Skip to main content

Fast forwarding our digital agenda

Ruza Sabanovic,
EVP and Chief Technology Officer, Telenor Group


When COVID-19 hit, Nokia customer Telenor Group took a leap, accelerating its digital agenda by about three years in a matter of days. In this session, Telenor’s Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Ruza Sabanovic, tells us how they’re working with Nokia to speed up even more, using the cloud to their digitalize operations allowing them to meet the needs of their customers even in challenging times.


18 minute read


Hello everyone, and thank you for the opportunity for Telenor to be present today with you. In Telenor, we exist to connect you to what matters the most - empowering society. And while I have this nice opportunity to spend time with you, our more than 18,000 colleagues are working very hard every second, every minute, to provide good quality, reliable and secure services that are relevant and that matters to them across our nine markets in Asia and Europe.

More than 87% of the data traffic that you see that is being produced while we are talking here is served from the Telenor Hybrid Cloud Platform developed in the joint collaboration with Nokia. Let us start with reflecting a bit - where are we today? And March 2020, has been the time that a lot of things has changed. And what we want to talk about is the way how the COVID has impacted the way Telenor runs the business and what changes we have been exposed to in this period.

But before we touch upon that, let us first go to Bangladesh. So welcome to Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a country of more than 160 million inhabitants. And Telenor through its affiliate, Grameenphone has the majority of our customer base, more than 75 million active subscribers. It's a quite cash heavy market and the economy is built on physical interaction, and that applies for our industry as well. So, in order to buy the service, recharge the services you need to go to the small shops, the cigarette stands in order to perform that.

Now adding that into the perspective of COVID, you will realize that quite a few hundred thousand of the point of sales that we have in Bangladesh have been not reachable to our customers. And half of those shops in March, when the COVID hit, got closed and that had the major impact on a million of our customers. And one of those customers is the gentleman that we see on the picture. It's Rad Sharar Bin Kamal, who is, we can say a representative of majority of our customer base.

So, who is Rad? Rad, is a young professional, still not able to get the postpaid card so he's having a prepaid, recharging two to three times a week, using data for his main services besides voice. And he has a bank account, which is very important for Bangladesh. And he's also using the largest mobile wallet payment provider, bKash.

In the context of the situation of COVID, where access to the physical recharge is closed, there is a major challenge for all our customers to continue the lifestyle used before the COVID-19. So what's the job that we need to do in order to enable our customer and to enable, and connect our customer to what matter the most is to basically connect them all over the digital channels and digital platforms. But that is easier said than done. Knowing that we are in Bangladesh and knowing the fact that this is still the cash economy and the physical interaction does matter.

So what happened? In order to really develop that interaction - now we are moving from the physical to digital interaction - our colleagues in Bangladesh in Grameenphone needed to act very fast, but not only to act fast we needed to build as well, the capabilities that Bangladesh and Grameenphone didn't have before to the extent required now - which is the payment.

So they had to connect to quite a few of the payment solutions, including bKash and the banks in order to communicate to our customer the other opportunity to basically use the services that Grameenphone has.

It took them only a few days in the COVID time - complete lockdown - to enable our customer to connect to the platform and use the payment methodology and get the services and recharge that they want. And what was the achievement? Basically 50% of the recharge has been increased in my app - it's the GP app where the customer has been using it for the connecting for the GP services, Grameenphone services. So, we saw a significant surge in the traffic in that application. And we saw as well that 43% plus recharge growth across all the digital platform. It was on the GP Grameenphone app, MyGP, but as well on the websites.

So, what did this actually show to Telenor? That in case of need, and in case of urgency, the adaptation and shift for the established practices and dealing with the physical interaction is possible. So, the change is driven by the need of it. And we saw that our customers found a way, first of all to conclude the whole customer journey, get the payment at the same time to fulfil their needs and connect to the services that matters the most for them.

“We strongly believe that our purpose of existence, which is again connecting you to what matters the most and empowering society, stands much stronger than ever before.”

But Bangladesh is just one of our nine markets that have been hit with the same challenge. And it's just one of many markets across the globe that they were exposed to the same challenge. And that's why we strongly believe that our purpose of existence, which is again connecting you to what matters the most and empowering society, stands much stronger than ever before. And it is very important for us to say that, to do that, it is not only Telenor that needs to act, it is the whole ecosystem and partners that we are connected.

But before we dig a bit more on the consequences and implication on the COVID-19 on our business model, and the way how we serve our customers, we would like to touch upon a bit what we have done before the COVID and what we believe set Telenor to perform maybe better than the others in those markets.

Telenor has embarked on the modernization and digitalization journey since 2016. And we have been very clear in our ambition that digitalization is the way to go, acknowledging all the challenges that are going to be met on our journey and as well, the need to spend enormous time and efforts for us to as well, perform the proper adaptation and adjust to the markets where the digitalization and the payment is not present to the extent it is required.

So, starting with the technology very early in 2016, we have made the very clear decision and direction that we are moving to the cloud-based scalable networks. What does it mean? You saw that Nokia has been our selected partner since 2016. Today we have more than 87% of the whole data traffic generating Telenor network in nine markets being served from the Telenor hybrid platform which is done together with Nokia. And we believe by moving all the applications and both network and IT, we are enabling a very scalable, very efficient and much faster solution and services to our customer. 55% of our network workload is now operated from the cloud setup and close to 40% of the IT applications. The second pillar, that we have put quite a lot of focus, is digitalization of the customer journeys. My Telenor app adopted across the markets has been the main engagement platform and main engagement tool for us to communicate and serve our customers.

And we saw during the COVID that My Telenor, or as we heard MyGP, My Grameenphone app served the purpose and basically got quite a bit of the effect of coming and staying closer to our customer in the digital world, and still maintaining good quality services, and dealing with the requirements, and requests of our customer timely, providing the relevant services.

That journey will continue. And we are now digitalizing, not only the interaction towards the end users, but the whole supply chain and the whole sales, and distribution channels, digitalizing all the introductions with our partners across. But to do that, we as well believe that we need to modernize the way how we work and that we need to change our organizational setup to deal with that.

Of course, agile way of work is integrated in everything, what we do, but we are going even beyond that, introducing a flexible way of work and different expectations - we will touch upon later - on the leadership in this challenging time to really empower as well our employees and show the trust for them to execute what is expected from us.

And of course, building the needed competencies and capabilities. So, 15% of our total workforce is basically working in those identified critical competencies among which is customer-facing IT, data analytics, cybersecurity, cloud, et cetera, et cetera.

And the last one is the smart investments. How do we use all the intelligence and all the AI that we have developed and been working on with our partners in order to make the right choices and invest where it matters the most, as well at the same time, based on the scale and the volume gained build the centralized capabilities in procurement - our Telenor Procurement Company - to really accelerate and deliver on those synergies and value for Telenor.

So we have been working on that since 2016, very diligently, but we as well realized that by doing and working with all of these capabilities, we are able to deliver the services where it mattered to our customers in the most difficult time during COVID. So just some examples to share with you.

Five out of our nine business units were providing the services completely remote. There was a no manned staff on the NOC and the SOC of the Telenor operation, which of course would not be possible if you have not embarked on our journey on the common delivery center and working among others with Nokia in Pakistan and in Denmark in order to really automate and bring the AI and machine learning in all our operational processes, as well as the processes that are servicing our customers.

But all nine business units basically has those capabilities and has the setup and processes that can operate remotely. Not only that we can operate our network remotely, but it is very impressive to see that not a single business unit has a delay in their roll out and development, and capacity plans. So all the radio planning processes, all the optimization and all the processes to serve the customer in the best way has been running as planned.

It's not only network that has been impacted, and we heard the story about Bangladesh, but that story is common across all our markets. Now we are in Malaysia where suddenly the whole of Malaysia got into lockdown and our customers could not reach the point of sales or the customer center in order to deal with their challenges. So, the whole customer centers were moved to homes. So the call centers were able to perform all the customer requests and complaints remotely because we have been doing this modernization, and because we enable our call center agent to use those tools remotely and to serve the customers so that we stick to our promise, which is reliable services that are relevant and that are important for our customers.

We saw a major surge, particularly in Asian business unit, in data. In say, Malaysia, we went up to 40% data traffic increase during the peak of the lockdown and concentrated in the home and the urban areas. To serve that, we understood that we need to open up the channels to our customers.

So only in four days, our Malaysian DG team managed to basically migrate the DG shops to online shops. And using the Facebook and WhatsApp and other social media, connect to our customer, inform them and direct them to online shops so that we, first of all, can serve their needs, can communicate to them, stay connected - particularly important in the challenging time of COVID - keep the information flow to them and enable them to purchase the services that they like. Again, something that we, before COVID and before 2016, though it is a long journey ahead. Again, building the competencies and capabilities systematically is paying out.

But it is again, not about the network and it's not about the sales and distribution, it also boils down to the people. How do we operate? How do we run the business? How do we interact internally? It's extremely important, knowing that more than 90% of Telenor employees, as well as our partners are working from home. How do we basically equip our employees with the proper tools, with the proper dialogue and connection to Telenor in order to perform their jobs? Because none of our activities for 2020 have been basically put on hold or postponed due to the COVID. And to do that we definitely need a different type of leadership, and we need a different way of interacting with our colleagues.

Video becomes our new tool which luckily worked quite well but as well we needed to make sure that each of these instances are secured so that each of our employees and the data of Telenor and our customers are handled in a trusted and secured way. And at the same time, basically enable our teams and our employees to perform their job through empowerment and trust-based leadership.

Leaders are expected of course, to set the right directions. And that's our new concept that is launched, tight-loose-tight, where in the first tight we set a very clear directions and expectations. Then we empower our employees to the trust-driven leadership to deliver on the expected ambitions. And then on the last tight, have a proper, a follow-up and measurement of the challenges, but as well of the great results that we were able to achieve in the challenge time.

It's been quite an intense time for all of us and times of really accepting and acknowledging the situation we are in, but at the same time, fantastic learning for all Telenor customers, as well as the employees. And we strongly believe that based on those learnings, we should take a leap and think forward because as we know the saying, "We could not afford to basically not maximize the opportunity of the crisis and get maximum out of it."

So, we have developed certain beliefs based on the digitalization and modernization journey that we've been on since 2016, but as well given time from March till today. And we would like to share those beliefs with you going forward.

“No matter where we are, if we are in developed or in emerging market, the customers they'll be served faster than ever before, because they will be connected to those digital platforms and adaptation will go faster than what we think.”

So, the first one is very clear. No matter where we are, if we are in developed or in emerging market, the customers they'll be served faster than ever before, because they will be connected to those digital platforms and adaptation will go faster than what we think. And one of the reasons is that there will be more opportunities to do that. And we saw the example, even in Bangladesh and across Asia, where we were able to make those shifts in a rather first time.

Will the physical interaction disappear? We don't believe that. However, even the physical interactions we believe we need to make much more faster and effective. That's why we are embarking on the accelerated program to digitalize all our sales and distribution, and customer-facing processes and tools in order to serve better and faster our customers.

Technology has been developing and has been improving year over year, decade over decade for the last more than 165 years in Telenor. So why is this technology different than previous? Because this technology is not only enabling the change in the telecom industry. This technology is creating the opportunities for the development of the whole ecosystem and many different industries, both in the private and the public sector. And that's what we see.

And that's why we see the radical move when it comes to maximizing the value of this technology and making sure that it's properly used within our own internal value chain but as well within the ecosystem and applying those learnings to the other industry. So this will impact not only the telco industry, it will impact all the industries across the globe.

And we talk about the people and the organization. And the only way going forward is trust and full reliability on everything that we do, starting with our teams, our employees but as well trust in the customers. And that's why Telenor is building it's journey, in order to deliver the same.

“As we say in Telenor, it will never stop. We can always do better. We can always do faster and more efficient today than what we did yesterday.”

Having said that, we are fully acknowledging and dealing with the challenges along the way because we know that this journey is not over and it will last for quite some years ahead. Or as we say in Telenor, it will never stop. We can always do better. We can always do faster and more efficient today than what we did yesterday.

So there is a lot of dilemmas that we as well are fully aware and dealing with, like a digital inclusion, the fight for the new talents and skills that are required to run this new operating and business model, and of course, the transforming the technology into the enablers and maximizing the value of every single part of the technology that we are building. But more importantly is we are fully aware that there is no one big enough to act on its own. And that's why collaboration is the key for us to succeed. Not only within Telenor and across our markets but with our peers, with the industry and with the other industries and ecosystem, that's the only way to succeed in this new digitalization era.

And this is the only way to really foster and focus on innovation because we strongly believe that innovation is driven by diversity, different backgrounds, different views, different experiences and different knowledge and skills, will make sure that if included, will create the growth, not only for Telenor but for the whole industry. And there are a lot of opportunities.

So automation is not going to take away our jobs. Automation and artificial intelligence is going to develop different skillset in each of us human beings which are much more required to run the business. The soft skills, which will enable us through collaboration and through a focused approach, deliver what we set for our ambition.

And to conclude. Telenor is making a focus in four areas. We say we connect to what matters the most and what we believe that that connection will be digital. Again, not that there will not be a physical interaction, but all those interactions even when they meet will be through the digitalized means and the channels. And making the services that we can rely on and trust will be the key differentiator, as well going forward.

We are looking for a seamless operation across the boundaries. And of course, technology, be it 5G, be it cloud, and be it the artificial intelligence will enable that seamless operation. But again it is the people that will basically connect those dots and make that seamless experience and seamless development going forward.

That's why it's extremely important that we talk about the new skills, new expertise, but as well, new leadership merits and values that we want to have. And as we said this tight-loose-tight concept in the flexible way work where we through the foundation of trust and enable each of us to perform what we know the best and contribute to the Telenor benefits, as well not only Telenor as we said, it is going beyond the telecom industry and impacting and changing the lives, both business and private, of many people in the countries where we operate and beyond.

But we say safety first. And this is very important. Security and privacy by design, from the idea to the realization and operation, and making sure that we can provide the full control and full awareness of our customers that we are protecting the interests and data about them.

And as we say in Telenor, it's not about the talk it's about what you do - so each of us, every employee - and we are transferring the same values to our partners. We need to walk the talk. While we are always exploring by working together, we need to deliver on our promise - key promises, in the respectful way. Thank you very much.