BT skates its way to transformation

When I was a kid, once a year we used to go and watch an ice show. For adults perhaps, it might have been an excruciating panto rescued from the brink of despair by a few spangled costumes and tight-fitting lycra; but to my childish eyes, it was sheer magic. Every year, the centrepiece of the show would kick off with a few people, rotating slowly but steadily and largely keeping their positions, in the middle of the rink. Gradually more and more skaters would join them until eventually the whole troupe would be involved, apart from one solitary figure who was yet to join. Of course, by then the end points of the spiral would be moving so fast, the poor chap would have to sprint like a billy-oh to catch up.

And so, to BT. Back in July, the company announced it would be launching a new transformation and innovation process, which is now 100 days in. At yesterday’s progress meeting for analysts, hosted by execs Al-Noor Ramji, Roel Louwhoff, Paul Excell and Dina Matta, topics included the usual crowd pleasers such as “customer service is our number one priority”, through to genuinely interesting examples of how BT’s customers are working with the company to drive innovation.

It’s difficult to know how to judge this, latest initiative from BT. Certainly in the UK, we have consumer-based experiences (not all of them good) which can colour our opinions; meanwhile, over the past 5 years the global company has been through a number of other change programmes – in terms of both internal restructuring and application rationalisation, and incorporating technology infrastructure transformations such as the 21st Century network, currently in mid roll-out.

Perhaps the crucial axis upon which BT’s future rests, is its stated goal of delivering software-based services. This could mean multiple things, some of which (“Is BT taking on SAP now?”) might be seen as a step too far for the company – so it’s important to stress that BT isn’t going to be ditching its core, platform-oriented business. When asked, the panel explained how it would be building on top of its service provider heritage with said (software-based) services, in a way that can be integrated (or “mashed-in and mashed-out” in Al-Noor Ramji’s terms) with both the enterprise environments of its corporate customers and the burgeoning new era of Internet-based software.

Rather than mucking around too much with the company’s product and service portfolio, the plan is to do similar things as currently, but far better and more efficiently than in the past. “The ‘what’ will stay the same, but the ‘how’ will be different,” said Roel Louwhoff. Improvements to the “how” will (so we were told) enable the company to be far more innovative, or at least, far quicker in how it brings its innovations to market.

What’s going to prevent such a transformation? Perhaps the main challenge to BT remains the company itself, as defined by its staff. There can be no papering over the cracks here, as it will undoubtedly be a challenge to get all of the company’s employees moving in the same direction – please do note that this is not a comment on the quality of the people, but more on the fragmented nature of BT’s historical structures.

The proof of the pudding will only become visible in a year or so, as BT becomes able to offer demonstrable evidence that this latest change and innovation programme is making a difference. Like the big wheel of skaters, BT doesn’t want to move dramatically from where it is now, but it does want to be able to turn faster, whilst keeping everyone involved on board. In people-centric terms this means balancing the momentum being driven from the centre, with appropriate bottom-up activities such as training, personal staff development and so on. Sharpen the skates, if you will, rather than sharpen the saw.

Overall it’s a laudable initiative, and on paper at least it sounds practicable. It is still early days however. Of course success will need to be judged in terms of metrics such as time to market reductions or increased customer uptake of new, software-based services – and the consequent, directly attributable impact on the company’s bottom line. However, perhaps the real litmus test will be the ability to go to any of BT’s 110,000 employees and get a clear understanding of what the company stands for. Like the guy at the end of the ice-spiral, for this to work, BT can’t afford to leave anyone behind.

BT skates its way to transformation

3 thoughts on “BT skates its way to transformation

  1. Tony says:

    Jon, as a former BT employee, albeit more than 15 years ago now, I have no doubt that BT is more than capable of delivering the IT services you describe. However, like all former monopolies in the Telco space the one thing that BT does not have any great tradition of is the Selling of new services. Instead it has been able to rely on customers buying what it had in its bag. Channeling the soul of the company and its marketing into delivering effective sales is likely to be the most difficult challenge ahead.

  2. Thanks Tony – and that’s sort of where I was trying to go with the “no man left behind” thing. The reason people preach to the converted (or sell to the encumbent) is because it’s difficult to get out of the comfort zone, we’ve see in it with all kinds of companies, not just Telcos. Would a retail customer be able to speak to the BT engineer and find out what other services are available, or would the enterprise client be able to talk to their account manager and do the same? Right now, probably not, and there’s the challenge.

    P.S. I do know how easy it is for someone like me to sit on the sidelines and make remarks, which is why I try to be very careful when discussing such things as these!

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