Alessandro Adriani, SVP at EE / British Telecom, Visiting Fellow, Henley Business School, Faculty Member, CUOA Business School & Faculty Member, H-Farm College

Alessandro Adriani is a veteran in the technology industry, focusing on Digital Transformation. He worked at BT, Deutsche Telekom, TIM, Vodafone and Singtel, and has lived in Asia-Pac, Europe, the UK, and the US. He has 25 years’ experience, holding CEO/MD positions, with focus on Sales and Business Development, Commercial Strategy, Channels, Partnerships, and Indirect Sales / Wholesale. He personally conducted commercial negotiations on the ground in 72 countries. He has start-up experience and is adept at ‘joining the dots’ between Technology Players. Alessandro teaches Economics and Digital Transformation at Universities in Italy and in the UK.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with Higher Education Digest, Alessandro shared his professional background, current roles and responsibilities as SVP at British Telecom, insights on the common challenges faced by organisations while implementing digital transformation, significant career milestones, future plans, pearls of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Alessandro, could you please share your background and your field of expertise?

My background is quite diverse in terms of geographies where I studied, lived, and worked, from France, to Germany, Hungary, Italy, Singapore, the UK, and the US.
Similarly, it is quite diverse from the academic standpoint – having studied traditional economics (i.e., Econometrics, Political Economics, Macroeconomics, Microeconomics) at the University of Siena in Italy and at the University of Reading in the UK. Having then learnt old and new business models and corporate finance matters in a business management set of studies at different schools, ranging from Harvard Business School in the US, Henley Business School in the UK and CUOA Business School in Italy.

Lastly, in my professional journey I had the chance to operate in different technology arenas, from Cybersecurity to Enterprise-grade Fixed Line Connectivity, from Hybrid-Cloud and Multi-Cloud to Internet of Things, Mobile Telecommunication and Innovation Technology.

Brief us about your roles and responsibilities as SVP at British Telecom.

My professional journey brought me to work in the ever-evolving technology arena at the strategic consulting Arthur D. Little, and for large Telecom Service Providers Deutsche Telekom, Singapore Telecom, TIM, and Vodafone.

This is my fourth year at British Telecom, and I have had the chance to work with Global System Integrators, e.g., Accenture, Atos, CapGemini, TCS, Tech Mahindra, Wipro, XCL.
Additionally, my responsibility was to liaise with Communication Service Providers – from AT&T to Deutsche Telekom, from e& to Orange, to Telefonica, Telstra, Verizon, Vodafone – and with A2P / CPaaS / UCaaS / CCaaS players – from Genesys to Infobip, MessageBird, sinch and Twilio.

Finally, I also lead on interconnection, termination, roaming and other wholesale matters. While this may not seem sexy in the technology arena, these wholesale matters provide plenty of opportunities to optimize customer experience and at the same time capture commercial and financial rewards.

You are also a visiting faculty member at Henley Business School and CUOA Business School. Please tell us about the topics / courses taught by you and their relevance in today’s digital era?

As an alumnus of Henley Business School in the UK and CUOA Business School in Italy, these schools offered me the chance to be a Visiting Fellow and a Faculty Member, teaching Digital Transformation and supervising Master and PhD final dissertations on technology matters.

Specifically on Digital Transformation, my overarching teaching focus is on Business Transformation and not simply on moving the old/traditional modus-operandi from analogue to digital. Likewise, it is a mindset shift away from just focusing on moving the current business from on-premises to the cloud, or from traditional firewall to next-generation firewall, or from MPLS enterprise grade connectivity to SD-Wan / SASE, or from the ‘yesterday way’ of terminating / roaming / wholesaling to the new way. The emphasis is on leveraging Digital Transformation as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-think the business models and to push for flexible Business Transformation that is malleable to the evolving external environment (e.g. data sovereignty), dealing with geopolitical matters (e.g. chips disruption), ‘black swans’ (e.g. supply chain disruption) and continuously leapfrogging technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, Autonomous Driving, Blockchain, Machine Learning and many more.

Additionally, H-Farm College in Italy – a green-field undergraduate and postgraduate University re-inventing the academic learning journey from the ground up. For example, for their final dissertation, the students may create their own start-up with the help of the incubation tools, connections and expertise of professors and other serial-entrepreneurs. This opportunity allows me to study again matters from the distant past (e.g. Supply-Side Economics, Chicago Boys) through modern time lenses, and to re-apply the old traditional Micro and Macroeconomic rules to the new scenarios: e.g. David Ricardo and Heckscher-Ohlin trade models applied to the US-China trade-war; Federal Reserve and European Central Bank response to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis in terms of interest rates, open market operations, quantitative easing, helicopter money; visible and less visible short and long-term effects of Brexit.

What are some common challenges you have seen in digital transformation initiatives, and how would you address them?

There are several challenges to face. Yet, the most common can be summarized in two areas:
The first, as hinted above, is that both demand and supply, ergo customers and providers, by and large, treat digital transformation as a simple replacement of an older machine or an older technology with a new one. This mindset enormously limits the potential benefits from digital transformation: manufacturing the best dinosaur food on earth is not going to generate business return! In fact, several companies are managing an unstoppable decline and downtrend in revenues, margins, and cash flow. This is a natural knee jerk reaction to innovation: the first automobiles were carriages equipped with a steam engine! Whereas the aim of the teaching engagements is to highlight the need to leverage digital transformation to generate a revolutionary business transformation, making the most of the novelty of the digital tools in a very innovative and creative fashion. Let’s transform the whole business, and not simply add the 6th blade to the razor!

The second main challenge I have seen is, by and large, leaders and managers lacking basic training on Micro and Macroeconomic concepts. Managing businesses worth millions or billions is quite challenging without knowing the basic concepts of the economics science. Yet, many leaders / managers are quite oblivious about these economic concepts: they were given additional responsibility and climbed the corporate ladder without having a basic preparation in economics. Sooner or later reality catches up with them and results do not lie. This is a typical principal-agent problem. How many can resonate with this?

What are some key technologies or trends that you believe are important to consider in digital transformation initiatives?

That’s a very challenging question. I believe one of the key judgement-call to make is about which technologies may have a brilliant future and which ones are not going very far. There are plenty of examples of spectacular technology failures, devices, machines, standards and protocols which did not move beyond the hype phase: I describe them in the Innovation Technology session of my Digital Transformation course/material, starting from the Egyptian civilization to Roman Empire times, to the medieval times, to the contemporary times.

The technology space is very crowded and therefore the capability to distil the good from the bad, the heroes from the villains is crucial. As a general trend, I see a further proliferation of technologies, which on paper may make sense. Yet, when facing the crude reality of the world out there, they dissolve pretty quickly.

Conversely, there are technologies which come from very far and which have been refined over the long term without too much fanfare: e.g. Steven Spielberg’s A.I. movie is dated 2001; we have been using Artificial intelligence dealing with customer care bots for at least the last 5/6 years: therefore, it is challenging to call it a hype! Yet, AI got the limelight at the tail end of 2022 with ChatGPT, and its ‘democratization’ generated the Dunning-Kruger effect. Get the popcorn, fun to watch it!

What do leaders need to know and do to survive and thrive in today’s global economy?

At risk of being philosophical, I believe leaders need to be truly open-minded on several fronts, because ‘black swans’ are now more frequent than ever in the past: who could have forecasted negative interest rates a few ‘moons ago’ (and therefore the liquidity trap in terms of monetary policy)? Or who could have forecasted oil prices going into negative territory: going to a refinery with an oil tanker and being paid to take the oil away?

To be ready for these ‘black swans’, leaders need to feel the urgency to approach problems with the student ‘sponge’ attitude – learn it all – and not with the arrogant attitude – I know it all. That’s a great trait of leadership frequently forgotten or underused due to the fear of coming across as not knowing all the answers: leadership is about knowing the questions, not the answers. The subject matter experts know the answers and leaders – by definition – cannot be experts of each and every single subject.

Additionally, truly open-mindedness means to embrace different cultures: how many managers claim to have international experience even if they simply travelled abroad or if they simply worked abroad on a relatively short-term secondment for a home company, living the expatriate’s lifestyle and spending time predominantly with other expats and knowing they had a back home return ticket?
Similarly, at the cost of being repetitive, it is crucial for managers to know the basic principles of economics. Old economics science rules still apply.

What are some of the roadblocks that you faced in your career? Do you have some examples to share on overcoming them?

That’s a journey down the memory lane I haven’t done for a while. In my 25-year journey in the corporate and academic world, I have faced a plethora of roadblocks, ranging from appropriation of the limelight to rejection of financially viable / profitable business ideas, from politically driven decision-making to close-minded people, pretending to be very open-minded ones:

(a). financially viable new ventures and businesses being rejected by the investment committee because they are considered not sexy enough and ‘yesterday’ business, while being able to generate great cash flow. History took the responsibility to overcome these roadblocks. They decided to do it 5 year later, losing 5 years of margins / cash flow.

(b). witnessing good businesses on a growth trajectory being ruined because of political / land grabbing attitude has been painful. There was no way to overcome this roadblock. Yet, it has also been a great learning experience in showing a person’s true colour.

(c). academically, witnessing research projects and teaching proposals being rejected because they are unconventional / out of the box. There was no way to convince them. The only way to overcome these roadblocks was to do it elsewhere. And that’s what I did. Successfully!

The only scientific way to overcome these roadblocks is to build a parallel ceteris paribus world, like in the movie Sliding Doors. Therefore, in many cases, the best way forward is to do it elsewhere: damnatio memorie and grata rerum novitas.

What has been your most career-defining moment that you are proud of?

The most career-defining moments I am proud of are linked to unconventional decisions. For example, not presenting to the Board of Directors because it clashed with my son’s Christmas show at school. Conversely, sacrificing the road-trip of a lifetime to the US with close friends to immerse myself in a work project with great learning opportunities. Furthermore, the most defining moments are also the lessons learned from failures and from bad managers.

There are lots of lessons learnt which can be drawn upon failures and bad managerial decisions, more than the ones coming from reflecting on successes.

Ironically, I need to be ‘thankful’ to some really bad managers / professors I had to deal with over my professional and academic journey. They defined who I am and the fact I do not want to be seen as I saw them, aiming to be the senior / the professor I needed when I was a junior!

Who is the one person you look up to and why?

It would be easy to mention semi-celebrity CEOs I met during my professional journey or relatively famous Professors – a couple of which won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Actually, I look up to the life-teaching lessons I received from my parents, from my grandmother, from my father-in-law, from my kids, from some of my relatives and friends on a wide spectrum. In some cases, even if they did a different professional journey, they taught me key lessons and I genuinely believe they could have been superb managers and great university professors.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

Dwight Eisenhower used to say, ‘plans are useless, planning is indispensable’.

My planning process brought me to the conclusion that at the end of the next five years, I’ll pursue a transition to more teaching / academic activities and a smaller engagement in the corporate world. Yet, there are so many things – personally and professionally – to accomplish in the next five years, that I am fully focused on them and on the planning process to accomplish them.

One piece of advice you would like to share with aspiring professionals from your industry.

JFK: ‘Ask not what America can do for you, ask what you can do for America’.

Before JFK, Leonardo DaVinci is credited with writing the first ‘resume’ in 1482 when he wrote a letter to the Duke of Milan to gain his patronage. Leonardo focused on the Duke’s needs and Leonardo wrote what he could do for the Duke and not on what it did in the past elsewhere (which is what is included typically in CVs): ‘I will make covered chariots, safe and unattackable, which, entering among the enemy with their artillery…and behind these, infantry could follow quite unhurt, and without any hinderance’.

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