How Deutsche Telekom Inspires and Accelerates Innovation

Putting the business of innovation outside the business
How Deutsche Telekom Inspires and Accelerates Innovation
Publ. date 4 Aug 2014
Managing and spurring innovation is a prerequisite for success within the telecommunications environment - characterized by fast evolution and continuous change. But how do you deal with the challenge of accelerating innovation when you employ over 230,000 people spread across 50 countries? Finch & Beak spoke with Julia Leihener, Senior Service Design Manager & Head of Creation Center at the Deutsche Telekom Innovation Laboratories, to find out how Deutsche Telekom ensures its continuous company-wide innovation capability.

Located in Berlin, away from the company’s corporate headquarters in Bonn, the Telekom Innovation Laboratories, or “T-Labs” in short, are the central research and development unit of the company. This is the place where Deutsche Telekom works on its future, for instance in partnership with Berlin's Technical University. However, the T-Labs do not just approach innovation from the technical, product-design perspective. A broader focus on the subject is characterized by two specific subsets of T-Labs: the Creation Center and startup accelerator and incubator hub:raum.

The Creation Center, lead by Julia Leihener, develops new product ideas for Deutsche Telekom with an extreme focus on customer needs. At the Creation Center, the users’ everyday lives, with all their facets and needs, are the center of all considerations and projects. In the co-creation process, the users are integrated actively into the ideation phase. The Center somewhat serves as an internal agency that develops concepts on a project base, consisting of a series of workshops with managers and the application of a business design thinking process.

Making innovation happen with a balance between agility and fertility

Being distanced from the corporate center of the company is vital to be agile and have the freedom to work independently, but you need to have a connection to make sure the developed ideas land on fertile ground. “One of the secrets is the step-by-step involvement of selected key influencers ”, comments Julia. Strong business involvement is a key step in the Creation Center approach to bring in internal expertise, to ensure buy-in for actual realization of the project, and to prevent a silent “not invented here” death in the concept phase.

Deutsche Telekom’s startup accelerator program hub:raum offers entrepreneurs the opportunity to kick start their young companies, an approach similar to Telenet Idealabs. The cross fertilization between hub:raum and Deutsche Telekom is realized in various ways, such as:

  • Applying candidate startups pitch their ideas to managers of Deutsche Telekom in order to get selected for the program
  • Regular events where the startups present their work
  • Involvement of the startups as experts in company projects

In this manner, Deutsche Telekom is realizing a ‘return on culture’, while the startups remain independent enough to play their own game.

Another way of spreading innovation influence is the involvement of senior management in Creation Center workshops. As a result, business design thinking and the agile thinking approach has started to spread across the company.

Two innovation success stories at Deutsche Telekom

While hub:raum, launched in 2012, is still proving its concept, the Creation Center is now in business for six years and has worked on more than 100 projects. With an average launch time of 2-3 years and many ideas being transformed while going through the different stages before they reach market, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact output of the Center.

One of the most visible success stories of the Creation Center so far is the eEtiquette. This was initially a design research innovation project, initiated by the Creation Center itself. The project’s intermediate results - transferring the user insights into behavioral guidelines for interactions with digital media in society - were then ‘discovered’ by the innovation communication department, and pushed by an extensive innovative communication campaign as a result. The project resulted in a great user community, enriching the debate and further service development, and was even rewarded with a renowned German PR prize.

Another example of the traces left by the Creation Center on Deutsche Telekom is that employees at the company’s headquarters have started to build ‘creation corners’: spaces that enable them to work on creative projects, recreated after the way of working at the Center.

What about sustainable innovation?

Sustainability is reflected in several facets of innovation at T-Labs. On the one hand, the Labs work on sustainable solutions such as green technologies and smart homes, but there is also attention to sustainability in terms of methodology. The Creation Center is built on three columns: 'Innovation-Communication-Education'. Involving the communication divisions at an early stage helps to share innovation developments internally as well as externally, contributing to scaling the Creation Center output. Furthermore, the Center’s education activities make sure that the innovation mindset and tools are being spread and enabled within the company.

By combining design thinking with futurology, the T-labs also work on innovations that are aimed at the long term, up to ten years ahead. Using backcasting techniques, the company is able to translate these “2020-concepts” into concrete and current steps to be taken towards realization.

Looking ahead: shaping the future by increasing impact

Being well aware that Deutsche Telekom’s network remains its core business, Julia sees plenty of innovation potential and opportunities to accelerate the success of the Creation Center. More resources and a larger team would be welcome, but a serious increase in impact could be realized by creating a more high-level connection directly to top management. In any case, the new corporate strategy and the visionary goal of becoming the leading European telecommunications provider bring plenty of opportunities for further development of innovation at Deutsche Telekom.

More on innovation at Deutsche Telekom can be found on the Telekom Innovation Laboratories website.

Image source: Flickr

About Nikkie Vinke

Multidisciplinary advisor in ESG benchmarking, sustainability strategy development and execution. | nikkie@finchandbeak.com

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