Open to innovation

We talk to Matt Bross, chief technical officer for BT Group about emerging technologies.

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By  Roger Field Published  November 19, 2007

As the man responsible for directing technical strategy at BT, the UK's biggest telecom operator, Matt Bross has a surprisingly measured approach towards technology. While some tech experts have an obsessive attitude towards the latest gadgets and innovations, Bross prefers to focus on people.

"I don't have a PhD or a degree. I'm not in love with technology. I passionately believe that people make things work, boxes don't," he says. "You need to put this stuff to work for the benefit of people. When I talk about the innovation agenda of BT I talk about driving innovation at the speed of life, not the speed of technology."

I don’t have a PhD or a degree. I’m not in love with technology. I passionately believe that people make things work, boxes don’t. You need to put this stuff to work for the benefit of people.

This approach has paid dividends at BT, which has transformed itself from a company burdened with a debt mountain of GBP30 billion (US $61.1 billion) in 2001 to become one of the UK's most successful telecom and technology companies; in its first quarter results to June 30, 2007, the company reported a pre-tax profit of GBP658 million (US$1.34 billion).

To achieve this turnaround, BT's board and management had to make some sweeping changes to the way the company operated, and particularly in its approach to developing and rolling out new technology. "BT wanted to transform the networks and systems inside its organisation. I moved to BT to help implement that change. It has really been rocket-ship ride for the last five years," Bross says.

"BT has been an innovative company for many years, but in the past few years we have had to innovate the process of innovation itself. The innovation genie is out of the bottle globally. It's happening on all corners of the planet," he adds.

"Nobody has a crystal ball out there that you can look in and see what customers want. Most customers don't know what they want. You have to get technology in front of customers fast so that they can vote with their wallets for what they like."

And BT's approach to developing new technology and creating products and services certainly differs from how it operated until about 2004, when Bross joined the company. Like many companies, BT had mainly developed technologies in-house for its own use. But today, the company's mantra when it comes to research and development is ‘open innovation' - a process of developing technology using a combination of in-house research and R&D from outside organisations - usually though university projects and spin-out companies.

"Open innovation is a process where BT develops its capability to harness innovations globally, fuse them together with the best innovations from the men and women in our organisation, and get it in front of our customers fast, so they can vote with their wallets - then we have a chance of driving innovation at the speed of life," Bross says. "BT has changed hugely in the past couple of years from an internally focused to an open innovation model, from a technology focus to an experience focus."

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