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CIO50 2020 #13: Mark Beder, Spark New Zealand

  • Name Mark Beder
  • Title Technology director
  • Company Spark New Zealand
  • Commenced role 2017
  • Reporting Line CEO Jolie Hodson
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Technology Function 2300 staff, 9 direct reports
  • Mark Beder says delivering 5G and New Zealand’s wireless future are the key focus for his team at Spark New Zealand.

    “5G is a fantastic technology that will provide amazing services to our customers,” says Beder, technology director at Spark. 

    “Although it is still early days with the rollout, over time we will start to see the benefits 5G brings to customers around New Zealand.”

    He says Spark’s 5G Co-Lab space, an extension of their 5G Lab, is designed to give Kiwi businesses access to a 5G network, so they can collaborate and innovate. 

    Spark, meanwhile, is leading the transition to a wireless future with the number of customers on their fixed wireless broadband and landline products growing by 36,000 last year (for FY19) to 166,000, he states.

    “Being more productive while improving the customer experience continues to be a focus,” says Beder, whose 2000-plus technology team includes networks, IT, and services operations.  

    “Our programme of simplification, digitisation and automation continues to be a crucial means of achieving this.”

    Inside the engine room

    “Technology is the engine room that powers Spark,” says Beder.

    “My job as technology director is to lead the organisation forward from its legacy as a traditional telco, to becoming a globally-recognised digital services provider, and help New Zealanders win big in a digital world.”

    He works closely with other members of Spark’s leadership squad, as well as the 20-plus tribe leads from across the business.

    “My job is to understand what the business requirements are, both from a technology and IT perspective, and then work with my direct reports and their teams to deliver it.”

    There are three core pillars of Spark’s technology division – operational resilience, technical leadership, and value maximisation, he says.

    “We emphasise these three elements in our decision making and prioritisation to get the right outcome for the business,” he states. “This ensures teams like marketing and sales are already planning for technology developments before they happen.”

    Spark transitioned to the agile business model in July 2018. 

    “This model is highly collaborative, and this collaboration is replicated at each layer to ensure squads are responding to business needs, and we collaborate effectively to ensure the company priorities are met,” says Beder.

    “Working at speed with new technology like 5G brings plenty of challenges, but our Agile structure allows us to quickly form squads (teams) to bring the right mixes of skills together,” he adds. “We can change and reform squads as we move through projects, depending upon the skill mix required at the time.

    “We’ve continued to embed our Agile approach, and my role in the technology division is to guide, support, and make sure we continue to empower our people to operate successfully in an Agile model,” he says. 

    Tribe leaders have also been appointed within the technology division. He says technology team members go to various locations around New Zealand to talk to staff and know what is happening across business units. “I find regularly talking directly to people in each of our locations helps us all to better work towards our strategic goals.”

    To ensure Spark remains a market leading company and New Zealand keeps up with global developments, Beder says he and his team regularly visit and collaborate with their global partners. “Innovation learnings are shared and then recreated wherever possible.”

    Since the transition, Beder says the technology team is seeing encouraging signs the new model is delivering the three objectives of improved employee engagement, faster speed to market, and greater customer centricity. 

    Spark’s eNPS score, which measures employee engagement across all Spark employees, has increased 9 percentage points since the transition, he says.

    “Transitioning to Agile is an ongoing journey – one that will require iteration as we learn more, the environment changes, and our customers’ needs evolve.”

    Digitising customer experience

    Beder says the team has set up more than 100 bots, or automated digital processes. These bots perform a range of tasks, from running backend checks and processes, to serving customers on the frontline.

    He says the technology team is also continuing to improve high-quality self-service options, such as the Spark app. 

    The app has been experiencing strong usage growth, an increase of 18 per cent over the year, and reducing demand on traditional service channels, such as customer care centres.

    “We are digitising customer experience,” he says.

    “We have a number of dedicated service chatbots successfully answering thousands of customer queries each month – speeding up and improving the service for customers.”

    At the same time, Spark is future-proofing technology for customers. 

    “The shift from our legacy telephone network to a new IP-based network is continuing at pace, with more than 25 per cent of exchanges now decommissioned,” says Beder.

    The technology team continues to spearhead initiatives in the 5G space and the network upgrade, together with local and global partners.

    Spark tested New Zealand’s first 5G-connected driverless car on Auckland streets, as a result of a collaboration between Spark New Zealand and Ohmio Automotion. 

    The team started the 5G rollout in September last year, and has delivered New Zealand’s first 5G commercial wireless broadband service into six heartland communities: Alexandra, Westport, Clyde, Twizel, Tekapo, and Hokitika. 

    Customer response was very positive, and further 5G locations are coming this year.

    “The team also provided a private trial 5G service to Emirates Team New Zealand. We delivered on our promise to help make the boat go faster in the bid to defend the next America’s Cup,” he says.

    In March 2020, Spark launched the 5G Starter Fund - calling on local innovators to bid for half a million dollars to build new 5G enabled technology that will benefit the country, disrupt an industry or provide an immersive experience. 

    The 5G Starter Fund will support up to three companies, with the 1st prize winner receiving $250,000 and the two second prize winners receiving $125,000 each. 

    All three winners will receive business and tech mentoring, a trip to New York to learn from the some of the best in global 5G tech, as well as access to technology and equipment to test and build on Spark’s 5G network. 

    Some digital deployments delivered challenges, such as Spark Sport, which was launched as New Zealand’s new video streaming service to watch quality sport. 

    The technology team had to contend with a technical disruption from an offshore provider during the streaming of the first All Blacks match in the Rugby World Cup. 

    “Delivering RWC 2019 was a big test, but despite the well-publicised issue, the Spark Sport platform worked well technically for 44 out of the 45 matches in the tournament,” he says.

    He believes live streamed content will be a big part of the way Kiwis consume sports in the future. “We’re confident Spark Sport will play a role in delivering that.”

    On another front, Beder says Spark has completed the biggest-ever upgrade across its wireless network, with capacity enhanced by approximately 80 per cent over the past two years. 

    This includes new cell sites and the extensive rollout of 4.5G, which significantly enhanced network performance and capacity relative to conventional 4G.

    “We have completed the rollout of VoLTE capability across our network,” he adds. Called Spark 4G HD Calling, it provides crisp call quality, the ability to use apps and browse the internet at 4G speeds while on a call, and almost instantaneous call connection. 

    He says VoLTE technology will be a core part of the 5G standard for voice calling on mobile phones.

    “Together with Crown Infrastructure Partners (CIP), Vodafone and 2degrees, Spark also started rolling out new cell sites in rural locations. 

    “The new sites were the result of an industry-leading collaboration called the Rural Connectivity Group (RCG), which builds, operates, and maintains essential rural network infrastructure”, he says.

    He says Spark launched the Blue Heart programme in 2018 to support Spark’s focus on a ‘heart-led’ approach to diversity and inclusion. 

    To date, more than 3,000 Spark people have made personal Blue Heart pledges to support a ‘heart-led’ approach to diversity and inclusion at Spark. 

    Since the programme’s launch, Blue Heart has evolved beyond a personal pledge to become a unifying icon for our wider approach to an inclusive and heart-led culture. 

    “The cultural shift it represents has been crucial for Spark’s transition to Agile ways of working,” he says.

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