Technological acceleration and emerging uses impose new modes of development. This fundamentally changes the way a company like Orange innovates. But agility is not enough. It also requires an integrative R&D, involving both all actors along the value chain. R&D becomes a permanent conversation with society.
Paris Innovation Review – You lead the Orange Group innovation and research, which has started developing “agile” methods. Can you explain how and why you have transformed your mode of operation?
Mari-Noëlle Jego-Laveissière – We have indeed changed our way of working in recent years. Previously, to develop a new product, we took the time to build a very precise specification. Then we developed the service or product for six months to a year before testing it. Today we define what a “Minimum Sustainable Project” is and then we quickly put the product on the market. This allows us to evolve our service or product according to customer reaction. It is a more iterative mode of development. This fundamentally changes how we innovate. This applies to both our B2B and B2C offers.
Could this development have been envisaged ten years ago?
What is certain is that this evolution is made possible by technological advances. Instead of manufacturing our products in a single block, we rather produce small bricks, micro-services that customers are proposed to assemble, a bit like Lego. Technological developments combined with this iterative process with the customer, now at the heart of our development, have evolved our entire R&D path. For Orange, it is a real revolution. In any case such agility is necessary nowadays because the life cycles of the products have greatly shortened.
Can you describe the organization of the group’s research? Where are the researchers, how do they work?
630 researchers are mobilized on research subjects, with a wide range of skills (radio, optic fiber, software, cloud, Big Data and artificial intelligence, but also sociology, economics or design…). Orange’s research has a responsibility that goes beyond technological innovation: participate in the building of a fully digital and human future. We have created three research platforms that integrate an important part of our work and in which our researchers, but also other corporate leaders, are integrated, exchange and progress together.
The first platform is called Thing’In. It’s about IoT. Its challenge: connecting together connected objects un order to create new services. This requires, among other things, developing tools that qualify and categorize connected objects, but also designing a web search engine for objects and defining the management rights and access control of these objects.
Our second platform, Home’In, is organized around the sensitive home. We are working on building an experimental home where technologies and their uses will be deployed and tested.
Finally, the third platform, Plug’In, deals with ambient connectivity and 5 G. Since networks are called upon to become software functions using cloud and artificial intelligence technologies, our design and steering of networks must be reinvented.
You have developed the concept of integrative research. What do you mean by that?
Integrative research is an open research, involving broadly those in the value chain and society to design research as a whole. This means that we are thinking upstream about the links and interactions of technological bricks between them, but also with users. Understanding these relationships and interactions means being in constant conversation with society, building a research that listens carefully to human needs and understanding the current changes.
And how do you integrate this to prospective activity?
We do not have a prospective department. But we have marketers, a market watch activity, sociologists who observe new uses around the world, and all these people work together. We also have an intelligence marketing department that identifies and decrypts all emerging technologies worldwilde.
Your core business, the networks, is changing. What is the impact for a group like Orange?
Currently each network function has physical equipment and dedicated software in the network. In the future, all network functions will be embedded into a layer of software above the network that will turn to standardized equipment hosted in different remote datacenters. This is called virtualization.
Thanks to this transformation, we can gradually offer new services to our customers. For example, it is now possible for our business customers to increase the bandwidth of their fixed network directly from a web application, while till recently this operation required the physical intervention of a technician on their site.
These virtualization actions of our network also allow us to prepare the 5 G. With artificial intelligence solutions, the 5 G network will have advanced predictive features that will allow it to automatically adapt network capacity, for example, depending on the number of people going to a sporting event or present in the stadium.
Does that mean that Orange is slowly becoming a software company?
Since the software is increasingly present at all levels of the company, I have indeed declared in-house that we will become a software company. This evolution towards more and more software requires a transformation of our corporate culture, which will have to integrate the codes of the software world. Of course, it is a question of finding a link with our basic culture. Orange will ultimately be a hybrid company, a software company, but not only.
How do you do that?
We have developed a training plan that will involve 20,000 people in three years. Software is like a new language. To understand each other, our engineers, our marketers, our customer relationship specialists need to share common vocabulary and grammar. It is imperative to work in project mode. For example, the “Minimum Sustainable Product” I mentioned earlier is typically the vocabulary of a software company. In this training plan, there are also more advanced training for those whose trades are transformed by the software. This is the case with designers for example. Their trade will continue – they will continue to define customer interactions on the portal – but it will evolve. They will gradually need to learn to deliver their services in the form of a code to make them available to developers in a library.
What are your priorities for research and innovation today?
Our innovation priorities are divided into three axes.
First of all, we pay particular attention to maintaining the excellence of our technological base to offer the best connectivity to our users according to their context: at home, in mobility and in businesses… This is an essential condition to ensure an incomparable quality of service on services above the network.
Then we do everything we can to ensure a simple and fluid customer relationship: in this field, personal assistants, for example, are powerful tools to rethink our relationship with our customers … With text or with a voice command, from their remote control, smartphone or TV, it becomes progressively possible, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, to interact everywhere, all the time and in a fluid and personalized way with Orange.
Finally, we rely on these assets to offer innovative services that make sense to our customers. This may affect the evolution of communication services, the services of the connected house, the connected city, the autonomous car, or the services to companies with the Internet of things or networks on demand.
Managing Orange’s R&D in such an intense period must be exciting and require some intellectual agility. How does a typical day take place?
There’s no typical day! Overall, it’s about identifying major technological breakdowns, assessing opportunities for the group, and working in close proximity to countries to put innovations in the hands of our customers. Innovation is built on a day-to-day basis with partners, and it is also part of my mission.
You are navigating, too, in an engineers’ company, which means, practically, a men’s world of men.
It is true that the feminization of the world of engineers is a real issue, especially in the network teams where there are only 13% women. At Orange, this has been a major concern for ten years. There are 35% women in the group. What is important to me is that this rate is the same within the hierarchy. Besides, our high potential profiles are not feminine enough. With the rate of women in engineering schools not exceeding 30%, this is a real challenge.
Your journey proves that this is not impossible.
Yes, that is far from impossible, and we must continue to encourage women in the scientific sectors. Digital shapes tomorrow’s world, and it is important that it be shaped by women as well as men.
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