People And Partnerships In Corporate Innovation

Putting the community into corporate innovation

Corporate innovation. Many approaches have been tried, many have failed. For any organisation, the need to innovate isn’t new, but today’s rapid pace of change puts pressure on the mechanisms of large business which have traditionally been slow to evolve.

Whether it is the innovation lab, the startup accelerator programme, or the mergers and acquisitions method, many corporate innovation ventures fail because they simply don’t get all relevant stakeholders on board. More than a boardroom mandate to ‘be innovative’, corporate innovation needs to effect a change of mindset, culture and approach at all levels of the business.

This is the philosophy taken up by Paresh Modi, Group Head of Business Development and Innovation at Vodafone, who quickly realised that the success or failure of corporate innovation lies with its impact on a business’s community. We spoke to him to find out more…

Old and slow

After over a decade spent in both the B2B and B2C sides of Vodafone, Modi built up a strong understanding of the business’s commercial interests and aims. One common factor during this time was that, whenever the business attempted to drive revenue or create new products, it was hampered by slow and cumbersome partnership strategies.

“What we constantly came across was the fact – and this is still the case in most corporates – that whenever you try and create something, you’re very reliant on partnerships and big vendors,” he says. “Although they are typically well-established and provide gold plated solutions, they can be quite expensive and they can take a long time to deliver.”

“What I always felt we missed was a real outlet to create new, disruptive capability quickly and in an agile way, such that we can get benefit to our customers sooner rather than later at a really good cost.”

Although the company had various relationships with startups (through their Ventures arm, and an incubator called Vodafone Xone), Modi still felt that something was lacking.

“What we were missing was direct engagement with startups on the topics that really matter at the time that they really mattered, in order to be able to deliver something that was relevant and impactful,” he says. “We felt that we needed to focus much more on collaboration with the startup ecosystem in order to be able to drive partnerships.”

All for one and one for all

When he began his current role around three years ago, Modi brought an understanding of the need to work with startups in a way that benefitted them, as well as making sense for Vodafone – to achieve things they wouldn’t have thought of delivering themselves or with their large commercial partners.

However, the most important step was to first engage the internal Vodafone community with the innovation process.

“These are all the people in the company who are innovation hungry,” says Modi, “who are responsible for roadmaps of products and services, for delivering services to our customers, and real impact out into society as a result.”

“The conversation we had was around, ‘What is it that you’re really missing?’ ‘What are the big disruptions that you know of?’ Because these people are experts in their area and are seeing these things happening. They know what are we not doing that we could be doing.”

“The answer came back very strongly, that we quite often miss the opportunity of working with the most innovative players, because we know how to work with the big partners and that’s the safety net that we always go back to.”

Breaking away from this tried and tested method, Modi and his team wanted a way of working with the startup ecosystem – not only in the countries where Vodafone operates, but all over the world – to bring solutions to market much more quickly and deliver benefit to their customers.

Let’s get it started

So how exactly does Vodafone now engage with individual startups, deliver innovative solutions and ultimately improve their offerings to their customers? As Modi notes, it all starts simply enough – with a need.

“We start with what the needs of our people are – our Vodafone community,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a commercial need; it could be around some of our purpose activities – the planet, or diversity and inclusion… But it could also be around things like 5G and IoT and so on.”

“We’ll do a callout to the startup ecosystem to say this is what we are looking for. From there we’ll put these startups in front of our experts – these will be the budget holders and decision makers – and then hone down the solution we’re really looking for, the timing and how we could work with that particular company.”

Part of this process is working with startups appropriately – namely, giving them feedback quickly and not tying them up in long sales cycles, contractual discussions or exorbitant payment terms. Again, it’s a process that has to bring benefit to all parties involved.

And if the startups need additional support? They might be offered a place on Vodafone’s Tomorrow Street incubator in Luxembourg, which aims to help select innovative companies to grow.

“We’re not going to develop new companies out of that, or invest in those companies,” says Modi, “we’re just trying to help the ecosystem – and certain startups – to proliferate and be more successful.”

“There are other things like that we can do,” he adds. “If it’s a female-led startup that wants to evolve from early stage to late stage for example, F-Lane is a brilliant programme we have for female-led startups, or ventures that are supporting females in society.”

Culture shift

Clearly, being a truly innovative company involves more than following the processes of digital transformation. It is cultivating an understanding of the forces of change in today’s world, and demanding more for both society and business stakeholders.

With this in mind, how does Modi approach the more intangible notion of building a culture of innovation at Vodafone? To shift behaviours and mindsets in favour of creativity and experimentation? Again, it comes down to the startup ecosystem.

“The startup ecosystem is a really powerful medium for our employees to experience and take insights from, that they can then bring back into our business,” he says. “One of the examples of this is a programme called Bright Sparks, a partnership with Oxford University Innovation – the University of Oxford’s incubator.”

“What we did was create a global competition inside Vodafone for employees to become mentors of ten brilliant companies from the incubator. We didn’t limit it according to seniority or experience or anything like that, actually the startups got to choose their mentor from the applicants.”

“We’ve run it for about a year now, and we are looking at how we can expand it. It’s been tremendously successful, the ten companies have all really benefitted. Then from our side, in terms of culture, we have exposed a whole new world to our employees, as to what a startup goes through every day in terms of getting things done, being creative, testing things out with customers quickly, and making real impact in society.”

This, at its core, is the universal benefit of corporate innovation. Not only does it help a business to deliver better products and services for its customers, it also helps them to do better for its own people, the planet, and society.

When large organisations are more creative, able to engage with internal and external stakeholders more thoroughly, and better prepared to implement change quickly – everybody wins.

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