Interview with Herman Singh - MTN Group Executive Innovation Strategy

What is your role at MTN?

My role at MTN is to build an innovation pipeline, both internally and externally, to ensure that we are able to take creativity all the way through prototyping, exploitation and then commercialisation. I am building the engine that allows MTN to organically build new businesses.

What do you think of the concept of Idea Management?

You have to ask yourself the question – “What do you mean by an idea?”, and I am not sure if that is well defined at all. Ideas are concepts – they can be novel, they can be adaptations of previous concepts, they can be a new application of an old concept, etc. In and of itself, an idea has no value until someone figures out what to do with it.

Firstly, ideas are overhyped; everyone has ideas, and the fact is that out of billions of ideas most of them have no practical application to day-to-day situations.

Secondly, how can you prove that an idea is true? Once you have proved that it is true, then we must ask ourselves why the idea is even relevant.

So how do you value an idea? When do you value them? What are the attributes of value? Where do you get the ideas? Where do you harvest them? Do you gather an idea in isolation to a problem or do you put up a problem and then get ideas linked to it?

Idea management is a great thing, but it needs to be focused on ideas that are relevant to your industry and relevant to the problem you are working on. Also, ideas that are peripheral today may be very relevant to your business going forward.

Idea Management is very complicated and needs to be approached with caution because you get a tsunami of material and you might have no way of making sense out of it.

Does MTN currently do Idea Management?

We are implementing a new platform called Bright Ideas and this will allow us to manage, maintain and capture ideas linked to business opportunities and business problems. We will be able to throw out challenges, hook ideas to the challenges, make proposals, create teams and other components of an idea management solution. We just launched it last week.

Is this the first time MTN has used a crowdsourcing Idea Management platform?

We have done it before but they haven’t really worked because we couldn’t get people excited about it – it wasn’t channelled and wasn’t focused. You need to have someone who is passionate about it, who has the personality to bring it alive and get some prizes and awards.

What do you think are the key elements of an Idea Management process?

Idea Management is not something that lives independently. It is embedded into something else, as part of an innovation process. One step of the innovation process is idea management. Maybe it is the front-end of the process. So, what you want to do is implement an innovation process, which needs ideas to work. In the past idea management processes lived on their own and the reason that they failed was that you just had this idea management process hanging out there and no way of taking it forward – just like a suggestion box of the old days.

Idea Management is used at MTN in two ways:

  1. MTN staff come up with a new business idea and then they find a group of people and present a proposal to work on a project.

  2. Business units can issue a challenge and then receive ideas from MTN staff.

Does MTN use rewards within the idea management program?

Not yet. Before we set challenges and a reward system we want to have the criteria, process and team ready. We need to get this in place first before we can start the specific challenges and rewards.

The idea management process will be unique for MTN because we are a multi-country, multi-currency, multi-jurisdiction environment and so you want winners per country, winners per business unit and perhaps an overall winner for the group.

What would MTN like to achieve within the Idea Management process?

We have very clear KPIs around it. We are not measuring the number of ideas because this is a terrible way of managing innovation. Over time, what we would like to see, is that non-core businesses are growing to become a substantial component of our total revenue stream. We are trying to build new revenue streams to replace dying revenue streams. The extent of how we are going to measure success is the new business developments that are coming from the ideas.

In the short term we would like to track engagement. How many hours did people spend on the platform? The more people who engage on the platform, the more ideas will be captured, and the more ideas will be discussed and refined within MTN. You can gauge the importance of an idea by the amount of engagement around the idea. This is like social media that amplifies an idea, and only amplifies the ideas that resonate, and hopefully takes the idea through until things happen. This is what we want to do in a business. We want to ask a peer group to look at the ideas and judge them, and whatever the peer group amplifies is probably something that we, as management, should take notice of.

And not even just peer group but to look externally and ask customers to participate. For example, customers ask me at every presentation, “…when are we going to see data prices in South Africa reflect like data prices in the rest of the world?”. This is a valid comment and that idea is being amplified externally and we need to make sure that it gets amplified internally because this is a real problem that real customers are unhappy with.

The amplification of ideas is critical here and this is how you test which ideas have value through engagement on the platform. Without engagement, without a community that is actively engaged, you don’t get amplification.

Has management communicated to MTN employees that they can spend time engaged with the idea management platform?

MTN is a huge company with a market cap of $25 Billion Dollars and MTN didn’t get to this size by telling people when to think. This happened because we hired people who could already think. There is an old adage that says, “In the world of digital, first you must try to change the people, if you can’t change the people, you need to change the people”.

I think that giving people “permission” is a huge insult to those that spend the bulk of their time working in legacy companies. Everyone has ideas and the fact of the matter is that they don’t know what to do with their ideas. To say that someone working in a company like Google has more ideas than another company is that the people on the ground have lots of ideas on how to improve their company is wrong. Sometimes companies simply don’t ask their staff for ideas or give them a channel to express their ideas.

I’m hoping that the idea management platform within MTN will enable this. I think this is the tenth time that we have tried to get it right within MTN. The platform must go viral – if it doesn’t go viral then it is nothing.

What will be different about your new system that will make it succeed this time?

A lot of things have changed. Firstly, customer behaviour has changed towards social networks and so we are all used to having social networks. We have implemented several internal MTN tools that are making MTN staff feel more comfortable about using social media-type tools at work. People have developed social media habits in their personal lives and we think MTN is ready for an idea management solution that is designed to work like a social media platform.

We also have a better process now. When people see the first success then people will be motivated and incentivised to contribute further. It is very important to get the first success going.

What other benefits do you hope to get from the idea management solution? Do you hope to get efficiencies as well as new revenue streams?

Well actually I have no idea. The idea management solution will evolve and if people log ideas that are around practical improvements at MTN then we will definitely execute these ideas. We will probably use the idea management system to solve problems like security and other practical day-to-day challenges that MTN might face.

We don’t really know what ideas are going to be captured into the idea management system and what is going to resonate with people. We might issue a challenge for a particular problem and arrive at a solution for something completely different.

Will you have to prove the ROI of the idea management solution?

No – when do you know the results of something? You might launch an idea that takes years to return an investment. If an idea makes a loss - is this a failure? When do you judge success? What are criteria of success? Are you where you said you would be at this time and is there a roadmap to the future that takes us to profits and are you delivering against this target? The idea management system must pay for itself but it is a matter of time.

Do you have a closing comment?

I think that the only true basis of competition in the future is to reinvent your business every day. Idea Management is merely one of the gears, in a ten thousand gear machine, that takes ideas that are valuable and builds brand new bankable businesses. This is what we need in the future.

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