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How Telenor Dialed Up Its Late-Mover Advantage

There is a commonly held belief that to disrupt an industry you need to be a first-mover. But rolling out a new service before the competition is no guarantee of success. Spotify, for example, was hardly the first music-streaming service to go live, but it succeeded by using its late-mover advantage to survey what was available on the market and improving upon it.

This late-mover advantage is now beginning to pay off for established businesses as well. Having watched their market share shrink in recent years, established brands are investing in strategic transformations to reclaim their positions or even leapfrog the competition.

This is certainly the case for Telenor, one of Sweden’s leading telecommunications providers. While its competitors invested in new technologies and service capabilities to keep up with customers, Telenor’s own digital offering was falling behind. That was until two years ago, when the company embarked on a major initiative to modernise and adopt a data-driven approach to delivering customer experiences.

A Unique Vantage Point
Led by CMO Christian Roth and newly appoint CIO Christian Barrou Thrane, Telenor saw a unique opportunity to learn from early disruptors and apply those insights to its own journey.

As Roth explained, one of the team’s first realisations was that many businesses lean too heavily on technology without rethinking the way they work.

“Where our competitors focused much of their investment on new systems in a rush to stay relevant with customers, we made a point of first re-evaluating our processes and team structures,” he said. “We don’t just want to catch up—we want to be better than what’s out there, and that requires more agile ways of working across our organisation.”

Telenor also understood that it wasn’t just competing with other telecom providers. Sweden is one of the world’s most advanced economies when it comes to digital services. The government even launched a digital strategy in 2017 to champion digitalisation on a national scale.

For their part, Swedish citizens have a healthy appetite for digital-first experiences and a great deal of trust in these services.

“People in Sweden are ready to pay more for better services, but that also raises our national standard for digital experience,” Thrane said. “Instead of comparing ourselves to the competition, we need to ask ourselves how companies like Google or Amazon would develop these services. That’s our benchmark.”

Breaking The Leadership Mold
For most outsiders, Thrane might seem an unlikely choice for CIO, having previously led Telenor’s consumer marketing division. However, both he and Roth felt a fresh perspective was crucial to driving collaboration and alignment between marketing and IT, which is where so many transformation projects fail.

“There’s no point asking someone with a traditional background to lead your team when you want to do something completely nontraditional. It defeats the purpose,” Roth said.

By bringing in Thrane to oversee its IT operation, Telenor injected a much-needed dose of commercial acumen into its technology development. It also empowered employees to broaden their thinking when developing new services.

The collaboration between marketing and IT teams doesn’t end there. Decisions about which technologies to invest in and how to develop new customer experiences are now made collectively. As Thrane said, “You won’t succeed if you just have one team ‘asking’ and the other ‘doing.’ Real collaboration is about discussing, understanding, and doing—together.”

Simplify, Then Build
The first step for Telenor’s digital transformation at an operational level was to strip down and simplify its processes. The transition from analog systems to digital technologies and analytics is a complex one, requiring a great deal of discussion and internal adjustment before the team could even touch the front-end customer experience itself.

“We didn’t have a lack of opportunities for transformation and new services. In fact, we had too many,” Roth explained. “What we needed was clarity and structure, and to understand what was holding us back.”  

Telenor had seen too many companies forego this first step and rush to build complex new capabilities on top of their already complex processes. “This is a recipe for disaster,” Roth added, “and one we absolutely wanted to avoid.”

Handpicking A Dream Team
Equally important was change management, often the most difficult part of a transformation project because it involves asking people to forget what they know and take on something completely new. When he became CIO, Thrane stepped away from a successful 40-strong team in Telenor’s consumer marketing division to lead a team of 10 through completely unknown territory.

As Roth explained, projects like this only work when they are treated as a priority and tackled by the best minds from across the organisation.

“We knew that if we didn’t crack this now, we would no longer be competitive in three years, so we handpicked a team so strong they could easily be running our business themselves,” he said.

Telenor also brought in experienced external consultants to support its internal team. For Thrane, this is another valuable form of late-mover advantage. The consultants Telenor hired had previously led digital transformation projects for other organisations; they could now apply what they’d learned at Telenor while avoiding the pitfalls they ran into the first time around.

“Don’t underestimate the power of working with the right people when trying something new,” Roth said. “We’ve made some anchor hires who have been instrumental in our success to date—experienced consultants with a level of experience and insight that nobody in our business could replicate.”  

Doubling Digital Sales
While Telenor’s transition to digital service is not yet complete, the telecom operator has already seen its digital sales double, and anticipates more growth to come. Roth and Thrane attributed this success to having more control over processes, improved collaboration between teams, and a more strategic approach to technology.

Where Telenor previously worked with a media agency for a range of marketing activities, including production and media buying, it has since taken these processes back in-house. Using a media mix modelling system, the team can now better understand how their spend is performing across media channels and be more agile in adapting their approach for maximum impact.

Telenor has also brought its content creation in-house, using tools that make it possible for creative teams to easily collaborate with marketers, product teams, agencies, and virtually every player in the content supply chain. Instead of weeks, Telenor can now roll out new campaigns in just days.

This approach is reflective of the operator’s wider ambitions with technology. As Roth put it, We have moved to a digital-first mindset. Instead of buying new technologies and then thinking of how they can deliver value, we are being more strategic, starting with a clear idea of the service we want to deliver and then investing in the right systems and processes to make that happen.”

The learnings Telenor has put into place have set a robust foundation for its digital ambitions. By Roth and Thrane’s own admission, the operator was less focused on its front-end experience than it should have been and fell behind as a result. But with a clear roadmap for change, and the technology mix to match, this mindset is changing quickly. Telenor may not have been the first mover to go digital in the Swedish telecom market, but it has put itself in a position to be the best mover moving forward.

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