Monday, November 29, 2010

Absence of Persuasive Incentive

As I monitored the intermittent tweetstream from the Telco 2.0 event earlier this month in London, one exchange between attendees caught my eye. One tweeter posited, "Are telcos still mainly driven by fear?" to which another responded, "Gone beyond fear - into risk avoidance because of job insecurity." I initially thought about writing this post upon reading this exchange, but got bogged down with other projects. Then a couple of weeks later Benoit Felten suggested he was generally on the same wavelength, and this prompted further reflection.

I, and a great many others, have pilloried or mocked the industry over the years for what seem to be inherent and persistent cultural or structural inhibitors to innovation. At times I have questioned whether it was even worth the effort for telcos to try to innovate on the services front (as I stated in point nine here), given my view that their true source of cash generation is infrastructure, with their retail units merely another end customer (albeit typically the largest) for their genuinely profitable wholesale services.

Contrary to impressions some may have, based on bland conference presentations, telcos are actually populated and managed by human beings, and what I have lamentably failed to consider over the years is the influence of the basic element of human self-interest in defining their behavior. In other words, what incentives do the people inside telcos and their shareholders actually have to promote change? I'm coming to the conclusion that in this question lies the key to the issue - while pretty much everyone I know in the industry would acknowledge a need to promote change and innovation for its long-term health, there stands in the way a problematic "telco API" (Absence of Persuasive Incentive), which leads to inertia. And viewed through the lens of human self-interest, I think this is an entirely reasonable reaction.

Consider, for example, the lack of alignment between radical thinking and investor conservatism. Investors on the whole view incumbent telcos in mature markets as reliable sources of cash, like utility businesses. As an extreme example, France Telecom's dividend yield is currently 8.7%, and having just pledged to maintain the dividend at the current level of EUR1.40 for three years (from which the French government stands to collect EUR1bn per year), it is hard to see the company backing away from this. So as, say, a pension fund portfolio manager, you have a company with a reliable dividend yield higher than some of the yields on offer in the "high yield" bond space at the moment, theoretically with lower risk, so why wouldn't you want to own it? And why would you encourage the management to do something which might put that at risk, particularly if you have limited confidence in them to actually execute it? So you urge them to just keep doing what they do, better, with fewer people, and to hand over any excess cash to you, because you can invest it more efficiently than they can. I think this is a fair representation of the general attitude of institutional investors, like it or not, and I can't find many flaws with this argument on the whole, taking their position into account. They have a fiduciary duty to allocate capital among different sectors, and if they see what they regard as reckless or irrational behavior in one sector, they will put money elsewhere. So from their perspective, "If it ain't broke, don't try to fix it." That doesn't mean they don't acknowledge the longer term risks to the industry, but they are charged with protecting people's pension money in the near term and adapting to change longer term, so when they see an industry capable of pumping out this much cash for now through maintaining the status quo, they will hardly demand change which increases risk.

Even if there were a consensus from shareholders of a need for urgent action, some of the projects involved would no doubt require continuity of management over the long term (e.g., a truly committed FTTH strategy is at least a 10-year project in countries of any significant size). Contrast this with the reality among telcos - data from the US in 2009 shows that C-level IT execs in telecom have the shortest life-span of any industry, at 4.7 years, and my experience with Europe suggests the same is true here. Think about the incumbents you know, and count how many people in senior positions in 2002/3 are still there now (indeed, in 2004 the telco CEO lifespan was four years). Just thinking of the companies I have covered in my career, I would put the average tenure at under five years, and in many cases more like three. So if you're one of these people, under pressure to stabilize cash flows and satisfy your shareholders, just from the standpoint of human self-interest, what incentive do you have to promote radical change, the effects of which you know you will never be around to see or be rewarded for? If you have four years to make an impact, and a choice between investing in an emerging segment with perhaps undefined revenue opportunities (M2M, cloud, smart grid) and an OSS/BSS overhaul which you are fairly confident will lower costs against a flat/declining revenue line, I think I can guess which choice you will make. Play the game, pull down that bonus, and work on your post-exit strategy.

So the executive suite has a revolving door, the organizational chart is written in pencil, corporate governance guidelines ensure short tenures for board members, and investors on the whole don't want to derail the gravy train in the short term as they regularly reassess the long-term prospects. Arguably none of the key stakeholders is truly incentivized to look beyond the five-year time frame, perhaps with the exception of the rank-and-file employees who hope to retire with a pension, and the pension trustees themselves.

I had lunch recently with a very bright friend who has done a lot of work on the publishing industry and its attempts to get to grips with reinvention in a crater-scarred landscape of paywalls, e-readers, iPads, and smartphone apps. His platinum comment was along the lines of, "The discussion about transformation only got serious once managements were confronted with having to sack 70% of the newsroom." By which time, presumably, it is very late in the day. However, for a "beleaguered" telecom industry wherein a company like France Telecom can generate enough cash to commit to a EUR3.7bn dividend for the next three years while still having flexibility to invest in infrastructure and engage in M&A, that day still looks very far off indeed.

I, for one, feel as though my error has been in wanting too much from the telco, expecting it to react to a long-term threat with a quantum leap, when in fact, I now see, it has limited incentive to acknowledge or address anything more than a need for cautious incremental change and adaptation. I will cut it some slack in future. After all, it's only human.

1 comment:

Jeremy Penston said...

I couldn't agree more! If you want to quantify the risk aversion, ask a telco VP what their expenditure sign off limit is (even for budgeted items). Or, ask them how many people are involved in getting a business case approved.

These controls nudge rational behaviour into safe havens. If you have to ask your CxO every time you want to spend money, you make sure that what you ask for is bulletproof.

Innovation = doing something new
Doing something new = taking a risk
Taking a risk = possible failure

With the escalated approval layers, failure drags everyone down. By innovating, you are not just putting your own career on the line, you are putting everyone in the approval cycle in the same boat. As a result, they are very cautious in their analysis and sceptical of your assumptions which is quagmire for any business case.

The result is that you don't ask to do anything new, instead focusing on the safer incremental steps.

You need to have controls, but if you want innovation, you need to let intelligent human beings try something new before asking them to bet their career on the outcome.

But as you say in your piece, investors believe that they can reinvest telco profits better than telcos can themselves and want dividends now rather than growth. They have what they want, so I guess there is no problem with the lack of innovation?