Maintaining Investment Confidence in a Time of Economic and Social Challenges – Some Past Lessons from the Telco Industry – Adaderana Biz English | Sri Lanka Business News

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By JDKRuwandika

7e The Interdisciplinary Conference on Management Research (ICMR 2022), organized by the Faculty of Management Studies (FMS) of Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka (SUSL), came to a formal close on 16e & 17e November 2022. Mr. Seneviratne, Group Managing Director of Sri Lanka Telecom PLC was one of the distinguished guest speakers at the 7e ICMR 2022. He informed the conference by providing insights and expertise on a timely topic, “Maintaining Investment Confidence in a Time of Economic and Social Challenges – Some Past Lessons from the Telecommunications Industry”.

Mr. Lalith began his speech by stating that Sri Lanka is currently going through difficult times which are largely impacted by volatile market conditions including socio-economic pressures and dwindling sources of credit. As a result, business confidence is tested in terms of agility, strategy and innovation. He added that Sri Lanka’s journey had been a rollercoaster since its independence nearly seventy-five years ago. Today, management is usually caught in a storm, and loss of confidence has become pervasive, almost a herd mentality. Furthermore, he mentioned that Sri Lankans have forgotten that this cyclical storm, in one form or another, is part of business in this country, except this time there is a sense of abandonment. When considering the resilience it has built as a result of this cyclical storm, management can restore confidence, and indeed the need of the hour is for management to step into the plate, for which she has to lead the battle and be the front liners.

Going back to the JVP insurgency of 1988/89, even more than today, businesses were literally paralyzed by extreme intimidation and violence. However, this period unveiled the most significant innovation in the telecommunications industry. Sri Lanka has again shown that it can be the first in the whole region by launching a mobile telephone network far ahead of all its neighbours. It was a reality with investors and management that had the confidence, the skills, and knew how to use innovation to solve a problem that people were facing. Innovation does not necessarily mean new technologies only; it suggests ways to carve up the landscape to deploy new technologies. However, those days may relate to the days when getting a regular phone meant months or years of waiting and having the right influence. It was then that investors saw the opportunity and launched a business that many in Sri Lanka had not even heard of until now. It is surprising that even though Sri Lanka was then a much weaker nation economically, the introduction of an innovative product that solved an existing difficulty created an extremely profitable business.

Mr. Seneviratahne explained in more detail by illustrating cases where he and his team had solved social problems at the time. Consequently, Mr. Senevirathne recalled an incident where a gentleman neatly dressed in white entered his office carrying a box wrapped in brown paper. He put the box on his desk and started talking; “Sir, I heard there’s this new phone system where you hold the phone in your hand and you can make a call wherever you are. I was thrilled when I heard about it talk and I came here to buy one. Money is not a problem, as you can see I brought a crate full of money. However, Mr. Senevirathna had explained to the gentleman that the team was still in the planning stages and that the operation of the system was a few months away.Nevertheless, what this gentleman said intrigued Mr. Senevirathne, and he walked with the gentleman to the next room of the general manager of Sweden, Mr. Johann Hall. There this gentleman told the rest of the story. “Sir, I have a problem at home. My wife, wherever I go, expects me to call her to let her know my location. When I heard about this new phone, I breathed a sigh of relief. Mr. Senevirathne mentioned that they were able to solve an unforeseen social problem with the arrival of the mobile phone.

Mr Senevirathne further pointed out that it might be mind-boggling to many today that the first mobile phones were sold at 125,000 rupees per connection, which is over 3,000 USD at the then exchange rate and more of USD 7,000 in today’s purchasing power parity. He added that the current success of the telecommunications industry and the way it serves as the backbone of the economy is testimony to this. He further expressed his pleasure to be a pioneer in this industry; therefore, he can vouch for what he said in the conference.

Additionally, Mr. Senevirathne highlighted the commendable role that investors and management have played in the past and the importance of having that personality. As a result, amid the pessimism, investors and management had identified the right innovation and also had the determination to fight their way through the bureaucratic jungle to deploy it. He pointed out that, unlike in the past, more than ever, technology to drive innovation is available in abundance. Therefore, it is necessary to identify problems that require innovative solutions and the strength to implement them, which management must direct to weather the storm.

Furthermore, he added that this economic crisis is indeed a charter for companies and leaders to rewrite and rethink how to do things differently. This is an unprecedented opportunity to rethink offers, markets, business processes and organizational structures and improve them to achieve growth. According to Mr. Senevirathne, the adoption of digital technologies has a significant impact on the creation of economic sustainability and social value. For example, SLT-Mobitel continues to provide businesses with cutting-edge technology solutions that can meet the aspirations of all Sri Lankans. However, Mr Senavirathne said the need for a whole front of companies backed by their investors and management to work on a wide range of innovative solutions.

After all, for a sailor, no matter how strong, the direction of the wind is not an obstacle to reaching his destination. Simultaneously, Mr Senevirathna shared moments when he visited Sabaragamuwa University almost two decades ago with Sri Lankan visionary Ray Wijewardene when Prof Mahaliyanaarachchi was Vice Chancellor. The seeds of his university affiliation had then been sown. He said that, as Ray would have said, this time is also a time to reflect and understand the true meaning of independence. Why independence from our colonial master did not yield measurable progress. Think about it. He said, “we all came here in an imported vehicle, fueled by imported oil, and we drove it on roads paved with imported bitumen, paid for with imported money.”

Therefore, Mr. Senevirathne questioned whether Sri Lanka could still be considered an independent nation and what was independent of it. Wasn’t the country’s independence limited to the political autonomy that Ceylon obtained in February 1948? Accordingly, Mr. Senevirathne emphasized that now is the best time to be as interdependent as possible with the rest of the world as the crisis forces the nation to do so. Like the relationship between parents and children, neither independent nor dependent, rather interdependent. He added that the country is rich in resources to be independent in key areas such as food, energy, transport, health and welfare while being dependent on others. For example, producing bread and butter but importing jam and scotch, to put it simply, while having the right balance. Therein lies the opportunity for management.

In conclusion, on behalf of SLT Mobitel, Mr. Senavirathne extended his warm wishes to the distinguished industry representatives and delegates of the 7th Interdisciplinary Conference of Management Researchers (ICMR 2022).

(The author is a (temporary) Lecturer in the Faculty of Management Studies, Sabaragamuwa University, Sri Lanka)

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