Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
February 28, 2019

MWC 2019: Themes That Should Be on Every Leader’s Radar

By Spencer Stuart's Global MWC Team

With devices such as foldable phones and goggles that augment reality taking center stage, Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona lived up to this year’s theme of “Intelligent Connectivity.” At our exclusive cocktail reception and throughout MWC 2019, we talked with leaders from across industries about how rapidly and dramatically technology has become a part of everyday life — and which mobile trends are most likely to reshape their markets, their businesses and how they lead. 

Growing from just a telecom gathering more than a decade ago, the lineup of presenters and attendees now represent the auto, financial services and entertainment industries, to name a few. This broader scope is a reliable indicator that, aside from the buzz on the latest mobile devices, technology developments have vast implications for society at large. For business leaders and their organizations, we saw four themes emerge that should command attention in an increasingly connected, mobile world.

1. Faster connectivity and disruptive innovation converge
Many of the technical innovations on display and those on the horizon will require greater connectivity and higher data transmission speed, which makes 5G the technical bedrock of the “next gen.” The consensus from MWC 2019 is that we are at the dawn of the 5G age, which will drastically increase the ability of the internet to accommodate the phones, refrigerators, cars and countless other everyday objects that people rely on.

Presentations and products from companies such as Huawei, Verizon, ZTE, LG and others drove home the ability of this new connectivity to upend entire industries, meaning business leaders have to be on the lookout for opportunities to compete — or even reinvent their organizations. Some may find themselves needing to forge unconventional partnerships and collaborate across sectors and geographies. In order to survive and thrive in this fast-paced environment, organizations may need to shift their focus and evolve their culture to one that emphasizes learning, agility and collaboration

Additionally, the concern about the cost and complexity of the disruptive innovation that accompanies 5G technology highlights the need for organizations to find the right people to develop strategy, and market and manage products in order to deliver the highest ROI on 5G initiatives.

MWC 2019 Spencer Stuart Reception
Discussing the latest mobile trends and what they mean for every industry at our exclusive reception at MWC 2019. 

2. Investments in network virtualization and automation are accelerating
The potential of 5G is vast, but every major service provider (wireless, wireline and cable multiple system operators or MSOs) is under tremendous financial pressure. Service providers are investing billions each year to meet the high-bandwidth video streams pouring into their networks from over-the-top (OTT) video providers, but those OTT players do not provide the funding for network upgrades. With intense competition driving subscriber losses and declining average revenue per user, service providers do not have the excess cash to fund new network upgrades. Their only choice to is to invest in network virtualization and automation technologies that will reduce their overall operating expenses. Software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) are two key areas related to network virtualization.

Yes, this is “plumbing” that consumers will never see or care about, but network virtualization will need to be a top priority for service providers if they are to stay financially viable. Put simply, service providers need more intelligent, flexible networks but need to take massive costs out of running them. From a talent standpoint, this means these service providers need a new generation of engineering and operations leaders who understand how to build networks with virtualization and automation technologies. This shift has been happening for almost a decade, but it is starting to accelerate and beginning to capture larger percentages of annual network capital expenditures. Executives who have the diverse skills that encompass these needs are in scarce supply. Technical expertise needs to be combined with change management in order to transform legacy networks and, in some cases, legacy thinking.

3. Artificial intelligence brings both promise and risk
Numerous sessions recognized that the development of 5G goes hand in hand with discussions of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. The uses for AI in a 5G world seem limitless, whether it’s helping to fight fraud, protect privacy, evaluate and improve processes, enhance testing procedures or help develop new solutions to existing problems. As we discussed at the event and found in our work, there is a significant people side to AI. From a talent perspective, AI and machine learning can enhance the employee experience  for example, creating a more tailored onboarding experience for new hires and helping to improve diversity by identifying a broader slate of candidates.

Nevertheless, along with promise comes risk. As one keynote session emphasized, AI is only as objective as the data provided to it in the first place. If AI is to be the interface between people and the critical services they need — or the roles they are applying for — can it be truly fair and inclusive? This puts a special onus on business leaders to clearly communicate the goals of any technologies, as well as put safeguards in place to prevent their use for questionable purposes.

In addition, tech leaders must be able to evaluate the scope and limitations of this technology, so they can advise management teams about what can — and cannot — drive their organizations forward. Companies still need a vision, forward-thinking strategy and the right people in place to maximize all of this technological innovation.

4. The customer experience becomes more crucial
A paradox of the digital world is that the human element becomes a major differentiator. Nowhere is this paradox more important to recognize than in the customer experience. 

While most people think of “next gen” connectivity largely in terms of technology, leaders discussed how it applies to people as well. As our lives become more and more digitally connected and interactive, people no longer view the way they use and consume products, services and brands as a simple exchange — rather, they are building a relationship. Trust is at the heart of every relationship, and building it is different in a physical environment than a digital one. Safety and security become table stakes in cyberspace, and authentic connections are the new currency.

With such emphasis placed on the consumer, businesses likely will continue to gravitate toward establishing new leadership roles, such as chief customer officer, that assume responsibility for the customer's holistic journey. 

Culture and leadership remain the foundation for success

Whether building 5G platforms and devices, leveraging AI, or enhancing the customer experience, it’s clear from MWC 2019 that these efforts are about more than the technology. Success will depend more than ever on an organizational culture that’s aligned with the strategy and forward-thinking leaders to navigate all these complexities and new ones on the horizon. Succession planning is especially important in this fast-changing and highly competitive landscape. Amid technological advances and innovative disruption, companies across industries will find themselves needing to bolster digital expertise on both their boards and leadership teams. The senior leaders who can build high-performing teams, and foster organizational cultures that encourage learning and innovation, are the ones best positioned to seize the opportunities of an intelligently connected world.