By Paresh Modi, Head of Business Development and Innovation, Vodafone Group
It's fair to say that the telecom industry is not perceived to be a model for corporate innovation. While that is true of many industries, it has been more noticeable in ours as value flowed to tech companies building on our infrastructure. However, that situation is changing rapidly.
Over the past four years we have made significant progress in shifting our culture to make it easier for entrepreneurs and early stage ventures to approach Vodafone and identify ways we can help each other.
During that period we have launched programmes like the Vodafone 5G Dig, which identified 100 pioneering global start-ups, F-Lane, our accelerator for female empowerment in Germany, the Tomorrow Street innovation centre in Luxembourg, and Bright Sparks, our mentoring programme with Oxford University Innovation.
Allied to that ‘outside in’ approach to innovation we have recently run a global competition, Launchpad, to solicit ideas from our own employees that can make a positive difference to our customers and the societies in which we operate.
Launchpad generated nearly 1,200 ideas from 19 different countries and six Group departments. 112 ideas were then shortlisted by 150 local experts who acted as primary judges. There were then nearly 10,000 votes from colleagues for that shortlist to identify the 25 winning ideas.
With participation from well over one tenth of our workforce in the Launchpad initiative, this firstly shows the passion for innovation that now exists at our company. There is an overwhelming feeling among Vodafone colleagues that if there was ever a time for innovation, that time is now.
Beyond that, I was impressed that the winning ideas show that our culture has shifted to focus not just on building products and services in the traditional telecom sandbox but on how we might use our digital infrastructure to develop tech products.
The winning ideas also showed support for Vodafone’s purpose driven objectives to improve a billion lives and halve our environmental impact by 2025. The winning intrapreneurs set out practical ideas for how to build digital towns and develop the digital skills of citizens, help groups like the visually impaired and victims of crime, and encourage the use of electric vehicles.
Our colleagues also showed their sensitivity to the current health and financial crises with ideas for tackling challenges from how to help the restaurant sector restart while social distancing measures are in place using digital tipping, to how to keep food and other household essentials affordable for customers experiencing financial hardship.
Will all of these ideas get to market? I hope so but anyone involved with startups will tell you that many early stage ventures pivot or dissolve. Nonetheless, all of the 25 winners will receive support from us to explore the ideas and to learn from that process. I hope that some of the ventures will both prove successful in their home country and then scale internationally.
It is important that we embrace this ‘inside out’ model for corporate innovation if we are to win the war for talent with our friends in the tech industry. We want prospective employees to see Vodafone – rightly – as a company that is entrepreneurial, welcomes new ideas and encourages our employees to try things out, fail sometimes and learn from that.
There is also a real opportunity to bring together these two approaches to corporate innovation to develop even stronger partnerships. We’ll be seeking to introduce our many contacts in the startup community to the Vodafone innovation community so they can co-create projects that make a real difference to the world over the years to come.