Nokia Networks turns crazy ideas into crazy income: Sisu, Sampo and playing with others

Recently lauded with praise by CEO Rajeev Suri, Nokia Networks’ Oulu site is a long-standing example of network engineering finesse and one of the last operating radio technology factories in Europe. Innovation is one of Nokia’s values, and it means a multitude of things. Principal innovator Seppo Yrjölä divides innovation into three main categories, which he has taken from the Finnish national ethos Kalevala. “There’s Sisu, Sampo and Playfulness. Sisu – guts, chutzpah – means smart innovation; innovation by endurance, the will to create by working, trying and failing, continuously, which means plenty of minor improvements. Sampo, however, is the disruptive and creative innovation, new business, something grand. Finding out what to do and what not, getting rid of the waste. And playfulness is just the method of not excluding yourself but playing as a team, co-creating and accepting feedback.”

As product development projects tend to be quite focused, the talent used in the project can be quite similar overall. But this is different in innovation. “A piece of research from MIT showed that when recruiting people to an innovation project, their base knowledge isn’t the crucial factor, although of course it’s important. The main thing is their network, who they know and who they can talk to in order to co-innovate and gain feedback.”

Start-up-minded innovation, with a safety net

The ICT industry is at a junction with other industries. Connectivity and data management and analysis reach far and beyond both laterally and vertically, and a whole new kind of connected world is upon us – at least, if everything goes as Yrjölä predicts. “For the last fifteen years, we’ve continuously witnessed change brought about by the Internet. Nobody asked if we actually would need Twitter, Facebook or social media as a whole, but it came at a staggering pace. The next big thing is Internet of Things, connections not only between people or people and their devices, but connections between the devices themselves. The world becomes quicker with its systems, and with this pace of cycles, agility is even more important – not only in software projects, but in everything.”

This is certainly true in the start-up world of today. Failing fast and cheap has become a rule of thumb. “Maybe the biggest change is to do smaller things faster and do far more of them. For instance, in Nokia we have small dedicated teams with trust-related resources to exploit, which is in direct relation to any tech start-up, up to a venture capital-minded evaluation scheme. The only difference is that if the team fails, the people behind the idea pool don’t end up unemployed with valuable lessons learned.”

Base stations with low ping

Some innovations are improving the environment in which other innovations can be made, and those are also important: they increase workplace comfort and employee satisfaction, and reduce redundancy or time spent doing secondary tasks. However, Yrjölä goes into a clever football comparison: if everyday improvements are defense, then crazy ideas and big leaps are the offence, and “the team can’t win a match if they are only defending.” To give some perspective on the level where Nokia Networks wants people to burst into a song of ideas: recently, Nokia’s leadership launched a “crazy ideas” competition, where deployment isn’t an issue – something that science fiction fans in the world would be glad to get their hands on.

Nokia Networks’s Open Innovation campaigns have proved fruitful, with the current one in Silicon Valley already opening possibilities. The previous one in Israel brought new improvements to Nokia’s Liquid Apps platform, which is a way for a cloud service to contact the base station closest to the user, personifying the experience depending on the connection speed. Open Innovation in Israel gave a way to download a part of a game into a base station to lower the player’s ping – something every FPS player can appreciate.

Path of the ancients

At the Oulu site, iMonday is the local innovation afternoon, where people with ideas gather to gain feedback and find collaborators; an internal Mobile Monday, in a sense. And then there’s Opportunity Reviews, which are global idea pitching sessions, leading to Management Reviews, and so forth, milestone by milestone, managing the innovation tunnel and eventually making organic idea pitching into a structured business model.

“So Sisu and Sampo, very old Finnish words – for me, it’s clear what they mean. Sisu is the guts and the perseverance to finish what one has started. Sampo is the miracle machine where turning a lever gives you wheat, salt or gold. Using them with Nokia’s innovation isn’t just a coincidence.”