This is the final installment of a three-part interview with Bharti Airtel Group CIO Harmeen Mehta, which originally ran in its entirety in our Digital Leader Network newsletter. Here Mehta discusses the complex relationship between telcos and over-the-top (OTT) players, and the new kind of culture telcos must embrace. In part one she talked about why operating in India is a unique challenge, and in part two we looked at the company’s digital transformation and what it means for operational and business support systems (OSS/BSS).
Mehta joined Airtel in 2013 and is leading the company on its transformation journey, drawing on her extensive experience outside the telecommunications industry, which gives her perspective on the cultural change that’s needed. She began her career in the airline industry and later moved to investment banking. Mehta has held top IT executive positions at HSBC, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and BBVA, Spain and Latin America’s second-largest bank.
“A technologist’s job today is not just about using new technologies, but instead it is about developing a deep understanding of the business and having the ability to translate their needs into a product or solution using the best technology available,” Mehta says in her profile on the Airtel website. “The best part about IT is that nothing is impossible! The only variables are time and effort.”
DB: How do you view OTT providers – are they only competitors, or are they also potential partners? Does Airtel want to become a platform provider? Is that the best way to compete with them?
HM: We see them as both – we keep a very close watch on what they’re providing, and we partner with them extensively. Airtel has had a very open-minded attitude and approach to building what is probably one of the most open ecosystems in the entire country. It has enabled us to build some of the most talked about partnerships around the world.
At same time, there are some content services we provide on our own. We have our own music app, which is one of the top apps in India. We have our own TV platform that’s getting massive traction. These are also marketplaces that bring a lot of content from around the world; we team up with a lot of content providers and media companies to be able to stream all of it to consumers.
Finally, given our size and scale, we also enjoy the benefit of the largest and best companies partnering with us. Our partnering ecosystem is one of our biggest strengths. We are a very, very open company – we don’t want to build everything on our own. In some cases, we build exclusive partnerships and in others we build marketplaces that allow anybody and everybody to come and partner with us.
DB: Airtel was one of the first telcos to embrace TM Forum’s Open APIs. Do they help enable this kind of open ecosystem?
HM: APIs are one of the things that enables us to connect and interact digitally across the board. It’s a factor, but only one. We’re a very young company, less than two decades young. Almost from day one, our goal has been to build a very open ecosystem and then partner up with the best in the world. For example, when we announced Airtel Security Services, we partnered with the best security company in the world, Symantec. We’ve also partnered with Amazon, and we brought Apple into India. It’s in our DNA; we’ve been doing it since day one, and we will continue to do it.
DB: Airtel is young so perhaps you have not faced as much difficulty with cultural transformation as longer-established telcos. But can you talk a bit about the kind of culture required, and what is the CIO’s role is in developing that culture?
HM: We’ve probably been lucky in that we didn’t have as much legacy as some operators, but we still had to bring about cultural change, even if not as dramatic. It’s been an interesting journey. In my organization [IT & Engineering] half are very focused on digital and building all these products and platforms. Almost everybody comes from an internet background. For the other half, telecom is their core strength and they are focused much more on BSS, OSS and core telco products, supporting our fixed-line business, our digital TV businesses, and, of course, the mobility business. They are completely distinct skillsets. Interestingly, there are very different age dynamics as well. The number of millennials on the digital side is almost 80 percent, whereas they number less than 20 percent on the core telco side.
This was a very conscious decision we made – that’s the kind of culture we wanted to build. In the digital part of our organization, there are no rules; it’s completely non-hierarchical. People associate themselves with the platforms they are building, and we literally have no rules: They do what they want, wear what they want, come and go when they want. Sometimes they ‘binge-code’ and then disappear for 48 hours. It’s a very, very open environment and you have to allow for that. You can’t attract the level of talent and build the right open-minded products for your consumers without it.
DB: I think that really goes against the grain for a lot of telcos, allowing someone that much freedom in their job.
HM: Yes, it’s a very conscious call you have to make.
DB: What will the next big thing be for CSPs? Where’s the best potential for new services?
HM: There are opportunities anywhere and everywhere – it’s our moment to seize them. A lot of the innovation that enables mobility hasn’t come from telcos. Some of the fastest-growing companies around the world in the last decade or decade and a half, whether it be Amazon, Google, Facebook or Youtube, have mushroomed because people thought disruptively about what could happen using the telco as a platform. I think there is still a lot more innovation possible, but the telecom industry needs to think very differently and disruptively.
The world of IoT and smart cities is waiting for more innovation to happen. We’ve been talking about seamlessly connecting people; now we’re talking about seamlessly connecting everything. That’s a great opportunity.
Even closer to home on the business side is the evolving entertainment and content world. Shrinking it for a small screen is a massive opportunity. And think about how much is going to change when we have driverless, connected cars. The innovations technology is bringing generally are all opportunities for us. Similarly, enabling enterprises that are going through the same transformations in their own industries is an opportunity for us to partner.
There is a still a lot more that can be done. If we don’t do it, somebody else will come and create the capabilities on top of us and provide the services. The last decade itself has been a great wake-up call, and you see all operators not only talking about innovation but investing in it.
Airtel taking a banking license and disrupting financial institutions is an example. Banking has limited penetration in the country as opposed to mobility, which has more than an 80 percent penetration. The level of financial inclusion a telco can offer is much greater than all the banks combined in the country.
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