Warc Blog

Flexible R&D model delivers for AT&T

3 July 2012
NEW YORK: AT&T, the telecoms giant, is generating an increasing number of innovative products via a model that taps the ideas of staff throughout its operations, and shares any resulting revenue with them.

The communications group operates a system called TIP –  or "The Innovation Pipeline" – which uses the principles of crowdsourcing to generate R&D proposals from its employees.

Some 54 projects have received funding through this programme which allows staff members to vote for their favourite propositions on an internal system. Eight proposals have received a full launch thus far.

Over 120,000 people in the company participate in voting for these proposals, with senior executives assessing the most popular suggestions, and holding a "speed dating" investment pitch for the best.

A recent example of this process is Toggle, an app for smartphones and tablets enabling mobile users to have two "personas" on one mobile device. It is aimed at customers who want to switch between home and work profiles without changing phones.

This application was formulated by Doug Ring, director of AT&T's network operations in Dallas, who experimented with this type of tool as a result of his personal experience in facing this problem.

"I was just kind of doing it for fun," he told Fast Company. "My dilemma was that I get called at all times of the day and night, but I also have a life. I'd like to have single device to be able to move between them."

Having posted details about this idea online, Ring received votes and suggestions from colleagues around the world. He was then asked to make a presentation to John Donovan, AT&T's senior executive vice president of tech and network operations.

"At the end, John Donovan said, 'The time for this idea is now.' I was like, 'Oh my god, this is serious, this guy really wants to do something with this,'" Ring said.

The result was an award of $450,000 and a timetable to deliver a prototype. Ring received help in this endeavour from collaborators on the TIP system who had already helped shape his idea, which is now available to the firm's 27,000 business customers.

"That's the beauty of it. The people who looked at the idea were the ones interested in doing it," he said. "If you think about it, given the short time frame to turn something around, you have to identify the scope of what is within reality."

Google is one company that pioneered this approach, empowering staff to pursue the "20% time" principle and spend a fifth of their working hours on pet projects.

Other companies in the technology sector and beyond have also started "hackathons", or ideation sessions, attended by a diverse range of staff, with the aim of formulating new models. Unilever, the FMCG group, is one firm that has recently embraced this idea.

Data sourced from Fast Company; additional content by Warc staff

 
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