If ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, strategy is what culture feeds on.

minimalist photography of three crank phones, strategy eats culture, Telco, CEM


If ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, strategy is what culture feeds on. Seeing customer experience from the customer side.

To get an idea of what goes on in the minds of people working in the same industry, go to a conference and get a bucket of whatever they’re drinking. It might taste funny to you, but it could help you work out why they’re the way they are.

Put a group of professionals from the same sector in a room for a couple of days, and watch what happens. At the start of the agenda, there’s some jockeying for position and a bit of posturing to see who can tell a better story than the rest. This establishes a pecking order. After the first night in the bar, though, the barriers come down and the natural order is resumed, with the bigger companies swinging longer tails.

From the outside looking in, it’s a game that gets interesting after a few guests have stood up to speak. I went to a conference this week, for the bit of the mobile telecoms industry that concerns itself with ‘customer experience’. Inevitably, I made some observations.

Billing is a problem that won’t go away

Despite the advent of AI and ML, biometric monitors in wearable devices and robots lining up to steal jobs, a large part of the agenda was taken up with how difficult it is to match customers’ expectation by producing a bill they can make sense of. Billing preoccupies telcos as much as anything else. Billing loses customers; billing creates work in call centres; billing is responsible for such huge numbers of calls that chat bots are being brought in to handle them. Billing is the focus for companies who service CEM in telcos, by producing platforms they’d like consumers to use as a lens through which they see their bill.

It may sound a bit glib to say that it seemed like a herd of elephants were thundering round a room, and it wouldn’t be so bad if the ‘industry’ had more of a sense of concern. Actually, there was just a pervasive aura of ‘that’s how it is’. While it’s easy to find people who recognise the problem, it’s harder to find anyone who’s prepared to take on the issue as a mission on their customers’ behalf.

Design thinking

Some adventurous telco folk, however, have taken on board the concept of Design Thinking and, keen to use the latest buzzwords, have begun calling it ‘human-centred design’. Herein lies a twist though: just as IDEO lumbered us with a phrase that was supposed to imply innovation without saying as much, ‘human centricity’ sounds like we’re moving innovation into HR at the very time that robots are lurking just around the corner.

This is another example of the market struggling to know how to conduct itself. On the one hand, it sells smartphones to customers keen to do all their shopping on a mobile or tablet; on the other hand, it sells in very rural areas where there is no internet, where coverage is only achieved by satellite or beaming between houses, and where users have no need for a smartphone because Amazon is never going there. It’s said that 66% of the global population doesn’t have internet access. If you want to see a disparity in usage patterns, there’s an example right there. Maybe Punkt and Lightphones will give us pause for thought.

Artificial intelligence

And so, to AI. While the parochial billing issues are waiting to be resolved, the macro trends facing telcos are still interesting to discuss. Alpha Gen is in second grade and it’s generally agreed that, where countries have made a national decision to teach coding in schools, and where human-centred design is a feature of the curriculum, the battle for AI supremacy is already lost. Even the Germans, who made a virtue of vocational education a few decades ago, aren’t rushing to win this one. Whether it’s apathy, organisational inertia, or resignation may be a moot point, but the job to be done feels huge, and there’s no easy starting point.

See it differently

If telcos are a window on a more general sense of awe in the face of a mountain to climb, we can expect the technological change, that’s forecast to hit every industry, to be here very soon. As an observer and commentator, it’s easy to pick holes in other people’s modus operandi. But that very objectivity provides a naivety that could be valuable if the companies most in need of a new perspective decide to seek a different approach.

Peter Drucker was quoted as saying that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. I’d be inclined to agree, so long as we also note that strategy is what culture feeds on. Without one, we can’t have the other, and right now, it’s strategy that seems to be missing.

Seeing it differently. Future-proofing. It’s what we do.