Five A3 use case domains

Source: STL Partners

Use cases often overlap across domains. For example, a Western European operator has implemented an advanced analytics platform that monitors network performance, and outputs a unique KPI that, at a per subscriber level, indicates the customer experience of the network. This can be used to trigger an automated marketing campaign to customers who are experiencing issues with their network performance (e.g. an offer for free mobile hotspot until issues are sorted). In this way, it spans both customer experience and network operations. For the purpose of this paper, however, we will primarily focus on automation use cases in the network domain.  We have modelled the financial value of A3 for telcos: Mapping the financial value.

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The time is ripe for network automation now

Network automation is not new. In fact, it’s been a core part of operator’s network capabilities since Almon Strowger invented the Strowger switch (in 1889), automating the process of the telephone exchange. Anecdotally, Strowger (an undertaker by profession) came up with this invention because the wife of a rival funeral parlour owner, working at the local community switchboard, was redirecting customers calling for Strowger to her own husband’s business.

Early advertising called the Strowger switch the “girl-less, cuss-less, out-of-order-less, wait-less telephone” or, in other words, free from human error and faster than the manual switchboard system. While this example is more than 100 years old, many of the benefits of automation that it achieved are still true today; automation can provide operators with the ability to deliver services on-demand, without the wait, and free from human error (or worse still, malevolent intent).

Despite automation not being a new phenomenon, STL Partners has identified six key reasons why network automation is something operators should prioritise now:

  • Only with automation can operators deliver the degree of agility that customers will demand. Customers today expect the kind of speed, accuracy and flexibility of service that can only be achieved in a cost-effective manner with high degrees of network automation. This can be both consumer customers (e.g. for next generation network services like VR/AR applications, gaming, high-definition video streaming etc.) or enterprise customers (e.g. for creating a network slice that is spun up for a weekend for a specific big event). With networks becoming increasingly customised, operators must automate their systems (across both OSS and BSS) to ensure that they can deliver these services without a drastic increase in their operating costs.
    One  wholesale operator exemplified this shift in expectations when describing their customers, which included several of the big technology companies including Amazon and Google: “They have a pace in their business that is really high and for us to keep up with their requirements and at the same time beat all our competitors we just need to be more automated”. They stated that while other customers may be more flexible and understand that instantiating a new service takes time, the “Big 5” expect services in hours rather than days and weeks.
  • Automation can enable operators to do more, such as play higher up the value chain. External partners have an expectation that telcos are highly skilled at handling data and are highly automated, particularly within the network domain. It is only through investing in internal automation efforts that operators will be able to position themselves as respected partners for services above and beyond pure connectivity. An example of success here would be the Finnish operator Elisa. They invested in automation capabilities for their own network – but subsequently have been able to monetise this externally in the form of Elisa Automate.
    A further example would be STL Partners’ vision of the Coordination Age. There is a role for telcos to play further up the value chain in coordinating across ecosystems – which will ultimately enable them to unlock new verticals and new revenue growth. The telecoms industry already connects some organisations and ecosystems together, so it’s in a strong position to play this coordinating role. But, if they wish to be trusted as ecosystem coordinators, they must first prove their pedigree in these core skills. Or, in other words, if you can’t automate your own systems, customers won’t trust you to be key partners in trying to automate theirs.
  • Automation can free up resource for service innovation. If operators are going to do more, and play a role beyond connectivity, they need to invest more in service innovation. Equally, they must also learn to innovate at a much lower cost, embracing automation alongside principles like agile development and fast fail mentalities. To invest more in service innovation, operators need to reallocate resources from other areas of their business – as most telcos are no longer rapidly growing, resource must be freed up from elsewhere.
    Reducing operating costs is a key way that operators can enable increased investment in innovation – and automation is a key way to achieve this.

A3 can drive savings to redistribute to service innovation

Source: Telecoms operator accounts, STL Partners estimates and analysis

  • 5G won’t fulfil its potential without automation. 5G standards mean that automation is built into the design from the bottom up. Most operators believe that 5G will essentially not be possible without being highly automated, particularly when considering next generation network services such as dynamic network slicing. On top of this, there will be a ranging need for automation outside of the standards – like for efficient cell-site deployment, or more sophisticated optimisation efforts for energy efficiency. Therefore, the capex investment in 5G is a major trigger to invest in automation solutions.
  • Intent-based network automation is a maturing domain. Newer technologies, like artificial intelligence and machine learning, are increasing the capabilities of automation. Traditional automation (such as robotic process automation or RPA) can be used to perform the same tasks as previously were done manually (such as inputting information for VPN provisioning) but in an automated fashion. To achieve this, rules-based scripts are used – where a human inputs exactly what it is they want the machine to do. In comparison, intent-based automation enables engineers to define a particular task (e.g. connectivity between two end-points with particular latency, bandwidth and security requirements) and software converts this request into lower level instructions for the service bearing infrastructure. You can then monitor the success of achieving the original intent.
    Use of AI and ML in conjunction with intent-based automation, can enable operators to move from automation ‘to do what humans can do but faster and more accurately’, to automation to achieve outcomes that could not be achieved in a manual way. ML and AI has a particular role to play in anomaly detection, event clustering and predictive analytics for network operations teams.
    While you can automate without AI and ML, and in fact for many telcos this is still the focus, this new technology is increasing the possibilities of what automation can achieve. 40% of our interviewees had network automation use cases that made some use of AI or ML.
  • Network virtualisation is increasing automation possibilities. As networks are increasingly virtualised, and network functions become software, operators will be afforded a greater ability than ever before to automate management, maintenance and orchestration of network services. Once networks are running on common computing hardware, making changes to the network is, in theory, purely a software change. It is easy to see how, for example, SDN will allow automation of previously human-intensive maintenance tasks. A number of operators have shared that their teams and/or organisations as a whole are thinking of virtualisation, orchestration and automation as coming hand-in-hand.

This report focuses on the opportunities and challenges in network automation. In the future, STL Partners will also look to more deeply evaluate the implications of network automation for governments and regulators, a key stakeholder within this ecosystem.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • End-to-end network automation
    • A key opportunity: 6 reasons to focus on network automation now
    • Key recommendations for operators to drive their network automation journey
    • There are challenges operators need to overcome
    • This paper explores a range of network automation use cases
    • STL Partners: Next steps
  • Automation, analytics and AI: A3 unlocks value for operators
    • The time is ripe for network automation now
  • Looking to the future: Operators’ strategy and ambitions
    • Defining end-to-end automation
    • Defining ambitions
  • State of the industry: Network automation today
    • Which networks and what use cases: the breadth of network automation today
    • Removing the human? There is a continuum within automation use cases
    • Strategic challenges: How to effectively prioritise (network) automation efforts
    • Challenges to network automation– people and culture are key to success
  • Conclusions
    • Recommendations for vendors (and others in the ecosystem)
    • Recommendations for operators

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Elisa: Telco leadership excellence – and how to do it

Elisa stands out among telcos

As digital services are reshaping our world, many different players are creating new and disruptive services, while telcos’ traditional revenue streams are plateauing and, in some cases, in decline. While many telcos have embarked on the journey to diversify their offerings and establish themselves as serious players in the digital services space, many are struggling to make business model adjustments that are critical to success as operators move into adjacent growth segments. Few telcos have figured out how to keep the wheels turning on their core business, while also building new businesses and embedding agile working practices across their organisation.

In our evaluation of new digital services propositions from Finnish telco, Elisa, STL Partners discovered a contender that punches significantly above its weight. (See our earlier case studies on Elisa Automate and Smart Factory.) Elisa’s successes in pioneering new services, maintaining customer relevance and delivering impressive financial results are not an overnight sensation but the product of long-term, systematic transformation and hard-won lessons.

We were curious to find out what combination of attributes make Elisa an exemplar of how to win in the digital revolution, and how other telcos can take a leaf out of the Elisa playbook to create a similarly agile, adaptable environment for innovation within their own organisations.

Through a series of in-depth interviews with key members of Elisa’s senior management, we set out to explore the company’s recent history of evolution and the culture, practices and processes that are positioning Elisa to co-operate as well as compete with digitally-minded telcos worldwide.

For this research we interviewed six members of Elisa’s executive management:

  • Veli-Matti Mattila, CEO
  • Henri Korpi, Executive Vice President, International Digital Services, including Elisa Automate and Elisa Smart Factory
  • Vesa-Pekka Nikula, at the time of the interviews Executive Vice President, Production – the Production team is responsible for networks, IT and software underpinning all of Elisa’s operations in Finland, Estonia and new international digital services. Currently Executive Vice President, Consumer Customers.
  • Merja Ranta-aho, Executive Vice President, HR – Elisa’s HR team plays a key role in developing processes and practices that encourage continuous learning across the organisation.
  • Liisa Puurunen, Vice President, International Digital Services, International Entertainment – this team is tasked with ideation and development of new business propositions built out from Elisa’s core capabilities in the area of entertainment.
  • Tapio Turunen, at the time of the interview, Director, Business Development – this team is responsible for strategy development across Elisa. Currently Vice President, Business Development, Corporate Customers.

The figure below shows a high-level view of Elisa’s operational structure, with additional notes on how those interviewed for this research fit into the organisation.

Elisa operational model and interviewee overview

Elisa operational structure and interviewees

Source: Elisa, with STL Partners notes

Comparing Elisa’s culture with other telcos

In parallel with our research into the Elisa’s critical success factors, STL Partners has been running a survey on culture, leadership and purpose in telecoms operators. The goal of the survey is to understand how important these factors are to telcos’ success, and what types of behaviours contribute to a working environment that motivates and enables people to learn new skills and innovate.

As of November 2019, we received 19 responses from Elisa out of a total of nearly 170 respondents overall, primarily from other European operators, as well as some from North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East. The results illustrated in the graphic below show a stark difference between how people in Elisa perceive their culture and leadership compared to their peers.

Elisa’s culture is perceived as significantly more effective than other telcos’

To what extent is Elisa's culture an enabler or barrier to success surveySource: STL Partners

The fact that people within Elisa feel as though the company culture is significantly more supportive to its success than in the average telco validates STL Partners’ view that it has a unique approach that others can learn from.

Elisa similarly stands out against its peers across other areas covered in the survey, such as how the organisation responds to mistakes, leadership and management styles and maturity of digital capabilities.

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Is it just a Finnish thing?

There are elements of Finnish culture and the regulatory environment that have benefitted Elisa:

  • Sisu, a Finnish word which can be translated as the spirit of determination and grit, which is considered by some to be at the heart of Finnish character.
  • Early deregulation of the telecoms industry meant that Finnish operators were further ahead than telcos in many other countries in adapting to commoditisation of telecoms services when global internet players disrupted the market
  • Unlike other European countries, the Finnish regulator never introduced a fourth mobile player, possibly because there was already strong price competition between Elisa, DNA and Telia. This has likely given the market more stability than others in Europe, as the telecoms industry has adapted to growing demand for data.

Although these circumstances have certainly helped Elisa, we believe that the position it is in today is the result of deliberate actions and processes implemented in response to its weak performance in the early 2000s, when falling revenues and curtailed dividends saw its share price plummet by 75% between January 2001 and December 2002.

Sixteen years later, Elisa has started to establish a healthy track record of pioneering digital services built on its core competences, scaling businesses in its domestic market, and expanding its international reach at pace through carefully selected acquisitions, and its share price has returned to previous highs.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Key success factors other telcos can emulate
    • Next steps
  • Elisa stands out among telcos
    • Comparing Elisa’s culture with other telcos
    • Is it just a Finnish thing?
  • How Elisa transitioned to a digital operating model
    • A long history of innovation
    • Developing the business case for innovation the Elisa way
    • The shift to a software-defined enterprise
    • A phased approach to turning an idea or opportunity into a business
  • Critical success factors
    • Leadership: Earning shareholders’ trust
    • Vision and strategy: Striving for excellence
    • Culture and practices: Embedding systematic learning
    • An unswerving customer focus
    • Talent strategy: Giving people the autonomy to experiment
    • Partnerships
  • The long-term outlook for Elisa

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Culture, leadership and purpose in telcos: Four key actions

Understanding culture, leadership and purpose

STL Partners has surveyed 168 telco execs about leadership, culture and purpose in the telecoms industry.

This research is part of our overall programme to help understand and develop how telcos can optimise their performance and reinvigorate growth and innovation. Respondents were asked to think about the telco they knew best, and answer a series of questions relating to different drivers of success:

  • Culture: Values and behaviours and the telco’s employees
  • Leadership: The way in which leaders drive the organisation
  • Purpose: The reason that the telco exists and operates
  • Digital: The telco’s ‘digital’ goals, skills and capabilities

Respondents were a mix of senior executives from telecoms operators worldwide, across a variety of functions and geographies.

Findings include:

  • Half of respondents believe that it is harder to get things done in telecoms operators than elsewhere
  • Leadership vision, alignment and delivery are seen to be a significant enabler to success by 43% of respondents
  • There are mixed views of the impact of company culture on success: seen as a barrier by 57% and a significant enabler by 33%
  • Some telcos are outperforming others. For example, Elisa’s culture is perceived as significantly more effective than others
  • … and more.

We also explore correlation between answers to different questions to suggest four key actions to driving greater success.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction & methodology
  • Analysis of results
  • Full survey results
    • Culture
    • Leadership
    • Purpose
    • Digital
    • Correlation analysis
  • About STL Partners

 

How the Coordination Age changes the game

Introduction: Three ages of telecoms…

In this report, we elaborate on what we outlined in our recent report, The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms, as a completely new paradigm for the telecoms industry. In the earlier report, we argue that this new age of telecoms – the Coordination Age – follows on from two previous, and still ongoing, paradigms for the telecoms industry: the Communications Age and the Information Age.

Chronologically, the three ages may be represented as follows:

The coordination age is beginning now

As the above diagram suggests, parts of the industry still exhibit characteristics of the earlier ages; and we are still working through the consequences of the paradigm shift from the Communications Age to the Information Age, even as we stand on the cusp of a further shift to the Coordination Age.

The report revisits our narrative of the three ages of telecoms to explore the different social, economic and cultural drivers and functions of telecoms in each period and the implications for telcos.

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Telecoms characteristics and functions have evolved over time

The fundamental service and business model characteristics of these three ages, as described in the previous report, are recapped in Figure 2 below:

Figure 2: Basic functions of telecoms in the three telco eras

telecoms functions across three ages

Source: STL Partners

The above table illustrates how the functions provided by telecoms services and networks across the three ages of the industry are radically different. In summary, we can say that:

  • In the Communications Age, telecoms networks and services were ‘physical’ in character: physical equipment and facilities delivering physical services; the core services being connectivity and communications centering on voice, which was transmitted by physical means (e.g. for voice, analogue electrical signals sent over wired or wireless networks).
  • In the Information Age, by contrast, while telecoms networks remained – initially, at least – physical in character and delivered increasingly advanced forms of connectivity, the services became digital. The ultimate expression of this is of course the Internet, which changed the role of the telco to that of providing the IP connectivity platform over which mainly third parties offered their web and digital services. Another way of putting this is that whereas telecoms network connectivity remained tied to physical hardware, the services were delivered via standardised software and compute devices: PCs and later smartphones and tablets. In the present era of NFV and SDN, the basis on which the connectivity itself is organised and controlled is now also migrating to (would-be) standardised software operating over COTS hardware.
  • The emerging Coordination Age of telecoms is not purely an extension of network and societal digitisation, but could be seen as a 180o reversal of its parameters, in this respect: instead of being a primarily physical connectivity system processing digital inputs to deliver digital services (as in the Information Age), the network becomes a compute- and software-centric system processing real-world inputs to deliver real-world outcomes. We will discuss further these aspects of the new paradigm later in this report. But examples of what we mean here include networked compute-driven applications around driverless cars, IoT, and automation of industrial and enterprise processes across many verticals.

The three telecoms ages correspond to different socio-economic and human functions

We set out how the general service and network characteristics of the Communications, Information and Coordination Ages relate to the different social, economic and human functions they serve.

Throughout this report, we describe what we see as some of the fundamental social, economic, cultural and technological drivers of the different telecoms networks and services across these three ages. The three ages represent distinct paradigms in which telecoms serves different needs and purposes.

We describe these socio-economic and cultural purposes through a simplified version of the psychoanalytical theories of Jacques Lacan. It seems legitimate to explore telecoms through this lens, as telecoms networks are human constructs, and telecoms services are social, economic and cultural in their purpose and value to modern society.

In brief, Jacques Lacan distinguishes between three interdependent orders of psychological experience: the ‘Real’, the ‘Imaginary’ and the ‘Symbolic’.

  • The ‘Real’ is the physical aspect of our existence: our bodies, the material universe, and the physiological determinants experience, including basic emotions
  • The ‘Imaginary’ refers to the sub-rational and sub-linguistic phenomena of mental experience, through which we form mental impressions of sensory experience (e.g. sights, sounds, etc.). Together with the emotional impact with which they are associated, these ‘imaginary’ elements form the foundation of our self-image and view of our place in the world
  • The third order is that of the ‘Symbolic’, which refers to language and other social, logical and cultural codes through which we give meaning to our lives, acquire knowledge, order our activities, and structure society and our relationships within it.

This is important because it provides a way to make sense of the paradigm shifts that have taken place throughout the industry’s history. And it also provides a narrative account of the human needs – including economic and social needs – that are invested in telecoms services. Understanding what customers want – and above all, what can offer real benefit to them – is the key to driving future value.

We argue this is relevant to the situation that telcos find themselves in today and to their strategic options for the future. In our view, telcos failed to adapt their business models to capitalise on the digital service opportunities of the Information Age. This was because the value drivers of the Information Age were so radically different from those that prevailed over the much longer time span of the Communications Age.

Learning the lessons from this previous paradigm shift will help telcos be more aware of how they need to adapt to another new paradigm – the Coordination Age – that is emerging. There may be only a very short window of opportunity for telcos to adjust their business models and organisations to become ‘coordinators’ of the network- and AI-based, automation-enabling and resource-optimising services of the near future.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction: Three Ages of Telecoms
  • Differing characteristics and functions of telecoms across the three ages
  • The three telecoms ages correspond to different socio-economic and human functions
  • Speaking, showing and doing: The three ages of telecoms
  • The Communications Age: A telecoms of the Real, mediated by voice
  • The Information Age: A telecoms of the Imaginary, mediated by the screen
  • The Coordination Age: A telecoms of outcomes, driven by active intelligence
  • Coordination services rely on contextual and physical data, and the physical aspects of networking
  • Summary: Characteristics and purposes of telecoms across its three ages
  • Conclusions
  • Recommendations: A new telco age brings new opportunities but also renewed responsibilities

Figures:

  1. The three ages of telecoms.
  2. Basic functions of telecoms in the three telco eras
  3. ‘Real’, physical characteristics of the Communications Age telecoms network and service
  4. The core telecoms service – circuit-switched telephony – in the first telecoms age
  5. Comparison of the social, service and technology characteristics of Communications Age and Information Age telecoms
  6. Permanent, virtual presence to others replaces real-time voice communications
  7. Driverless car ecosystem in the Coordination Age
  8. Comparison between the three telecoms eras

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Telecoms data analytics – Where’s the real value?

Why telecoms data analtyics matters

Telecoms data analytics matter because telcos currently face big challenges. As connectivity services are increasingly commoditised, telcos are seeing a steady decline in core revenues. They are at risk of becoming seen as providers of basic utilities, rather than offering innovative services to their customers.

Improved analytics fuels benefits in multiple layers. Initially in the (human) management of operational performance, and then increasingly through using analytics and managed AI to control automation. This can apply to existing and new services.

Future-proofing: why data telecoms analytics are essential to today’s business, 5G and beyond

There is a lot of noise from the telecoms industry around fifth generation (5G) mobile networks and how 5G may provide a renewed source of revenue growth. There is no doubt that 5G will unlock new vertical opportunities for telcos, however, if telcos do not invest in developing additional services, revenues will primarily still come through connectivity. While some may gain a first-mover advantage, over time, 5G will experience the same diminishing returns per user that we have seen with previous generations (see Figure 1). 5G, through connectivity alone, is therefore likely to make only a short-term impact on telco revenue streams.

Figure 1: The effect of increasing 4G subscriber penetration on ARPUs

Source: Data from company filings, analysis by STL Partners

STL Partners has been writing about the commoditisation problem for many years and has seen that operators increasingly accept it as inevitable. Most, in one form or another, are looking beyond connectivity to improve the bottom line. Telcos are adopting two main strategies:

  • build or acquire new revenue streams outside of connectivity
  • cut costs.

The first of these is increasingly popular. Telcos worldwide have accepted the idea that they must develop new capabilities outside of their core service area and find ways to make money from them. These capabilities, and how well they link back to existing connectivity offers, vary widely. For example:

  • Some, realising telcos’ technical expertise, are developing end to end solutions based on new technologies such as multi-access edge computing and 5G. Although technologies such as 5G may not bring sustained growth through connectivity alone, they do offer the potential for telcos to access new areas of the value chain and derive new growth opportunities.
  • Some are developing new services in specific verticals. For example, TELUS in Canada and Telstra in Australia are both building service platforms in the healthcare sector, primarily through acquisitions of health-tech companies.

Unfortunately, due to heavy capex constraints and debt regulation, many telcos face challenges in investing in innovative technologies and only some have shown real success in building new offerings outside of traditional telecoms. All telcos are, however, implementing the second strategy, focussing on cutting costs and driving efficiencies throughout their organisations. Although exploring new verticals and areas of opportunity outside of connectivity is a must to drive sustained growth, in order to defend their territory against the likes of Amazon (who operate on razor thin margins), it is essential that telcos look internally and cut costs across their businesses.

While we see many variants and combinations of these two core strategies across the industry, there is one key element that ties them together. Operators are increasingly taking the view that the key to success – both in building new revenue streams and keeping costs down – is finding ways to make better use of data.

Through their networks and customer interactions, telcos collect a broad array of data. This data comes from both internal (for example data on network performance) and external (for example customer location data and usage data) sources. Telcos can extract and leverage insights from this data more accurately and more quickly through advanced analytics, informing key business decisions, creating efficiencies for internal processes, and unlocking data-enabled new service areas including the facilitation and adoption of technologies like 5G.

Building an advanced analytics capability

High ambitions: data and the AI continuum

When we talk with operators globally about data analytics, a key point of discussion is artificial intelligence (AI). “AI technology” is often cited as a powerful way to cut costs, increase ARPUs, and reduce churn – across an operator’s business. Indeed, at STL Partners we have written extensively about how this could be achieved. However, much of the discussion around AI in the industry is just that – discussion. Many AI solutions are still in their nascent phases and there is a lot more talk than live implementations that deliver measurable business value.

We raise two points to help cut through this hype and understand the real-world value for operators, both in the long and short-term.

  1. All AI is equal, but some AI is more equal than others”. It may seem out of place to paraphrase George Orwell, but the truth is that operators and vendors alike market an increasingly broad set of solutions to customers and the analyst community under the blanket term “AI” (“all AI is equal”). This is often misleading, if not erroneous. “AI” can mean different things depending on who you speak to, ranging from computers following simple instructions or rules set by humans, to more complex fully autonomous computer systems that learn and improve with limited human interaction (“but some AI is more equal than others”). These examples differ strongly – but both fit within a generic definition of “artificial intelligence”.

Agnostic of what you include in your definition of AI, there are clearly tiers of AI solution which are based on the algorithm’s complexity, its ability to implement decisions independently (in terms of rights/permissions and integration with automated processes), and the level of human interaction or guidance necessary. At STL Partners, we have written previously about how we see advanced data analytics and AI as a continuum, with stepping stones on a journey towards the fully autonomous telco (Figure 2) The detailed explanation and formulation of this continuum is more thoroughly explained in a previous instalment of our AI research series.

  1. Most live and scaled deployments fall under our definition of rules based automation. Operators speaking to us about AI tend to want focus on innovative AI use cases that fall in the right-hand side of Figure 2. Examples include automated and self-improving chatbots that can solve any customer query and translate a complaint into a sale, or self-healing networks that fix themselves with no need for engineers to intervene. It’s true that these use cases will deliver high-value for telcos and help to answer the big questions set out above. However, should telcos be prioritising these if their data systems cannot yet tell them which customers are having a poor experience, or give them a full, real-time view of network performance?

Where are operators compared to their AI aspirations

Source: STL Partners

In terms of real progress, we have seen only a handful of leading Tier 1 operators deploying telecoms data analytics solutions that truly fit under the ML/AI banner within our framework. Most operators are still much earlier on in the journey towards automation. Even those pioneer operators have deployed only in specific geographical regions and in specific parts of their business. They face problems in deploying more complex solutions at scale and deriving measurable value.

At STL Partners, we believe that too much focus on a poorly defined end-goal risks stalling necessary work that must be done up-front. Operators should strive for and research innovative uses of data, but we believe the focus in the short-term, for Tier 1 and 2/3 telcos alike, should be on laying the necessary groundwork to ensure that data is accessible and clean, with a clear governance structure, as well as building the analytics capabilities necessary to make full use of it.

Laying the groundwork: stepping stones toward data analytics

There are three key components to building even the most basic data analytics capabilities:

  1. Clean, unified data
  2. The skills and tools to process and analyse it
  3. The ambition and drive to do so – data-centricity

This may seem straightforward but telcos globally (including even the most advanced operators) have faced challenges in meeting these requirements. For example, 77% of the operators we have spoken to stated that data collection and management was a key issue for them in implementing an analytics strategy. Furthermore, over a third of the operators we spoke with mentioned a lack of both internal and external skills with regards to advanced analytics (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Top 4 issues faced by telcos looking to make use of data

Source: STL Partners research programme, October 2018

In order to overcome the issues listed in Figure 3, and to build future-proof telecoms data analytics capabilities, telcos must develop the three components mentioned above. Without doing this in the short-term, operators will lack the underlying platform from which to springboard into developing innovative solutions that leverage AI or ML.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Future-proofing: what to do?
  • Building an advanced telecoms data analytics capability
  • High ambitions: data and the AI continuum
  • Laying the groundwork: stepping stones toward data analytics
  • In practice: Assessing real analytics use cases
  • Improve business as usual
  • Monetise user data
  • Enable next-generation services
  • Conclusions
  • Key recommendations
  • Conclusion

Figures:

  • Figure 1: The effect of increasing 4G subscriber penetration on ARPUs
  • Figure 2: The journey to AI and telco automation
  • Figure 3: Top 4 issues faced by telcos looking to make use of data
  • Figure 4: Telefónica’s data management structure across multiple opcos
  • Figure 5: What is your biggest challenge in leveraging analytics?
  • Figure 6: The opportunity areas for telcos in advanced analytics
  • Figure 7: A comparison of Iliad against the leading Italian operators
  • Figure 8: A graphical representation of KPN’s Data Services Hub
  • Figure 9: Where operators are compared to their AI aspirations

The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms

The Coordination Age

The world is entering the Coordination Age, driven by growing needs for resource efficiency and enabled by new technologies such as AI, automation, IoT, 5G, etc. What does this mean, how is it different, how is it an opportunity, and what should telecoms industry players do?

Problems, problems, problems…

The telecoms industry’s big problem

The core telecoms industry is currently close to reaching maturity as the following chart illustrates.

Figure 1: Revenue growth is grinding to a halt

Source: Data from company filings, STL Partners analysis

This approaching maturity has taken many years to achieve and is built on decades of astonishing growth in the telecoms and ICT industries as shown by just a few data points in Figure 2.

Figure 2: 30 years of telecoms in context

Source: AT&T company reports, STL Partners analysis

We’ve used AT&T as a comparator as perhaps the world’s best-known telco, and because its 1988 revenues are readily accessible. The chart shows that AT&T has grown massively but also that recent growth has slowed.

It also shows how mobile and internet use has blossomed to mass-market adoption. No-one knew in 1988 that this is what would happen by 2018, or how it would happen. Most people would have thought you were talking about science fiction if you said there would be more mobiles than people in their lifetime, and that half the world would have access to most of the world’s information.

Yet it was clear that growth in telecoms lay ahead – it seemed like a kind of economic and social gravity that communications would grow a lot. The direction that the world would take was obvious and unavoidable. So many people were not yet connected, and so much was possible in terms of improving the world’s access to information using the technologies that were coming to fruition then.

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What are the big problems the world needs to solve now?

It’s not a mystery now, of course. And while there’s plenty of work to do to make the world’s connectivity better and bring the second half of the global population online somehow, it’s unlikely to bring in masses of new revenues for telcos. So why the Coordination Age?

To create major growth, you need to solve some big, valuable problems. So, what are the big problems the world needs to solve?

There are some obvious candidates, e.g.:

  • mitigating climate change and minimising its effects
  • reducing the amount of waste and harmful by-products polluting the environment
  • the distribution and availability of human resources and services such as healthcare, education, employment, and entertainment
  • the availability of, and conflicts over, physical resources such as: water, fuel, power, food, land, etc…
  • global migration and increasingly hostile nationalism
  • concerns over increasingly skewed wealth distribution between the haves and have nots, and extreme poverty
  • a desire for greater business efficiency and productivity
  • concerns over employment due to automation and global economic changes.

Moreover, time is also a resource for people and business. Both want to make best use of their time – whether it is getting things done more effectively or enjoyably.

Making the most of what we have

STL Partners believes that these are all to some extent the manifestation of the same problem: the need to make the most efficient possible use of your/the world’s resources. In Figure 3 we call this helping to “make our world run better” for short.

Figure 3: How macro forces are creating a common global need

Source: STL Partners

It’s a widespread need

The underlying need for greater resource efficiency is widespread. While sustainability arguments are prominent symptoms of the problem, there are pressing needs being expressed in all areas of the economy for better utilisation of resources.

For example, most businesses are somewhere in the process of their own transformation using connected digital technologies. Almost every aspect of business, including product design, customer experience, production, delivery and value chain orchestration is being revolutionised by ‘digital’ technologies and applications.

Examples cited at the Total Telecom Congress in October 2018, included:

  • Brendan Ives, VP Telia, Division X, said that the top priority of 70% of 500 enterprises surveyed in the Nordics was resource efficiency, with cost control a distant second at 20%.
  • Henri Korpi, Executive Vice President, New Business Development, Elisa, described a new ‘Smart Factory’ application that it offers to enhance productivity.
  • Durdana Achakzai, Chief Digital Officer, Telenor Pakistan, described its Khushall Zamindar feature phone application for 6 million small-scale farmers in rural Pakistan, that gives them access to local weather and market information and helps to improve yields.

All of these are examples of where telcos are already thinking about or addressing customers’ needs with respect to resource efficiency, in all of these cases via a B2B application, but the concerns apply to consumers too.

Ipsos’s global survey on consumer concerns from July 2018 (Figure 4) gives a flavour of what people across the world worry about today. The colouring applied to categorise the issues is STL Partners’, based on our view of their relevance to resource utilisation and distribution (and hence the Coordination Age).

Figure 4: Global population worries reflect underlying concerns about the availability and distribution of resources

Source: Ipsos global survey, July 2018, STL Partners analysis

Clearly, the weighting of needs varies in different countries, but most of the most pressing concerns relate to the distribution of economic resources within society (red bars). Concerns on social resources such as education and healthcare (orange bars) are second in prominence, while more classic ‘environmental’ worries (grey bars) are slightly further down the list.

People’s concerns also vary with their current circumstances. The closer you are to the bread-line, the more likely you are to prioritise where your next meal is coming from over the long-term future. Hence there is a natural tendency for near-term concerns to feature more highly on the list.

Many other day-to-day concerns relate to the efficient use of time (another resource): prompt service, availability of resources on-demand, business productivity, etc.

The fundamental enabler needed is coordination: the ability to enable many different players, devices, solutions, etc., to work together across the economy. These players and assets are a diverse mixture of both physical and digital entities. The drive to allow them to work together must be widespread and ultimately systematic – hence the Coordination Age.

The thorny issue of sustainability

We now live in a world of seven billion people that uses 1.7 times its sustainable resources (Figure 5). The argument goes that if we keep on at this rate we will face major environmental and societal pains and problems.

Figure 5: What does “the world need now”?

Source: Global Footprint Network

Climate change is arguably one consequence of the over-use of resources. Not everyone buys in to such concerns, and it is a matter for each person to make their own mind up.

However, even traditionally highly conservative bodies like the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change Panel (IPCC) are sounding alarm bells. In its recent report “Global Warming of 1.5 °C”, the IPCC says we may not even have thirty years to avoid the worst problems.

The editorial in The New Scientist put it like this:

“We still have time to pull off a rescue. It will arguably be the largest project that humanity has ever undertaken – comparable with the two world wars, the Apollo programme, the cold war, the abolition of slavery, the Manhattan project, the building of the railways and the roll-out of sanitation and electrification, all in one. In other words, it will require us to strain every muscle of human ingenuity in the hope of a better future, if not for ourselves then at least for our descendants.”[1]

The challenge is huge, and it reaches across all economies and sectors, not just telecoms.

Enlightened self-interest

STL Partners believes that telcos and the telecoms industry can play a significant role in addressing these issues, and moreover that the industry should move in this direction for both business and social reasons.

This should not be treated as a PR opportunity as it sometimes has in the past, as a kind of fop to regulators and governments in exchange for regulatory preferences.

It is a serious and significant problem to solve for humanity – and solving such problems is also how industries create new value in the economy.

Nonetheless, STL Partners believes that if telecoms industry players genuinely take on the challenges of addressing these issues, it may well have a significant impact on their sometimes-troubled relationships with governments and regulators. It’s one thing to be a big economic player in a market, which most telcos are, and quite another to be a big economic and social partner in an economy.

By truly aligning these goals and interests with governments telcos can start to foster a new dialogue “what do we need to do together for our economy?” This requires a very different level of heart-and-soul engagement than a well-intentioned but peripheral gesture under the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) banner.

Moving the needle…

Internally, the industry has long faced two self-defeating challenges.

First, the idea of ‘moving the needle’. So many new opportunities are dismissed because they simply don’t seem big enough for a telco to bother, and telcos continue to search for the next ‘killer app’ like mobile data or SMS.

Despite looking for many years, it still hasn’t been found. Yet somehow the telecoms industry has missed out on capitalising on social media, search, online commerce – pretty much all growth industries of the last twenty years.

Why? For many reasons, no doubt. But there has certainly been a kind of well-fed corporate complacency, a general aversion to commitment to new ideas, and a huge reduction in investment in R&D and innovation. Telcos’ R&D spends are minuscule compared to technology players. We will publish more on this soon, and why we think telcos need to change.

This has gone arm-in-arm with a failure to understand that new business models are not linear and predictable. A sound business case is all very well when you have a predictable business environment. This is typically the case when looking at incremental changes to existing businesses where the consequences are relatively predictable.

In new areas, especially where there are network effects and other unpredictable and non-linear relationships, it’s very hard to do. Even if you succeeded in making a numerical model, most would frown heavily at the assumptions and their consequences, and the decision-making process would stagnate on uncertainty.

Where companies have been successful in building new value, they have at some point made a serious management commitment against a need that they recognise will persist in their market, continued to invest in it, and be willing to admit and learn from mistakes. We would cite TELUS in Healthcare, and Vodafone’s M-PESA as examples where leadership has protected and nurtured the fragile flower of innovation through to growth.

… and moving the people

The second big internal challenge to change and growth has been much of the telecoms industry’s inability to excite its people to buy in to the uncertain and worrying process of change.

Change and its accompanying uncertainties are uncomfortable for most people, and they need support, guidance and ultimately leadership to see them through. Too often, companies only truly address change when they sense the ‘burning platform’ – a (usually threatening) reason that means they simply must abandon their current beliefs and behaviours.

And frankly, why should most employees care about, for example, their company ‘becoming digital’? They care about being paid, having a job with some status, and being reasonably comfortable with what they must do and who they do it with. They are working to support themselves and their families. To most, “becoming digital” sounds like another excuse for a round of job cuts – which in some cases it is.

Our argument is that there is now a powerful new job for telecoms companies to do in the Coordination Age, and that this means we all must change. If we don’t do that job and make those changes, the future will potentially be much worse for us and them as we age, and their kids as they grow.

We believe that the additional insight in the story as we now see it should make it compelling to customers, employees, governments and shareholders. But first, the management of the telecoms industry need to grasp it, improve it and lead the rest forward.

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Contents:

  • Executive summary
  • Problems, problems, problems…
  • The telecoms industry’s big problem
  • What are the big problems the world needs to solve now?
  • Enlightened self-interest
  • Moving the needle…
  • … and moving the people
  • The Three Ages of Telecoms
  • The first age: The Communications Age, 1850s onwards
  • The second age: The Information Age, 1990s onwards
  • The third age: The Coordination Age, 201Xs onwards
  • So, what is the Coordination Age opportunity for telcos?
  • The telecoms industry has some important assets
  • Two possible jobs for telecoms
  • Having a clear role is motivational
  • So, what should telcos and the industry do?
  • Finally, a need for the technologies we’re developing
  • Conclusions and next steps

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Revenue growth is grinding to a halt
  • Figure 2: 30 years of telecoms in context
  • Figure 3: How macro forces are creating a common global need
  • Figure 4: Global population worries reflect underlying concerns about the availability and distribution of resources
  • Figure 5: What does “the world need now”?
  • Figure 6: The three ages of telecoms
  • Figure 7: The Communication Age
  • Figure 8: An early manual telephone exchange
  • Figure 9: Electro-mechanical ‘Strowger’ exchanges automated analogue switching
  • Figure 10: The Information Age
  • Figure 11: The Coordination Age
  • Figure 12: What are the unique assets of the telecoms industry?
  • Figure 13: Broadly, there are two possible jobs for telcos
  • Figure 14: Battle of the business models – Technology vs Telco
  • Figure 15: A new corporate reality
  • Figure 16: How a unifying purpose (a “why?”) helps create value

[1] The New Scientist, Vol 240 No. 3199, page 1.

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Creating a healthy culture

Introduction

Creating a healthy culture is a key component of success in any organisation. It is particularly important – and challenging – where a company is building a new business operating in a new industry that combines people steeped in an existing cultures. This was the case for TELUS Health in Canada, so we spoke to its then CEO to understand the approach it took.

Three components of ‘Culture’

Whenever we ask our clients what the biggest problem they face is, there’s an excellent chance they will say ‘changing the culture’.

Yet it’s a bit of a coverall statement: what exactly do they mean?

It’s often a bit of a mish-mash of processes, organisation, behaviours and incentives: ‘the way we do things around here’.

Some of this is formalised, through organisation, line-management, how projects are managed and so on. Other aspects are softer – how companies expect people to behave when they are at work: how much autonomy do they have, can they work from home, etc.

To put some structure to this catch-all idea, it can be useful to think about three fundamental components of culture:

  • Shared purpose: what are we all trying to achieve?
  • Common values: what do we believe we need to be like to get there?
  • Processes and behaviours: how do we do things round here?

Looking at these definitions makes it clear why change needs to be led from the top, and why culture change is so challenging.

It needs to be led from the top because you cannot have a credible common purpose that conflicts with what the leadership says it wants, what it values, or how the organisation acts.

Even if you have clear direction from the top, it’s still hard to change because:

  • Most of your organisation will start from a position of ‘this is how we previously learned to be – and now you’re asking us to be different from that?’
  • Culture essentially means a set of behaviours or characteristics that have been socialised, and thereby enmeshed in a complex human web of habits and expectations.

According to Paul Lepage, President of TELUS Health, “culture eats why for breakfast”, paraphrasing the quote “culture eats strategy for breakfast” in a fascinating conversation we had recently.

What Paul meant was that one of the key drivers to creating a great culture is to ensure that your team is truly engaged with your organisation’s meaning or purpose, or ‘why are we doing this?’ beyond making money.

In the case of TELUS Health, this is ‘delivering better healthcare outcomes’, and in Paul’s case at least, this idea comes over very strongly in every interaction I have had with him.

Author’s note: I was talking to Paul because I am fascinated by the role that culture plays in business success. I have known some of the team at TELUS Health for several years, and I am always struck by the quality and consistency of their culture across all the people I have met at TELUS. Andrew Collinson, Partner and Research Director, STL Partners.

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TELUS and TELUS Health: consistent internal and external KPIs

There is a notable consistency between TELUS’ results on internal measures of employee engagement, customer opinion, and commercial performance.

  • Employee engagement: TELUS’ overall employee engagement score consistently ranks within the top quartile and has risen steadily in recent years.  TELUS was also named as one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers and Achiever’s 50 Most Engaged Workplaces in 2017.
  • Customer recommendation: TELUS’ customers have given it improving ‘Likelihood to recommend’ scores since 2011.
  • Market valuation: TELUS’ share price has also grown steadily from 2011.

Figure: TELUS’ share price has also steadily grown

TELUS Annual share price chart
TELUS Annual share price, as at end August 2011-2018

Source: Google Finance, STL Partners

Is this a coincidence, or is there a link between these results? And if it is not a coincidence, how has it achieved this, and what can others learn?

TELUS and TELUS Health

Background

STL Partners has worked closely with TELUS and TELUS Health over the last few years, analysing the healthcare division’s progress in TELUS Health: Innovation leader case study. We’ve participated in its Healthcare Summits in Toronto and come to know several of its executives over the years. The following is a brief introduction to TELUS Health from our 2017 report.

Why TELUS got into healthcare: a viable growth opportunity

Starting in 2005, led by the CEO Darren Entwistle, TELUS executives came to a consensus that just focusing on connectivity would not be enough to sustain long term revenue growth for telecoms companies in Canada, so the telco began a search into adjacent areas where it felt there were strong synergies with its core assets and capabilities. TELUS initially considered options in many sectors with similar business environments to telecoms – i.e. high fixed costs, capex intensive, highly regulated – including financial services, healthcare and energy (mining, oil).

In contrast with other telcos in Canada and globally, TELUS made a conscious decision not to focus on entertainment, anticipating that regulatory moves to democratise access to content would gradually erode the differentiating value of exclusive rights.

By 2007, health had emerged as TELUS’ preferred option for a ‘content play’, supported by four key factors which remain crucial to TELUS’ ongoing commitment to the healthcare sector, nearly a decade later. These are:

  1. Strong correlation with TELUS’ socially responsible brand. TELUS has always prioritised social responsibility as a core company value, consistently being recognised by Canadian, North American and global organisations for its commitment to sustainability and philanthropy. For example, in 2010, the Association for Fundraising Professionals’ named it the most outstanding philanthropic corporation in the world. Thus, investing into the healthcare, with the aim of improving efficiency and health outcomes through digitisation of the sector, closely aligns with TELUS’ core values.
  2. Healthcare’s low digital base. Healthcare was and remains one of the least digitised sectors both in Canada and globally. This is due to a number of factors, including the complexity and fragmented nature of healthcare systems, the difficulty of identifying the right payer model for digital solutions, and cultural resistance among healthcare workers who are already stretched for time and resources.
  3. Personal commitment from Darren Entwistle, TELUS’ CEO since he joined the company in 2000. Based on personal experiences with the flaws in the Canadian healthcare system, Darren Entwistle forged his conviction that there was a business case for TELUS to drive adoption of digital health records and other ehealth solutions that could help minimise such errors, which was crucial in winning and maintaining shareholders’ support for investment into health IT.
  4. Healthcare is a growing sector. An ageing population means that the burden on Canada’s healthcare system has and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. As people live longer, the demands on the healthcare system are also shifting from acute care to chronic care. For example, data from the OECD and the Canadian Institute for Health Information show that the rate of chronic disease among patients over 65 years old is double that of those aged 45-64. Meanwhile, funding is not increasing at the same rate as demand, convincing TELUS of the need for the type of digital disruption that has occurred in many other sectors.

That all four of TELUS’ reasons for investing in healthcare remain equally relevant in 2017/18 as in 2007 is key to its unwavering commitment to the sector. Darren Entwistle refers to healthcare as a ‘generational investment’, saying that over the long term, TELUS may shift into a healthcare company that offers telecoms services, rather than the other way around.

TELUS Health: On leadership and culture

To get insight for this report, I spoke at length with Paul Lepage, President-TELUS Health and Payment Solutions at TELUS, on the recommendation of his colleagues, who’d told me that ‘culture’ was of deep importance to Paul. He has been instrumental in setting up TELUS Health, and holds joint responsibility for TELUS Health on the international markets with Dave Sharma, President, TELUS Partner Solutions and Senior Vice-president, Business Solutions Sales. Paul runs the operation on the ground in Canada, while Dave spearheads partnerships and international activity.

I also requested additional support material from TELUS Health, which is included in the Appendix of this report.

This report would not have been possible without their kind collaboration and openness. Nonetheless, its contents represent the opinion of STL Partners, and were not sponsored or commissioned by TELUS.

Contents

  • Executive Summary: For telcos and others wanting to change culture
  • Introduction
  • Three components of ‘Culture’
  • Culture eats ‘why’ for breakfast
  • TELUS and TELUS Health: consistent internal and external KPIs
  • Background
  • Why TELUS got into healthcare: a viable growth opportunity
  • TELUS Health: On leadership and culture
  • Culture = Purpose and process
  • Culture creates a yardstick for performance
  • The importance of a compelling ‘why?’
  • Fair Process
  • Diversity and talent
  • Measuring culture and results
  • Communicating, listening and reflecting is at least 50% of the job
  • Recruitment, partnerships and culture
  • The ‘why?’ must be genuine
  • Conclusions: TELUS Health – A consistent and compelling culture
  • Appendix: Prepared by TELUS Health External Communications

Figures

  • TELUS’ share price has increased steadily
  • Why is ‘why?’ important?
  • TELUS’ ‘Fair process’

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Digital M&A and Investment Strategies – July 2017 update

Introduction

Digital M&A as a telco strategy

In June 2016 STL Partners published our inaugural Digital M&A and Investment Strategies report and accompanying database, focussing on key digital acquisitions and investments for 22 operators during the period 2012 – H1 2016. We have now updated this report to cover the following 12 months (H2 2016 – H1 2017), to examine new developments in telco digital M&A and a comparison with previous activities.

Communications service providers have long used M&A as a key growth strategy, with the most common approach being to acquire other operators to build scale organically. As growth in telecommunications slowed and user behaviour swung towards mobile, so M&A activity in the mobile sector has increased. However, acquisition opportunities in mature markets are becoming limited as consolidation reduces the number of telcos, whilst in Europe and North America the regulatory environment has made M&A consolidation strategies less viable.

As operators continue to build digital capabilities and strive to deliver digital services and content, M&A and investment beyond ‘traditional telecoms’ is increasing. Telcos need to move beyond a traditional, slow ‘infrastructure-only’ approach, to one focused on agility rather than stability, enablement rather than end-to-end ownership and delivery of solutions, and innovation as well as operational excellence. This report explores the drivers of digital M&A and the strategies of different operators including ‘deep-dive’ analysis of Verizon, AT&T and SoftBank. There is an accompanying database which tracks telco M&A activity for the period.

Drivers for operator M&A and majority investment

Figure 1: Drivers for operator M&A and majority investment – traditional and digital

digital M&A graphic

Source: STL Partners

Traditional/Telco 1.0 drivers: reach and scale

As illustrated in Figure 1, what we refer to as ‘traditional’ or ‘Telco 1.0’ drivers for M&A and investment are well-established:

  1. Extending geographic footprint is a common trend, as many operator groups look to:
    • Enter new markets that are adjacent geographically (e.g. DTAG’s numerous investments in CEE region operators, America Movil’s investments in LatAm),
    • Enter markets that are linked culturally or linguistically (e.g., Telefonica’s acquisitions and investments in Latin American operators),
    • Enter markets that simply offer good opportunities for expanded footprint and increased efficiencies of operation in emerging regions where demand for mobile services is still growing strongly (e.g., SingTel and Etisalat’s numerous investments in operators in Asia and Africa, respectively).
  2. Extending traditional communications offerings is currently the most significant trend, as mobile operators look to acquire fixed network assets and vice versa, to develop compelling multiplay and converged offers for their customers. The recent BT acquisition of EE in the UK is one example.
  3. Consolidation has slowed to some extent, as regulators and competitors fight against mergers or acquisitions that remove players from the market or concentrate too much market power in the hands of stronger service providers. This has been a particular issue in the European Union, where regulators have refused to approve several proposed telecoms M&A deals recently, including Telia and Telenor in Denmark in 2015, and the proposed Hutchison acquisition of Telefónica’s O2 to merge with its subsidiary 3 UK in 2016. Other deals, such as the proposed Orange-Bouygues Telecom merger in France which was abandoned in April 2016, have failed due to the parties involved failing to reach agreement. However, our research shows continued interest in operator M&A for consolidation, with recent examples including Orange’s acquisition of Sun Communications in Moldova in 2016, and Vodafone’s merger with Indian rival Idea in 2017.
  4. The acquisition of service partners – primarily channel partners, or partner companies providing systems integration and consultancy capabilities, typically for enterprise customers – has proved an important driver of M&A for many (mainly converged) operators.
  5. Finally, operator M&A is also being driven by the enthusiasm of sellers. Many operators are looking to sell off assets outside of their home markets, pulling back from markets that have proven too competitive, too small or simply too complicated, as part of a strategy to pay down debt and/or free up assets for investment in other higher-growth areas:
    • Telia’s pullback from its non-core markets has seen it sell off its majority stakes in Spanish operator Yoigo to Masmovil and in Kazakhstan’s Kcell to Turkcell in 2016
    • Telefonica’s attempt to sell its O2 UK mobile unit to CK Hutchison having failed, the Spanish operator is now looking to other ways of raising capital both to pay down its debt, including a planned IPO of O2 UK.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Evaluating operator digital investment strategies
  • Key findings
  • Recommendations
  • Introduction
  • Drivers for operator M&A and majority investment
  • Evaluating operator digital investment strategies
  • 22 players across 5 regions: US shows the most aggressive M&A activity
  • Comparison with previous period (H1 2012 – H1 2016)
  • European telcos remain largely focussed on Telco 1.0 M&A
  • Which sectors are attracting the most interest?
  • Telco M&A investment is falling behind other verticals
  • What are the cultural challenges to digital M&A in the boardroom?
  • Operator M&A Strategies in detail: Consolidation, content and technology
  • M&A as a telco growth strategy
  • Adapting telco culture to ensure digital M&A success
  • Recommendations

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Drivers for operator M&A and majority investment – traditional and digital
  • Figure 2: Number of operator digital acquisitions and majority investments, H2 2016-H1 2017
  • Figure 3: Largest 7 telco digital M&A and majority investments, H2 2016-H1 2017
  • Figure 4: Number of operator digital acquisitions and majority investments, H1 2012 – H1 2016
  • Figure 5: Operator digital acquisitions and majority investments, H1 2012-H1 2017
  • Figure 6: Largest 10 telco digital M&A and majority investments, H1 2012 – H1 2016
  • Figure 7: Mapping of operator digital M&A strategies
  • Figure 8: Number of digital M&A and majority investments by sector/category, H2 2016-H1 2017
  • Figure 9: Comparison of investment in digital M&A as a percentage of service revenues, 2012-H1 2017

Transformation: Are telcos investing enough?

Introduction

Why are we doing non-telco case studies?

Digital transformation is a phenomenon that is not just affecting the telco sector. Many industries have been through a transformation process far more severe than we have seen in telecoms, while others began the process much earlier in time. We believe that there are valuable lessons telcos can learn from these sectors, so we have decided to find and examine the most interesting/useful case studies.

In this report, we look at German publisher Axel Springer, which has successfully transformed itself from a print-based publisher to an online multimedia platform.

While the focus of this report will be on Axel Springer’s transformation, the key takeaways will be the lessons for telcos to help them make their own transformation process run more smoothly.

STL Partners has done extensive research into the challenge of telco transformation and how to implement effective business model change, most recently in our reports Five telcos changing culture: Lessons from neuroscience, Changing Culture: The Great Barrier and Which operator growth strategies will remain viable in 2017 and beyond?

General outline of STL Partners’ case study transformation index

We intend to complete similar case studies in the future from other industry verticals, with the goal of creating a ‘case study transformation index’, illustrating how selected companies have overcome the challenge of digital disruption. In these case studies we will examine five key areas of transformation, identifying which have been the most challenging, which have generated the most innovative solutions, and which can be considered successes or failures. These five areas are:

  • Market
  • Proposition
  • Value Network
  • Technology
  • Finances

For each section, supporting evidence of good or bad practice will be graded as a positive (tick) or a negative (cross). These ticks and crosses will then be evaluated to create a “traffic light” rating for each section, which will then be tallied to provide an overall transformation rating for each case study.

We anticipate that some of these five sections will overlap, and some will be more pertinent to certain case studies than others. But central to the case studies will be analysis of how the transformation process is relevant to the telco industry and the lessons that can be learned to help operators on the path to change.

Axel Springer’s transformation – a success story

German publishing house Axel Springer began to suffer from declining revenues in the mid-2000’s as changes in consumer behaviour and disruption from new digital rivals such as Google and Yahoo! led to falling readership. Axel Springer identified this threat immediately and reacted swiftly, making the bold move to cannibalise its core printed newspaper and magazine business by repositioning most of its existing content onto online and digital platforms. The company has continued this transformation with an aggressive acquisition strategy, enabling it to expand its footprint into new geographies and content areas.

Even though Axel Springer’s transformation required sweeping technological, strategic and cultural change, it has been a success. Since the disposal of several non-core regional publications in 2012, both revenues and EBITDA have grown on average nearly 5% per year, while the percentage of revenues from digital streams grew to 67% in 2016 from just 42% in 2012.

Why is the Axel Springer case study relevant for telcos?

Much of Axel Springer’s transformation has consisted of (and been driven by) the change from traditional (print) to digital (online) publishing. While telcos have grown up in the digital era, with much of their transformation being driven by changes in consumer behaviour, there are many parallels between Axel Springer and the telco sector. We will look at the key lessons that can be learnt in the following areas:

  • Advances in technology
  • Changes in consumption and customer habits
  • The risk of cannibalisation
  • New opportunities in content
  • Working with social media
  • Platform and partnership opportunities
  • Culture change
  • The importance of data

Content:

  • Executive Summary
  • Axel Springer’s transformation success – a summary of key lessons
  • Axel Springer in STL Partners case study transformation index
  • Introduction
  • Why are we doing non-telco case studies?
  • Axel Springer – background to transformation
  • What was Axel Springer’s business model pre-transformation?
  • Drivers of change – how the market developed and Axel Springer’s reaction
  • Conclusions
  • Axel Springer in STL Partners transformation index
  • Appendices
  • Appendix 1: Axel Springer – company timeline
  • Appendix 2: Axel Springer – recent acquisitions
  • Appendix 3: Axel Springer – recent investments

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Total global internet users
  • Figure 2: Traditional publishing company business model
  • Figure 3: Post-digital publishing company business model
  • Figure 4: Axel Springer total revenues 2003-2016
  • Figure 5: Axel Springer total EBITDA and EBITDA margin 2003-2016
  • Figure 6: The development of news and media consumption
  • Figure 7: Axel Springer 2016 revenues by sector (€ million)
  • Figure 8: Axel Springer percentage of revenues from digital streams
  • Figure 9: Axel Springer revenues by sector 2012-2016
  • Figure 9: Axel Springer investment in acquisitions 2012-H1 2016 in comparison to selected telcos

Five telcos changing culture: Lessons from neuroscience

Introduction: The role of skills and culture in telco transformation

Skills and culture are the biggest barriers to transformation

It is generally accepted that the telecoms industry is currently undergoing a major process of transformation. In very general terms, telcos are engaged in a transition from being primarily operators of physical infrastructure and networks designed for the efficient delivery of analogue voice and packet data services, to being providers of cloud-based (distributed software, IT and virtualised) infrastructure, platforms and digital services (including communications).

STL Partners has documented this sea change in numerous previous reports focusing on different aspects of the transformation: technology, processes, business models, organisation and culture. This report focuses more closely on two interrelated aspects: skills and culture.

A recent STL Partners ‘summit’ workshop of leading SE Asian operators found that skills and culture are presently seen as the greatest barriers to transformation:

Figure 1: Benefits of and obstacles to transformation

Source: STL Partners

The above chart, reporting the results of a snap survey of attendees of the SE Asia summit, could be interpreted as implying that skills and culture change are of very little direct benefit to telcos, given that only two respondents indicated that it had “the greatest value” to their organisation. But at the same time, telcos are clearly focused on addressing the skills and culture issue, as this was overwhelmingly the most salient transformation challenge that the senior operator executives picked out. And the results of this small but high-quality survey are entirely consistent with STL Partners’ findings in other parts of the world, including research conducted for this report (see Sections 2 and 3 below).

There is a chronic shortage of essential software and IT skills in the industry

Precisely why have skills and culture emerged as such a critical challenge at this time? The skills issue is easier to analyse. The new business and technology model to which operators are transforming places a much greater emphasis on software and IT skills than traditional telco operations: skills such as software development and coding; digital product development and operations (DevOps), and marketing; cloud and IT infrastructure deployment, maintenance and support; etc. There is a chronic shortage of highly-skilled people in these areas, which varies country by country but could rightly be described as a global shortage owing to the international character of the telecoms industry. It is the top talent that is needed right now given the complexity of the technological and IT challenges that are involved in the migration from the legacy Telco 1.0 to the telco-cloud service provider (Telco 2.0).

Telcos have adopted a variety of methods to try to close the skills gap. These are discussed in more detail in Sections 2 and 3 below in the context of conversations on skills and culture we have had with five operators from different parts of the world. On skills, these operators have adopted three broad approaches:

  • Aim to fulfil the skills requirements of the business from existing staff as much as possible by giving every employee the opportunity to up- and reskill (AT&T)
  • Try to meet the skills needs of the business through a combination of selective hires and retraining; but accept that a given percentage of positions in the company after the transformation phase can only be filled by new hires, and that existing staff whose functions have become redundant or who cannot adapt will need to be let go (Telkom Indonesia, Middle Eastern operator (MEO), and international enterprise networking provider (EO))
  • Accept that the business needs to transform radically and rapidly, and a relatively high percentage of people without the requisite skills or whose roles have become redundant must be let go (former developed-market incumbent (DMI))

Content:

  • Executive Summary
  • 1. Introduction: The role of skills and culture in telco transformation
  • 2. AT&T: A textbook exercise in re-skilling and culture change
  • 3. Two other models of skills development and culture change
  • 4. Conclusion: Skills are necessary but not sufficient, without culture

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Benefits of and obstacles to transformation
  • Figure 2: Old and new telco cultures and business model
  • Figure 3: MRI scans showing parts of the brain activated by social rejection and physical pain

Changing Culture: The Great Barrier

Introduction

On Tuesday 6th December, STL Partners met with 17 executives from telecoms operators in SE Asia, including Singtel, Starhub, M1, Telekom Indonesia, Axiata, Bridge Alliance and Tata Communications. The group was a fairly even mix of C-Level, SVP/VP, and Strategy / ‘Heads of Digital’ roles.

The session was conducted under clear and explicit anti-trust guidelines, and had the objective to review and explore learnings in the strategic and operational transformation of telecoms business models.

Objectives of Transformation

One of STL Partners’ global observations is that all operators have different goals in the pursuit of transformation. This was also true with the group in Singapore, as shown by the following chart of a vote on the priorities assigned to different transformation objectives.

Figure 1 – Transformation priorities are different for every operator

Source: STL Partners

The subsequent discussion showed that behind these votes:

  • Improving customer engagement (and customer centricity) is a fundamental goal of almost all operators
  • Operators, like all businesses, want to manage costs, and this is generally a welcome benefit of change
  • Most operators wish to improve the fundamental agility of their businesses – to become faster to market
  • For some, creating new revenues from new services is the primary objective, while for others, it is seen as a welcome possibility once the core agility has been improved

What is the outlook for growth for telcos?

STL Partners shared findings from its recent research report Which operator growth strategies will remain viable in 2017 and beyond? that examined the growth performance of 68 operator groups globally over the last seven years.

Figure 2 – The growth performance of 68 global operator groups 2009-16

Source: STL Partners

The overall picture presented was that most telcos had enjoyed a period of good growth in this time, though latterly growth rates have slowed to an average of 2% globally. Many markets, especially in Europe, are now in decline. Voice and messaging revenues have been eroded by substitution from Internet based applications, and data competition has by and large brought strong growth in usage volumes, but not enough to make up for the declines in voice and messaging.

Can data growth ‘save the day’?

A question raised in Europe and discussed again in Asia when this analysis was presented, is whether broadband data sales can offset the declines in voice and messaging revenues. The arguments for and against this are summarised in Figure 3.

Figure 3 – The arguments for and against broadband producing long term growth

Source: STL Partners

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Objectives of Transformation
  • What is the outlook for growth for telcos?
  • Can data growth ‘save the day’?
  • Why is transformation so difficult?
  • The challenge of achieving synergy with the core
  • So ‘going digital’ is becoming a necessity whatever your strategy
  • Opportunities for ‘Telco Cloud’ Centred Growth
  • Models for how to transform
  • The Publisher / Utility Model
  • 20 transformation metrics that matter
  • Digital Maturity Model
  • NFV/SDN Playbook
  • Case Studies of Transformation in Practice
  • Telkom Indonesia – Becoming the “King of Digital”
  • Celcom Axiata – Quick ‘HITx’ to Kick-start Transformation
  • Conclusion: how to change model and culture together?
  • 1. Establish transformational leadership and vision
  • 2. Empower and motivate people to unlock culture
  • 3. See success through a new lens (and new metrics)
  • 4. Re-engineer the guts of the business

 

  • Figure 1 – Transformation priorities are different for every operator
  • Figure 2 – The growth performance of 68 global operator groups 2009-16
  • Figure 3 – The arguments for and against broadband producing long term growth
  • Figure 4 – A clear majority in the group believed broadband will not sustain long-term growth
  • Figure 5 – Telco ‘digital’ plays have experienced varied success to date
  • Figure 6 – Telco Cloud services by type
  • Figure 7 – NTT Docomo is one leading benchmark for new revenue creation
  • Figure 8 – The ‘Utility’ and ‘Publisher’ Models
  • Figure 9 – A high level Digital Maturity Model
  • Figure 10 – The NFV/SDN ‘Playbook’ explained
  • Figure 11 – Telkom Indonesia’s ‘Digital Telco’ vision
  • Figure 12 – Telkom Indonesia’s Transformation Key Success Factors and Lessons
  • Figure 13 – How the HITx programme was delivered
  • Figure 14 – Which area of transformation has the greatest value, and what requires the greatest effort?
  • Figure 15 – A new business ‘stack’ for telcos?

The Devil’s Advocate: SDN / NFV can never work, and here’s why!

Introduction

The Advocatus Diaboli (Latin for Devil’s Advocate), was formerly an official position within the Catholic Church; one who “argued against the canonization (sainthood) of a candidate in order to uncover any character flaws or misrepresentation evidence favouring canonization”.

In common parlance, the term a “devil’s advocate” describes someone who, given a certain point of view, takes a position they do not necessarily agree with (or simply an alternative position from the accepted norm), for the sake of debate or to explore the thought further.

SDN / NFV runs into problems: a ‘devil’s advocate’ assessment

The telco industry’s drive toward Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) got going in a major way in 2014, with high expectations that the technology – along with its sister technology SDN (Software-Defined Networking ) – would revolutionize operators’ abilities to deliver innovative communications and digital services, and transform the ways in which these services can be purchased and consumed.

Unsurprisingly, as with so many of these ‘revolutions’, early optimism has now given way to the realization that full-scope NFV deployment will be complex, time-consuming and expensive. Meanwhile, it has become apparent that the technology may not transform telcos’ operations and financial fortunes as much as originally expected.

The following is a presentation of the case against SDN / NFV from the perspective of the ‘devil’s advocate’. It is a combination of the types of criticism that have been voiced in recent times, but taken to the extreme so as to represent a ‘damning’ indictment of the industry effort around these technologies. This is not the official view of STL Partners but rather an attempt to explore the limits of the skeptical position.

We will respond to each of the devil’s advocate’s arguments in turn in the second half of this report; and, in keeping with good analytical practice, we will endeavor to present a balanced synthesis at the end.

‘It’ll never work’: the devil’s advocate speaks

And here’s why:

1. Questionable financial and operational benefits:

Will NFV ever deliver any real cost savings or capacity gains? Operators that have launched NFV-based services have not yet provided any hard evidence that they have achieved notable reductions in their opex and capex on the basis of the technology, or any evidence that the data-carrying capacity, performance or flexibility of their networks have significantly improved.

Operators talk a good talk, but where is the actual financial and operating data that supports the NFV business case? Are they refusing to disclose the figures because they are in fact negative or inconclusive? And if this is so, how can we have any confidence that NFV and SDN will deliver anything like the long-term cost and performance benefits that have been touted for them?

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • SDN / NFV runs into problems: a ‘devil’s advocate’ assessment
  • ‘It’ll never work’: the devil’s advocate speaks
  • 1. Questionable financial and operational benefits
  • 2. Wasted investments and built-in obsolescence
  • 3. Depreciation losses
  • 4. Difficulties in testing and deploying
  • 5. Telco cloud or pie in the sky?
  • 6. Losing focus on competitors because of focusing on networks:
  • 7. Change the culture and get agile?
  • 8.It’s too complicated
  • The case for the defense
  • 1. Clear financial and operational benefits:
  • 2. Strong short-term investment and business case
  • 3. Different depreciation and valuation models apply to virtualized assets
  • 4. Short-term pain for long-term gains
  • 5. Don’t cloud your vision of the technological future
  • 6. Telcos can compete in the present while building the future
  • 7. Operators both can and must transform their culture and skills base to become more agile
  • 8. It may be complicated, but is that a reason not to attempt it
  • A balanced view of NFV: ‘making a virtual out of necessity’ without making NFV a virtue in itself

The European Telecoms market in 2020, Report 1: Evaluating 10 forces of change

Introduction

Telecoms – the times they are a changin’

The global telecoms market is experiencing change at an unprecedented pace.  As recently as 2012 , few would have predicted that consumer voice and messaging would be effectively ‘given away’ with data packages in 2015.  Yet today, the shift towards data as the ‘valuable’ part of the mobile bundle has been made in many European markets and, although many operators still allocate a large proportion of revenue to voice and messaging, the value proposition is clearly now ‘data-led’.

Europe, in particular, is facing great uncertainty

While returns on investment have steadily reduced in European telecoms, the market has remained structurally fragmented with a large number of disparate players – fixed-only; mobile-only; converged; wholesalers; enterprise-only; content-oriented players (cablecos); and so forth. Operators generally have continued to make steady economic returns for investors and have been considered ‘defensive stocks’ by the capital markets owing to an ability to generate strong dividend yields and withstand economic down-turns (although Telefonica’s woes in Spain will attest to the limitations of the telco business model to recession).

But the forces of change in Europe are growing and, as a company’s ‘Safe Harbor’ statement would put it, ‘past performance does not guarantee future results’. Strategists are puzzling over what the European telecoms industry might look like in 2020 (and how might that affect their own company) given the broad range of forces being exerted on it in 2015.

STL Partners believes there are 12 questions that need to be considered when considering what the European telecoms market might look like in 2020:

  1. How will regulation of national markets and the wider European Union progress?
  2. How will government policies and the new EC Digital Directive impact telecoms?
  3. How will competition among traditional telecoms players develop?
  4. How strong will new competitors be and how will they compete with operators?
  5. What is the revenue and margin outlook for telecoms core services?
  6. Will new technologies such as NFV, SDN, and eSIM, have a positive or negative effect on operators?
  7. How will the capital markets’ attitude towards telecoms operators change and how much capital will be available for investment by operators?
  8. How will the attitudes and behaviours of customers – consumer and enterprise – evolve and what bearing might this have on operators’ business models?
  9. How will the vision and aspirations of telecoms senior managers play out – will digital services become a greater focus or will the ‘data pipe’ model prevail? How important will content be for operators? What will be the relative importance of fixed vs mobile, consumer vs enterprise?
  10. Will telcos be able to develop the skills, assets and partnerships required to pursue a services strategy successfully or will capabilities fall short of aspirations?
  11. What M&A strategy will telco management pursue to support their strategies: buying other telcos vs buying into adjacent industries? Focus on existing countries only vs moves into other countries or even a pan-European play?
  12. How effective will the industry be in reducing its cost base – capex and opex – relative to the new competitors such as the internet players in consumer services and IT players in enterprise services?

Providing clear answers to each of these 12 questions and their combined effect on the industry is extremely challenging because:

  • Some forces are, to some extent at least, controllable by operators whereas other forces are largely outside their control;
  • Although some forces are reasonably well-established, many others are new and/or changing rapidly;
  • Establishing the interplay between forces and the ‘net effect’ of them together is complicated because some tend to create a domino effect (e.g. greater competition tends to result in lower revenues and margins which, in turn, means less capital being available for investment in networks and services) whereas other forces can negate each other (e.g. the margin impact of lower core service revenues could be – at least partially – offset by a lower cost base achieved through NFV).

The role of this report

In essence, strategists (and investors) are finding it very difficult to understand the many and varied forces affecting the telecoms industry (this report) and predict the structure of and returns from the European telecoms market in 2020 (Report 2). This, in turn, makes it challenging to determine how operators should seek to compete in the future (the focus of a STL Partners report in July, Four strategic pathways to Telco 2.0).

In summary, the European Telecoms market in 2020 reports therefore seek to:

  • Identify the key forces of change in Europe and provide a useful means of classifying them within a simple and logical 2×2 framework (this report);
  • Help readers refine their thoughts on how Europe might develop by outlining four alternative ‘futures’ that are both sufficiently different from each other to be meaningful and internally consistent enough to be realistic (Report 2);
  • Provide a ‘prediction’ for the future European telecoms market based on the responses of two ‘wisdom of crowds’ votes conducted at a recent STL Partners event for senior managers from European telcos plus our STL Partners’ own viewpoint (Report 2).
  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Telecoms – the times they are a changin’
  • Europe, in particular, is facing great uncertainty
  • The role of this report
  • Understanding and classifying the forces of change
  • External (market) forces
  • Internal (telco) forces
  • Summary: The impact of internal and external forces over the next 5 years
  • STL Partners and Telco 2.0: Change the Game

 

  • Figure 1: O2’s SIM-only pay monthly tariffs – many with unlimited voice and messaging bundled in
  • Figure 2: A framework for classifying telco market forces: internal and external
  • Figure 3: Telefonica dividend yield vs Spanish 10-year bond yield
  • Figure 4: Customer attitudes to European telecoms brands – 2003 vs 2015
  • Figure 5: Summarising the key skills, partnerships, assets and culture needed to realise ambitions
  • Figure 6: SMS Price vs. penetration of Top OTT messaging apps in 2012
  • Figure 7: Summary of how internal and external forces could develop in the next 5 years

Reality Check: Are operators’ lofty digital ambitions unrealistic given slow progress to date?

Growing telco ambitions in new (digital) business models

Telco execs are bullish about long-term prospects for new digital business models

Respondents believe new business model revenues should reach nearly 25% of total telecom revenue by 2020

Despite recent evidence in Europe of material revenue decline from telecoms operators, the executives that STL Partners canvassed in its recent global survey  were relatively optimistic about the opportunities for revenue growth from new business models.  On average, executives felt that revenue from new digital business models  should reach 9% of total revenue in 2015 and this should rise to 24% by 2020 (see Figure 1).

In the case of 2015, 9% is way beyond what will be achieved by most players and probably represents respondents’ theoretical target that their organisation should have achieved by the end of this year if management had invested more effort in building new revenue sources earlier: it is where their organisation should be in an ideal world.   One of the few operators in the world that is at this level of digital revenues is NTT DoCoMo.  We explore its digital activities later in this report.

24% of telecoms revenue coming from new business models in 2020 is also ambitious but STL Partners considers this a realistic target and one which would probably result in the overall telecoms market being no bigger than it was in 2013 – see the forecast on page 15.

Two drivers of digital business model importance to operators: digital revenue growth and core business revenue decline

A key question for the industry is whether the 2020 target can be achieved by growing material new business model revenues in tandem with limited voice, messaging and connectivity decline or whether it could result from an implosion of these Telco 1.0 revenues.  In other words, modest new business model revenue could be 24% of a very much smaller overall telecoms market if voice, messaging and connectivity revenues suffer a precipitous decline.

Figure 2 charts the quarterly revenue for six European markets and illustrates a range of trajectories for telecoms revenues.  At one extreme is Denmark where telecoms revenue in Q3 2014 was nearly 40% lower than Q1 2008.  At the other extreme are the UK and French markets where the figure is 3% and 7% lower respectively.  Clearly, if most telecoms markets follow the Danish route then the opportunity for modest digital revenues to become important to operators grows substantially.  Interestingly, in most of the six markets, 2013 and 2014 has seen revenues stabilising (at least among operators that publish accounts which split out those markets over the time period) and in some cases, such as the UK and Netherlands, growth has been achieved from the lows of 2012.

STL Partners’ global forecast lies somewhere between the two extremes outlined in Figure 2: we believe that core telecoms revenues will decline by around 25% between 2013 and 2020.  If this is indeed the case then for digital revenues to represent 24% of telecoms revenue, they will need to be very material – around $250 billion for mobile telecoms alone!

Figure 1: Digital business model revenue ambition, 2015 and 2020

Source: STL Partners/Telco 2.0 Operator Survey, November 2014, n=55

Figure 2: Telecoms quarterly revenue in 6 European markets

Source: Telecoms company accounts, STL Partners analysis
Note: Revenue is for operators reporting quarterly figures for each market. As a result, not all market revenue is captured.

Belief in the importance of future telecoms business models varies greatly by business function and by geography

Respondents from Network functions were most bullish; IT respondents most pessimistic

Where there were 10 or more respondents in a functional or geographic group, we examined the responses for that group.  As Figure 3 shows, there were wide differences in ambition for digital services by functional area with respondents from Network being far more bullish than those in IT:  the former suggesting 30% of 2020 revenue should come from digital services compared with only 14% from IT.

North American respondents seem to anticipate unrealistic digital business growth

There was a consistency among functional groups in their ambitions for digital services: those that were more bullish for 2015 remained more so for 2020.  This contrasted with the regional split in which North American respondents believed the ‘correct’ proportion of revenue from digital services in 2015 is 7% (compared with 10% for Europe and Asia) rising to a formidable 26% in 2020.  This suggests that North American executives remain confident that their organisations can compete effectively in consumer and enterprise digital markets despite the US, in particular, being the home market of many formidable digital players: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce, Twitter, and so forth.

To put the North American perspective in perspective: if STL Partners’ global forecast for core telecoms services holds true in the US then a $120bn revenue telecoms company, such as Verizon, will lose around $30 billion in core service revenues by 2020.  In this scenario, for Verizon to end up the same size as it is now in 2020, it will have to replace this $30 billion with new digital business revenues (which would equate roughly to the 26% proposed by North American respondents).  In our deep-dive analysis of Verizon for the Telco 2.0 Transformation Index, STL Partners estimated that Verizon generated around $2.9 billion in Telco 2.0 digital business model revenues (around 2.4% of total revenue) in 2013.  For that $2.9 billion to grow to $30 billion by 2020 requires compound annual growth of a whopping 40% per year: a tall order indeed and one that is almost certainly unrealistic.

Middle Eastern respondents least ambitious: signs of complacency?

Unsurprisingly, the Middle Eastern respondents whose companies are enjoying continued growth in core telecoms services and, in many countries advantageous regulatory environments, were least bullish about digital services in the near and longer term.  The danger for this region is complacency: operators are in a similar position to those in Europe in 2007.  European operators failed to prepare early enough for core service decline – most digital activities were not kicked off until 2012 by which time aggregate revenue from voice, messaging and connectivity was either flat or in decline in most markets.

Figure 3: Average digital business model revenue ambition, 2015 and 2020 by function and geography

Source: STL Partners/Telco 2.0 Operator Survey, November 2014, n=55

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Growing telco ambitions in new (digital) business models
  • Telco execs are bullish about long-term prospects for new digital business models
  • Belief in the importance of future telecoms business models varies greatly by business function and by geography
  • Telco execs’ views on digital business Opex and Capex investment are closely correlated with their views on revenue growth
  • Calculating a telecoms digital business P&L:  Moving from investment in 2015 to (unrealistically?) strong returns in 2020
  • STL Partners’ forecast suggests that new digital business should be 25+% of revenue by 2020 to avoid long-term industry decline
  • The outlook for Telco 1.0 business models is not positive and Telco 2.0 business models are required to fill the gap
  • Investment in new business models is increasing but results from the Telco 2.0 Transformation Index suggest it is still inadequate to engender success
  • Scale of NTT DoCoMo’s ‘new digital business’ suggests bold vision is realistic for some players
  • Long-term downward trend in Telco 1.0 core services in Japan with digital services a ‘gap-filler’
  • Smart Life: A cloud-based (OTT) consumer-centric approach to digital services
  • A digital business has fundamentally different characteristics to a telecoms business
  • 9 challenges to overcome and all are important
  • Overall, operator progress on all 9 challenges remains slow
  • Too little progress on core challenges from most operators
  • What next?  Forthcoming STL Partners’ Telco 2.0 research supporting telecoms transformation
  • Appendix 1: Survey details
  • Appendix 2: Telco 2.0 Transformation Index overview

 

  • Figure 1: Digital business model revenue ambition, 2015 and 2020
  • Figure 2: Telecoms quarterly revenue in 6 European markets
  • Figure 3: Average digital business model revenue ambition, 2015 and 2020 by function and geography
  • Figure 4: Average required Digital Business Opex and Capex, 2015 & 2020
  • Figure 5: Digital Business P&L for a $100 billion revenue telecoms operator, 2015 vs 2020, $ Billions
  • Figure 6: STL Partners’ global mobile telecoms forecast by opportunity area
  • Figure 7: STL Partners Telco 2.0 Transformation Index summary results, December 2014
  • Figure 8: NTT DoCoMo quarterly voice, data and ‘other’ revenue, Mar 2007-Sep 2014
  • Figure 9: Smart Life – NTT DoCoMo’s customer-centric approach to transformation
  • Figure 10: Different companies…different business models – the change that telecoms operators are trying to make
  • Figure 11: 9 challenges scored by ‘importance for operator digital transformation and future success’
  • Figure 12: The degree to which operators have addressed the 9 challenges
  • Figure 13: Strategists are much more bullish than other functions about their organisation’s transformation progress
  • Figure 14: Lots to change…and its taking too long
  • Figure 15: Operators appear to be at very different stages of resolving the ‘Big 6’ challenges
  • Figure 16: Defining Digital Services