In this article, we explore the NTT Innovation of I-mode. Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT) is one of the leading telecommunications companies in Japan. NTT DOCOMO, a subsidiary of NTT, offers phone, video phone, internet, and mail services. NTT Docomo is the largest wireless carrier in Japan, with 82.632 million subscribers as of March 2021.
Kouji Ohboshi: The revolutionary leader behind I-mode
When Kouji Ohboshi joined NTT Corporation after completing his law degree from Tokyo University in 1979, there was a stark difference in his thought process and the environment around him. NTT’s philosophy valued consensus more than individual initiative.
The difference in the way he operated, led to a ton of conflicts and tension within the organization. He was a smart worker and had risen over the ranks, and headed different departments. But, at one point, the tension became so acute, to ease them, he was shipped off to run one of the company’s dusty divisions – Wireless Communications.
Now, this was the early 1990s, before the mobile boom. Faced with NTT’s trenchant conservatism, Ohboshi had considered resigning. But he changed his mind and reformed the division instead.
NTT Innovation came to life:
In his position as Executive Vice President and Senior Executive Manager of Corporate Communications, he budgeted more than $5 billion to build a fully digital cellular network. Then, in the mid-’90s, he unleashed a price war against rival wireless operators. Uncharacteristic for a Japanese executive, he fostered a racy corporate culture that emphasized marketing over-engineering. He hosted office parties and socialized with coworkers. He also helped build an entrepreneurial culture by replacing key managers with outsiders, many of them who sported American business degrees.
By 1992, he was promoted to President of NTT Docomo. It is said that Ohboshi would load up a box with every customer complaint form he could find and took it home for the night. He read each of these forms, and it helped him set the direction for his most radical and ambitious project – I-mode.
I-mode was an Internet-enabled wireless service, which upon its launch became an instant hit with the younger Japanese audience. When asked about the success of I-mode, Ohboshi mentioned that its success was mainly driven by the thought that the business would succeed only if we could forecast the future.
“When the company first started developing i-mode in the fall of 1996, many opposed it because business in related sectors, including mobile phone service, was going extremely well. But i-mode was a great success. It was a result of researching data communications and predicting the limits of voice communication when nobody else in the industry was doing so.” – Kouji Ohboshi
Another factor behind i-mode’s success was the fact that NTT opened its network and allowed 26,000 content providers to upload their information freely. I-mode went on to become Japan’s largest internet service provider with 58 million users.
Results of the NTT Innovation:
NTT Docomo took great strides in communications technology under the leadership of Ohboshi. The company witnessed the introduction of 2G, and 3G technologies like FOMA in 2001, which offered high-speed packet transmissions for most mobile multimedia services, and circuit-switched transmissions for video conferencing.
During his 10-year leadership at NTT DoCoMo, the company’s sales increased to 44 trillion won and its valuation reached 330 trillion won. Ohboshi retired as the chairman in 2002, and since then has been a Corporate adviser on the company’s board.
Kouji Ohboshi with his grit set an amazing example and a precedent for other intrapreneurs. In our view, he shares the spotlight with all the other intrapreneurs who have done amazing work, be it Nitin Prajanpe at HUL, Mr. Sivakumar at ITC, or George Swenson at 3M. These are just a few and there are countless others whose efforts changed the fortunes of their organization. Want to know the reason behind their success? Effective idea capture and implementation. And you can get that for your organization too.
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