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Dr Henry Tirri

HELSINKI, Finland – When I met white-suited Dr Henry Tirri, I couldn’t help contrasting him with dark-suited CEO Stephen Elop, at the head of Nokia.

Nokia’s Chief Technology Officer is an insprational one-off. He made a scientific Muggle like myself feel comfortable in his presence, even though I was aware of an intelligence and wealth of knowledge way above mine.

Dr Tirri is a free-thinking philosopher, gazing into the future, selecting areas of mobile technology Nokia should pursue.

Tirri and Elop, with their contrasting backgrounds, embody exactly where Nokia is right now as it changes its business. 

And, according to Dr Tirri, Nokia is achieving a harmonious balancing act between creativity and strict business, positioning the company to unleash some major disruptions in the mobile industry.

Celebrating 25 years of Nokia Research Center in Sunnyvale, California recently, he highlighted the ongoing importance of NRC’s contribution to Nokia’s future. 

“When I reflect on NRC’s 25th anniversary, the first thing which comes to mind is how privileged I have been to work with the inspiring people at NRC over the last seven years,” said Dr Tirri.

“NRC has developed from a single lab in 1986 to a worldwide research organization with multiple locations.

“The maturity of NRC ensures the productivity of each lab for the future. And as well as celebrating the labs’ great achievements over the last 25 years I’m really excited about what we will see from NRC in years to come.”

The power of disruptions

It’s the role of Nokia’s CTO and his organization to create Nokia’s future disruptions by looking beyond the current technological horizon.

And, as Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at the University of Helsinki and Adjunct Professor of Computational Engineering at Aalto University, Henry is well qualified to lead those efforts.

Speaking with the Finnish scientist before his appearance in Sunnyvale, he described how important “disruptions” are to Nokia.

“The technology or invention itself is never disruptive, it is the efficient application or novel business use that creates the disruption,” he says.

Dr Henry Tirri

“If you come out with something disruptive first which creates a new experience; that’s the way to make the most money. When the next players come in, the value is diluted.

“Those driving new segments usually have the advantage so it is most valuable at the beginning, but it is always time dependent, and it will always be diluted to a new level.

“It’s dangerous for any technology company to say they will always be satisfied with following others and doing it better.”

Key to investment

Henry says there are two approaches to research, empirical and artistic.

“There are two extreme approaches. You have a very strict innovation process using metrics as a filter. You can measure the market, the demand and weigh it all up. Is the innovation going to be important? That’s the process end. The other end is the hugely creative and visionary part where you drive something with uncertain pay-off and risk which is hard to predict.

“You say OK, I believe this is our best bet. I believe this is the right thing to do. Both approaches have their challenges. The creative part is very good if you have someone with this extraordinary ability and visionary skill.

“But I don’t know a single person who has consistently done it. Not even the late Steve Jobs managed it. But of course he was an exceptional individual.

“The other approach is that you have a big portfolio with a huge amount of experiments and have thousands of products, but it’s very hard to be truly disruptive with developments like this because they all average out.”

Wise bets

So, for Henry, it’s vital to take risks and make a few, large-investment bets.

“Strategy and big vision should be pushed by a few individuals,” he says. “Somebody needs to make the decision to bet on a particular area, say, connectivity. So you need this combination of a scientific and artistic approach at the same time.”

And in Henry’s view, Nokia and NRC are in a great position now.

“We are making wise bets, even though it is not yet clear whether each will pay off. The artistic wisdom is to choose the area to invest in; the science comes in to do the work within these areas, to make the bets pay off. NRC makes it possible for Nokia to make bets over a wide spectrum of topics.

Nokia Research Center blueprint

“I always believe there’s an era for research organizations. And Nokia Research Center’s focus is at the core of the era of mobility.

“This is a winning combination, if you have the proper competencies and maturity at the time that it’s needed most.

“If you come too early to market nobody can utilize, value or even recognize the product for what it is. If you come late with a time lag of several years, by the time you have caught up, the world has moved on.”

It’s all about the timing

Henry cites examples of Nokia getting things correct in the right era such as radio, GSM and 3G. It’s impossible to calculate just how big these disruptions were in the mobile industry.

But he admits that touchscreen was an example of getting something right at the wrong time.

“We were a bit early with some of the user interfaces like swiping and touching. Back in ’95 and ’96 the screen technology for the use cases was wrong. The screens at that time were tiny.

“In some sense you could say that the vision was ahead of its time. But then of course the question is about revisiting the vision later on when it becomes possible.

“This is a good example of how critical timing can be.”

As to what Nokia has in the ideas bank at the moment, Henry is not giving anything away. He will only hint that there’s plenty. And Nokia has the business talent in the shape of Steven Elop and other senior leaders to develop them.

“One of the things I learned from our friends at Microsoft is that there is this notion of a research organization maturing,” he says. “It reaches a maturity when it starts really producing things. It’s almost like human evolution, so after 25 years you become really productive.

“I believe NRC is at a very productive stage. It’s much broader than it used to be. It’s learned and widened its scope globally. It’s widened its domains of research from radio and networking to User Interface and nanoscience, form factors and growth economies.

“So it’s a real adult now.”

As for the future?

“It’s not any one thing. The future is more and more related to moving physical things to the digital world,” he says.

“This trend is accelerating now, because of mobile computers and the sensors in them. So what we see now is that location is moving to the digital world.

“So your context and what you sense in your environment is all becoming digital.

“We are going to be able index the physical world in the same way we index documents.

“There will be far more interplay between the digital world and the physical.

“The reverse side of sensors means that you can also impact the physical world. Take traffic for example, if you move traffic measurement into the digital world and then you feed that back to people, it changes their physical behavior.”

Nokia’s challenge

He says Nokia’s biggest challenge is in finding the best places in the value chain to extract the value.

“Nokia’s challenge is to decide in which parts of this physical to digital transformation to play.”

It could be in one of three areas, the data, the handset, or in creating the connections to share the information.

And Nokia is at the forefront in all three areas. So the value could lie in combining all three into one disruptive device.

“Bringing all three together into a seamless consumer experience will be the ideal solution,” he says.

For more about Dr Henry read his quickfire question interview.