“Innovation for me is simple – it is about answering a customer’s need. There is no point in innovating for the sake of technology. We must approach innovation without losing focus on what the end impact will be, and this may never have a clear endpoint.”
Asking Arnauld Blondet for his definition of innovation, I was not expecting to receive such a precise, clear and unerringly simple answer.
Speaking as Chief Innovation Officer for the MEA region at multinational tech giant Orange, Blondet, who I was scheduled to meet at Mobile World Congress before COVID-19 brought about its postponement, quickly backed up his response with a reference to when he first landed the job back in 2008.
“One of the first things we launched 12 years ago was mobile money, and we are by no means finished in this space. We have launched apps, new digital B2B services and customer experience innovations – all very different things, but what underlines all of them is the focus on customer needs.”
For Blondet and Orange, innovation is all about challenging ideas and presenting them to the customer from the outset.
This can (and does) involve making errors, but centres around a desire to think big and willingness to start small, seeking feedback every step of the way, right up until the product or service is live and impacting the end consumer or client.
Indeed, it is this end result, and seeing the ideas bear fruit, that motivates the Chief Innovation Officer on a daily basis.
“Orange is a fantastic company to be with,” Blondet continues. “Within my role in particular, I find our work in Africa especially fascinating and rewarding. The scope of what we do is very wide – we are in 18 countries on the continent, and each country has its unique characteristics. Every day we engage in different conversations.
“We are creating solutions which impact people in their everyday life. Digitisation, especially of aspects of life such as finance with mobile money, is making a big difference. What inspires me the most is seeing customers who tell me that our services are working for them.”
Interestingly, Blondet’s background is not a strictly technological one.
Formally educated in marketing and law, he has been with Orange since the millennium, starting out as a Sales Director in the company’s distribution business before moving into a marketing function in 2006.
Although many might assume that a Chief Innovation Officer at a blue-chip tech firm would carry a heavily tech-oriented upbringing, it is clearly no coincidence that Orange’s approach to innovation is so client driven. “I’m not a technology-only person,” Blondet adds. “For me, technology is means of finding solutions, and my focus is on finding solutions no matter what the difficulty, very much with a customer-oriented focus.”
A sizable chunk of this work occurs through the Orange Labs network. A multinational and multicultural ecosystem, it is present on four continents and ideally placed to detect changes in local usage and catch innovative new technologies at source.
“Today, for example, I am speaking to you from Paris where we have a lab, and we also have teams in the UK, other regions of France, Jordan, Ivory Coast, Tunisia and Egypt in the EMEA region,” Blondet says.
“These teams are staffed by technical experts from the countries and markets near to where they serve, so we are always close to the customer. We can talk about innovation in terms of the number of patents, which stands at around 7,000, but for me it is about much more than that. It is about the impact of the innovation which generates the patent.
“Another of our focusses is what we call open innovation. We appreciate that we are not the only ones with good ideas, and that we cannot be fast enough and reactive enough if we do everything alone. This means that working within an ecosystem of partners is really important.”
This brings the Chief Innovation Officer onto Orange Fab, a platform connecting startups to corporations for strategic investment and partnership opportunities.
Rather than invest directly into such companies (which is the remit of Orange Digital Ventures), Orange Fab provides access to global enterprises, events, expertise, a business trip to Paris, on-demand office space and much more, the organisation with successful collaborations in Cameroon, France, Israel, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Poland, Romania, Spain and Senegal, to name but a few.
“Our aim is to be in all of our African markets,” adds Blondet. “The ultimate ambition is to develop these startups into co-businesses for our customers, and that starts with selecting the right company to partner with.
“For instance, do they answer a problem for our customers? Once on board, we give them what we call food and beverage to accelerate their development over a typical period of around six to nine months. We have local teams dedicated to Orange Fab, teams which will only continue to grow in terms of their impact on the local market and our ability to serve them.”