There is a commonly held belief that to disrupt an industry you need to be a first-mover. However rolling out a new service before the competition is no guarantee of success. Spotify, for example, was hardly the first music-streaming service to go live, but it succeeded by using its late-mover advantage to survey what was available on the market and improve upon it.
This late-mover advantage is now beginning to pay off for established businesses as well. With the opportunity to buy more advanced technologies, learn from the mistakes of others, and work with experts who have been there before, they are investing in strategic transformations to leap-frog the competition in their own right.
This is certainly the case for Telenor, one of Sweden’s leading telecommunications providers. While its competitors invested in new technologies and service capabilities to keep up with customers, Telenor’s digital offering was falling behind. That is, until two years ago, when the company embarked on a major initiative to modernise and adopt a data-driven approach to delivering customer experiences.
A Unique Vantage Point
Led by CMO Christian Barrou Thrane and CIO Christian Roth, Telenor saw a unique opportunity to learn from early disruptors and apply those insights to its own journey. As Thrane explained, one of the team’s first realisations was that many businesses lean too heavily on technology without rethinking the way they work.
“Coming from behind, we knew that we had to do more than invest in the latest technology. We needed to be better at leveraging the technology,” he told CMO.com. “We don’t just want to catch up—we want to be better and more relevant than what’s out there, and that requires more agile ways of working across our organisation.”
Telenor also understood that it wasn’t just competing with other telecom providers. Sweden is one of the world’s most advanced economies when it comes to digital services. The government even launched a digital strategy in 2017 to champion digitalisation on a national scale.
For their part, Swedish citizens have a healthy appetite for digital-first experiences and a great deal of trust in digital services.
“People in Sweden are ready to pay more for better services, but expectations are high. It is important to realise that their expectations are rarely set by our competitors but rather by the latest digital experiences that they interact with each day. These may be with their mobile payment provider, their bank, or services like Spotify and Netflix,” Thrane said. “Instead of comparing ourselves to the competition, we need to ask ourselves how companies like Google or Amazon would develop these services. That’s our benchmark.”
Breaking The Leadership Mold
For most outsiders, Roth might seem an unlikely choice for CIO, having previously led Telenor’s consumer mobile department. However, Telenor felt a fresh perspective was crucial to driving collaboration and alignment between marketing and IT, which is where so many transformation projects fail.
“There’s no point asking someone with a traditional background to lead your team when you want to do something completely nontraditional. It defeats the purpose,” Thrane said.
By bringing in Roth to oversee its IT operation, Telenor injected a much-needed dose of commercial acumen into its technology development. It also empowered employees to broaden their thinking when developing new services.
The collaboration between marketing and IT teams doesn’t end there. Decisions about which technologies to invest in and how to develop new customer experiences are now made collectively. As Roth told CMO.com, “You won’t succeed if you just have one team ‘asking’ and the other ‘doing.’ Real collaboration is about discussing, understanding, and doing—together.”
Handpicking A Dream Team
Change management and a strong commitment from within the business were instrumental to the transformation. Change management is often the most difficult part of a transformation project because it involves asking people to forget what they know and take on something completely new.
For his part, Roth was initially head of Telenor’s Consumer Mobile division, before becoming the head of transformation to drive a new direction of the consumer transformation. He then stepped up to the CIO role to lead the operator’s IT division, joining the new team as a core driver behind its transformation.
As Thrane explained, projects like this only work when they are treated as a priority and tackled by the best minds from across the organisation.
“We knew that if we didn’t crack this now, we would not be competitive in three years, so we handpicked a team so strong they could be running our business,” he said.
Telenor also brought in experienced talent to help guide its transformation strategy. For Thrane, this was another valuable form of late-mover advantage for the company. These people had been part of transformation projects at other organisations, and Telenor had the opportunity to apply their learnings and “do it right from the beginning.”
“Don’t underestimate the power of working with the right people when driving a significant change,” Thrane said. “We brought together a strong internal team that knew our business and complemented them with some anchor hires–people that brought valuable experience and functional capabilities that we did not have internally.”
Simplify, Then Build
The first step for Telenor’s digital transformation at an operational level was to strip down and simplify its processes. The transition from analog systems to digital technologies and analytics is a complex one, requiring a great deal of discussion and internal adjustment before the team could even touch the front-end customer experience itself.
“We didn’t have a lack of opportunities for transformation and new services. In fact, we had too many,” Roth explained. “What we needed was clarity and structure and to understand what was holding us back.”
Telenor had seen too many companies forego this first step and rush to build complex new capabilities on top of their already complex processes. “This is a recipe for disaster,” Roth added, “and one we absolutely wanted to avoid.”
Doubling Digital Sales
While Telenor’s transition to digital service is not yet complete, the telecom operator has already seen its digital sales double and anticipates more growth to come. Roth and Thrane attributed this success to having more control over processes, improved collaboration between teams, and a more strategic approach to technology.
Where Telenor previously worked with a media agency for all media planning and buying, it has taken most of these processes back in-house. Using a media mix modelling system, the team can now better understand how their spend is performing across media channels and be more agile in adapting their approach for maximum impact.
Telenor has also brought elements of its content creation in-house, using tools that make it possible for creative teams to easily collaborate with marketers, product teams, agencies, and virtually every player in the content supply chain. Instead of weeks, Telenor can now roll out new campaigns in just days.
This approach reflects the operator’s wider ambitions with technology. As Roth put it, “We have moved to a digital-first mindset. Instead of buying new technologies and then thinking of how they can deliver value, we are being more strategic, starting with a clear idea of the service we want to deliver, and then investing in the right systems and processes to make that happen.”
The learnings Telenor has put into place have set a robust foundation for its digital ambitions. By Roth and Thrane’s own admission, the operator was less focused on its front-end experience than it should have been and fell behind as a result. But with a clear roadmap for change, and the technology mix to match, this mindset is changing quickly. Telenor may not have been the first mover to go digital in the Swedish telecom market, but it has put itself in a position to be the best mover going forward.