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Business Innovation: A View From Silicon Valley

Q&A with Mark Bagley, Vice President, Innovation Scouting

Innovation for business Q&A - Mark Bagley

Mark Bagley is responsible for identifying and evaluating new technology that could be used within BT, or for BT to re-sell to customers.  Mark is part of a small BT innovation scouting team, based in the innovation hub of Silicon Valley.

Q: What does innovation scouting involve?

We have a number of roles. Primarily, we’re on the ground, absorbing innovation. Once we’ve found something, our next step is to try and get that innovation into BT itself. By using new developments within BT, our employees understand their relevance to our customers.

So it’s up to our team to put together business cases and propositions for those innovations. We help them articulate that to business – by showing how it would look in BT. But it’s only ever the tip of the iceberg.

Q: Is there an advantage to being in Silicon Valley?

MB: The reason we set up shop in Silicon Valley around 14 years ago was that innovation had become global. The good old days where all the telcos had their own research department had gone. Innovation was being developed by a host of businesses out side of the traditional R&D departments and Silicon Valley has always been a key area with companies like Apple.

That doesn’t mean to say that we’re wedded to Silicon Valley. There are other areas where innovation is strong. Israel would be a good example, where government funding has incentivised businesses to innovate – but it’s still just a drop in the ocean.

Asia and India are also strong areas. But they tend to focus on engineering in their own countries and come to Silicon Valley to make sales. We also try to monitor the interesting stuff coming out of the UK – the area known as Silicon Roundabout in North London is very exciting at the moment.

But I would say that the US is still about 6 months ahead. And Silicon Valley is still very much the shop widow - about 95% of the world’s innovation can be seen here.

Q: Is the speed of innovation increasing?

MB: The phrase I use is the three Vs: velocity, volume and variety. By velocity I mean that the rate at which some companies cope with certain niche problems is incredible. Putting an application out on a mobile is very easy. And if you’re using social media as a marketing tool, you can get your product to market very quickly. Before, a product could take years to launch, now it can be immediate.

Q: Is social media good for innovation?

Social connections have always been there in the background. In the past people used their own social connections to learn and share. Then social sharing was formalised with Twitter and LinkedIn. Now it’s being used in organisations with applications like for example using Ripple to incentivise employees with prizes and so on.

Chatter from Salesforce is another example of a social media tool that works in organisations. Or Yammer, creating communities that cross over boundaries; even bringing in customers and partners to create a community or an eco-system around innovation.

Q. Is a good example of BT taking innovation on board themselves?

MB: Yes. It was used by BT Business to start with, then BT Enterprises, and now all of BT Retail. So we can say that BT use it extensively and have been for four or five years. started as a CRM programme but is now a much bigger social enterprise proposition. They made a number of acquisitions that allowed them to go to market on a social and mobile platform – a case of the innovators looking for innovations themselves.

Another example would be Nuance, the technology behind Apple’s Siri intelligent voice recognition. Nuance can be used for voice menus so instead of ‘1 for orders’ you can actually say what you want and the technology filters your call. It’s a bigger menu system hidden behind a sophisticated voice service, which allows us to direct calls much better - getting the customer to the right person much more effectively

Echo sign is a small but important example too. It’s an electronic signature service used in BT Business. Instead of faxing you can email the contract, people can sign it, and it’s legally binding. BT Business do 20,000 contracts a month using this – they’d be lost without it now.

Q: Is there a barrier to innovation?

MB: It’s easy to find innovation it’s very hard to qualify that innovation with the knowledge of what BT can cope with – that’s the value we bring.

For instance we have tried sessions where large Venture Capital companies present their portfolio. But it’s too much. The companies aren’t qualified we can’t guarantee the quality and too many questions are raised. Innovation needs to be researched in a more refined fashion.

Volume can be a barrier. There’s far more innovation than we can cope with. It’s frustrating in a good way. It’s not a fault of BT; it’s just the capacity of any enterprise to consume innovation.

Q: What do you look for?

MB: We need to make sure the product works, that the company is reliable, that the product meets the demands of our customers.

Q: Are there any interesting developments in the pipeline?

MB: There’s always something interesting. Dolby, the surround sound people, are bringing their technology to video conferencing. You’ll be able to hear a conversation much more naturally. All the conversation in a room will be perfectly clear as Dolby ‘separates’ the sound digitally.

We found them at one of the smaller trade shows. We go to a lot of the smaller ones – there are two or three a week here. Another rich area is the relationships we build with Venture Capital firms. We have regular session with them. Or it might be a serial entrepreneur who has shown us a product in the past. They’ll keep in touch and ping us with new developments.

Q: Do you have any predictions for the next big thing?

The Cloud is still big but ‘Crowd’ is the latest growth area. There’s a lot of p2p, peer to peer, lending ideas out there. Not just money, but lending anything. For example there’s a room rental service called Airbnb (Air B&B) where you can rent out your spare room – apparently they have as many as all the hotel rooms in New York.

These Crowd services grow quickly because of the social dimension. If you have a good experience, you tell everyone about it very quickly. The whackiest one I’ve seen is a car washing service. If you know where your car is going to be at a certain time, you can let the world know and someone will come out and wash your car!

What do you think will be the next big innovation for SMEs? Leave us a comment below to let us know.


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