Not content with breathing down Ericsson’s neck in the telecoms equipment space and making huge gains in the global smartphone market, Chinese giant Huawei now has its sights set on becoming a leader in corporate social responsibility, but maintains it’s definitely not part of a soft power push.
Speaking at a media event in Hong Kong on Wednesday, the firm’s head of CSR, Holy Ranaivozanany, revealed that it would be extending its Telecoms Seeds for the Future project to Australia this year.
“We thought that we needed to use the expertise in the company to bring something to the community. After stakeholder dialogue we saw there was a high expectation on us to help local schools and universities improve ICT education,” she said of the genesis of the project.
“There’s a gap between what is learned at school and what is learned in the industry, so we looked at how to bridge that gap. That’s why we launched this program in 2008.”
The project could involve scholarships and internships at local Huawei offices where students get mentored by a Huawei engineers, lectures by Huawei staff at local universities and even the creation of training centres. In Malaysia the firm is spending $30m over several years to build out such a centre, she said.
However, head of international media affairs, Scott Sykes, refuted any suggestions that this global CSR strategy might be part of an effort to soften the image of the company abroad, especially in countries like Oz which have been rather hostile to it in the recent past.
“Our top objective is not soft diplomacy but us realising our responsibility as a leading ICT company. We’re not just selling kit, we’re benefitting the communities we operate in,” he argued.
“In one sense our technology is enriching lives, making affordable high quality broadband services. Beyond that we bring jobs. 150,000 work at Huawei including 50,000 non-Chinese outside China – and that number is growing each day. In addition there’s the ecosystem. Last year we spent $6bn in the US, $3bn in Europe, $3bn in Taiwan and $1bn in Japan, so when we win this ecosystem around our business wins.”
Still, it can’t hurt the firm to show it has the interests of local communities at heart, after all the negative stories of it as a national security risk and shadowy agent of the Chinese government that usually follow it and Shenzhen rival ZTE around, especially in Australia and the US.
Ranaivozanany was even magnanimous enough to say that the firm wasn’t necessarily hoping to train up future Huawei engineers with its Telecom Seeds program, but simply “nurture a pool of talent to … keep the industry going”.
In many ways, Huawei is still learning the ropes when it comes to CSR – something that doesn’t come naturally to Chinese companies.
Ranaivozanany admitted there was “no specific measure of RoI” on Huawei’s CSR efforts, but that it was now “integral to what we do”, while Sykes emphasised that the firm was simply coming good at last on expectations of what a large multi-national industry-leading vendor should be doing in this area.
“We’re still a young company. We were only founded about 25 years ago while some of our competitors were founded 100 years back. Our focus on our core business has probably been to the detriment of other things, like communicating properly,” he admitted.
“We’re not saying we have the best ideas regarding CSR. We acknowledge we’re a newcomer in this area, but we’re building our muscle.”
For the record, Ranaivozanany outlined the “four pillars” by which Huawei defines its CSR activities as follows .
Creating and maintaining reliable networks, especially in the event of natural disasters; helping close the digital divide by connecting those in rural areas; building greener products; and the rather wooly “realising common development with stakeholders”, which basically means improving the livelihoods of employees and citizens in the countries it operates.
It’s not been an easy year for it or Shenzhen rival Huawei, who were both named as a national security risk in a US congressional committee report released at the tail end of 2012 in the bi-partisan hubbub typical of pre-election months.
In addition, ZTE has been under lengthy investigation by the FBI on suspicion of selling embargoed US-made tech to Iran and then covering it up when found out. Then there were the false rumours of swingeing job cuts at the firm and a $5bn cash injection from the Chinese government.
Despite its problems, however, ZTE remains on the move in the smartphone space, an innovator in telecoms infrastructure with its LTE offerings and has plans to grow the enterprise business despite the kind of government roadblocks put up in Australia, the US and now India.
Head of handset strategy Lv Qian Hao battled manfully with the flu to show me the firm’s latest high-end handset, the 5.7in Grand Memo (no pics I’m afraid). It comes across as a smallish version of Huawei’s massive six-incher the Ascend Mate and probably benefits from not being quite as large – in other words I could just about use it as a phone without looking daft.
In the rapidly developing smartphone space, specs like 13 megapixel camera, quad core 1.7Ghz Snapdragon processor and a 720p screen – specs which might once have elicited gasps of awe from the assembled masses – are now pretty standard at the high-end.
This is no criticism of ZTE but it certainly makes its job of climbing up the smartphone rankings and a goal of 50 million shipments this year that bit harder.
So where can it differentiate? Well, with high-end specs almost commoditised now, design is obviously one key area. With the best will in the world ZTE is not know for its beautiful design, but it’s hoping to change that with Hagen Fendler on board.
Pinched from cross-town rival Huawei, Fendler’s appointment and a new design centre in Shanghai certainly serve to highlight the firm’s vaulting ambitions in this space.
Fendler explained that his job is to create a design DNA which can be seeded throughout the firm’s handsets to help create a brand identity. It got off to a flyer with the launch at CES of the Grand S, an HD handset which at 6.9mm is currently the world’s thinnest.
It won’t be an easy job creating handsets that are both beautiful and distinctively “ZTE” but with 400 staff working on design alone, they’ve as good a chance as any.
It can be a frustrating time for a journalist talking to a designer, because so many of the concepts they tend to reference are abstract, ethereal and emotive rather than the nuts and bolts practicalities of engineering.
However, Fendler did reveal that much of his design inspiration comes from outside the immediate environs of the smartphone space – from books, magazines and films.
1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner was singled out for particular praise for sparking interesting ideas about “how humans interact with the technology around them”.
Just don’t expect to see the ZTE Blade Runner phone anytime soon. Actually, Google already got there with the Nexus, didn’t it?