Steffen Roehn is a Bain partner and chairman of the board of TM Forum. Nik Willetts is CEO of TM Forum.
It’s rare that an industry event itself serves as tangible proof of that industry’s resilience, but that is the case with this year’s Digital Transformation World Series, an annual gathering of network and communications service providers, technology suppliers, consultancies, and systems integrators hosted by TM Forum. This year’s event underwent a massive transformation in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, shifting from three global in-person events with 5,000 participants to a virtual digital series with more than 12,000 participants from 151 countries that is being held over the course of five weeks.
As chair of the TM Forum board and CEO of TM Forum, respectively, we can imagine few more powerful examples of the critical role played by the network and communications industry as a backbone for digital society.
At roughly the halfway mark in the ongoing series, which will conclude on November 12, three clear takeaways have emerged from the sessions and discussions so far.
The pandemic has acted as a positive catalyst for change in the telecom industry. It has instilled a new understanding of the industry’s core purpose. As Sigve Brekke, CEO of Telenor Group, put it, “We connect to what matters most.” At the same time, the industry has surprised itself, both with how well it has been able to navigate the pandemic to date as well as with what it can accomplish under extreme pressure. In multiple sessions, expressions of sentiments such as “we did in two days what would previously have taken two years” have reinforced confidence that transformation and innovation are possible within the industry, both now and beyond the crisis.
Several providers offered examples of rapid and radical efforts to unlock adjacencies and innovate based on immediate customer needs in both business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets. And in private conversations, many shared that these efforts have already yielded positive financial results. Platform business models also are back in vogue: There is a clear recognition that ecosystem economics and horizontal plays will be a critical part of future growth plans.
Technology is front and center again—and for the right reasons. It was evident in executive sessions that the links among technology, innovation and business agility are a topic for both boardrooms and CEOs. In session after session, chief technology information officers (CTIOs) were outspoken about the need for radical change in technology procurement, partnering, open architecture and governance. At the same time, web scale—that is, leveraging public and multicloud resources to cost effectively run IT and network workloads—has become a broadly accepted solution. So, while companies remain wary of edge and adjacent opportunities, web scale looks here to stay.
Not coincidentally, a new breed of chief information officers and CTIOs are emerging—namely, executives who are savvy about both business and technology, customer centric, and taking leadership roles when it comes to innovation and new services.
People and culture have never been more important. While talent and culture are critical in most industries, the telecommunications industry has seen recent efforts to transform cultures and ways of working validated by the pandemic. The companies that navigated the crisis the best appear to be the ones that are most mature when it comes to upskilling, ways of working and cultural transformation. They report a rapid flattening of the organization, faster decision making and less bureaucracy.
At the same time, much remains to be done: The TM Forum’s sessions included open, honest conversations about the need for greater diversity and clearer recognition of the link between improved diversity and a better ability to deliver on customer needs.
Of course, “what next?” remains an open question. Can advances in culture and ways of working be sustained while navigating the here-and-now challenges of building new teams and getting back to the office?
Much also remains to be seen, but we find it heartening that, amid the ongoing tragedy of a global pandemic, so many people around the globe could still come together and collaborate by virtue of the technologies that they are developing—a microcosm of the digital society of tomorrow that they are helping to build today.