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Journal of Business Strategy

Nokia: a case study in managing industry downturn


Ral Carral, Markus Kajanto,
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Ral Carral, Markus Kajanto, (2008) "Nokia: a case study in managing industry downturn", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 29 Issue: 1,
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Nokia: a case study in managing industry
downturn
Raul Carral and Markus Kajanto

Raul Carral is Professor of Success in a dynamic industry


Innovation and Strategy at
ITESM, Santa Fe, Mexico. No industry is stable over time. Industries will always experience changes as they progress,
some with shorter time frames, others with longer time frames, but eventually change will
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Markus Kajanto is a Director


at the Nokia Corporation, affect every industry. Industry demand is likely to be unstable, with growth or decline cycles
Espoo, Finland. influenced by technology innovation, changes in customer needs and ever-changing
environments. Inflection points in the industry development cycles points where industry
growth rate changes abruptly set significant challenges for companies to remain
competitive and survive. One example of an inflection point is a disruptive technology
change, but there are other, often more frequent inflection points such as rapid onset of
demand or irreversible decrease on the demand facilitated by changes in customer needs
or regulation, to name a few.
Many times companies do not realize future inflection points in the industry cycles, realize
them too late, or simply are not capable of action when facing the changes. This inability of
firms to take action can dramatically change their fortunes. Looking at the evolution of fixed
and mobile communications equipment, there is a remarkable change that took place at the
turn of this century. A great majority of the incumbents competing in telecommunications
equipment experienced a major downturn in sales, while Nokia and Samsung kept growing
and emerged as the leaders in a newly defined industry. This trend can be seen in Figure 1.
Figure 1 denotes a major competitive shift for Nokia to emerge as the leading equipment
vendor in the industry as measured in sales[1]. This presents a puzzle: why did Nokia
emerge as the dominant player in the mobile communication equipment industry? Why did
Nokia grow in sales or sustained sales even during the toughest times of the early 2000s
while most of the competitors did not? This paper offers an alternative explanation and a
solid approach to industry analysis that suggests that companies should focus on
understanding inflection points of industry cycles first happening in lead markets and
applying that understanding for strategy-making. Based on a case study that tracks the
strategic direction of Nokia between 1997 and 2003, we will draw on the experience of Nokia
in anticipating inflection points in the mobile equipment industry at the turn of the century.

Industry analysis linked to strategy-making at Nokia


The authors would like to thank
Donald Lessard, Rebecca Nokia has had good results with the industry-analysis model and process, in part because of
Henderson, Ed Roberts, its particular conditions. The company has traditionally been open and management likes to
Michael Cusumano, Arnoldo
Hax, Eric von Hippel, Birger listen to and learn from different views. Also, Nokia has been entrepreneurial since its early
Wernerfelt, Jim Utterback, Ezra days. It started in 1865 in the wood-pulp business and has also been in galoshes, tires, other
Zuckerman, Luis Vives, Mara
Castaneda, Lourdes Sosa, Ana rubber products, cables for telephone networks, and other electronic equipment. Ultimately,
de la O, Carlos Martnez, it focused on telecommunications-oriented equipment. This has enabled Nokia to evolve
among others at the MIT Sloan
School of Management, for their
dramatically within different industry segments and grow into a global giant with sales over
discussions and ideas. 29 billion euros in 2004. Nokia has all along been very open to new growth opportunities and

DOI 10.1108/02756660810845679 VOL. 29 NO. 1 2008, pp. 25-33, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 0275-6668 j JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY j PAGE 25
Figure 1 Sales of major mobile and telecommunications equipment vendors
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actively engaged in exploring markets in varied industries. Industry-analysis modeling


seems like a natural activity for them.
There are other important incentives at Nokia for doing modeling besides the entrepreneurial
culture. These incentives include market growth and competitive pressure. By the
mid-1990s, industry market growth was around 30 to 40 percent per year. By that time, all of
the market forecasts for sales of telecom equipment were falling short in comparison to the
actual figures. A major motivation for industry analysis was to better understand the
dynamics of such a substantial growth and better forecast the market demand. With the
unexpectedly higher demand, Nokia needed to plan the delivery of their equipment more
accurately.
Also starting in the mid-1990s, parallel with the emergence of the digital mobile
communications market, Nokia engaged in a more structured and systemic way of
analyzing industry demand for their key industry segments: mobile handset and mobile
infrastructure. The analysis was assigned to various strategy analysts at different divisions.
The results indicated that the two segments had different dynamics. Mobile handsets
market value depends on the number of new subscribers buying a handset, users replacing
the handset and prices of handsets. Infrastructure is slightly more complicated: it depends
on the economics of building mobile communications networks. Relevant parameters
include traffic requirements from number of subscribers and usage, rules of thumb on
network build-out phases starting from coverage build-out to capacity and network evolution
and, of course, prices of equipment. Figure 2 illustrates the logic behind Nokias modeling
exercise[2].
The model used industry-specific rules of thumb to produce estimates and reflected future
dynamics in the industry. Regarding handsets, they showed the greater importance of
handset replacement in the future. During the mid-1990s, most of the market value for
handsets came from new users. But as of the late 1990s, most of the value in developed
markets came from users replacing their handsets. This helped to explain the need to
constantly innovate on features and styles to encourage existing users to replace their
phones more. Concerning infrastructure, some significant dynamics in network evolution
were identified. The economics of network construction from the first stages of coverage to
capacity and thereafter to enhancements was identified. The initial network coverage needs
significant investments. But another cycle of even more substantial equipment demand
comes from increased traffic. That traffic initially was impacted in the 1990s with an explosive

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PAGE 26 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY VOL. 29 NO. 1 2008
Figure 2 Modeling mobile handset and mobile infrastructure segments
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growth of new mobile phone users. But as the user base consolidated, the main driver for
traffic increase came from increased traffic by existing users. This reinforced the need to
encourage users to use their phones more.
Besides the handset and infrastructure sales dynamics, there were also dynamics observed
in operator customers, mobile phone users, and mobile equipment technology. Operator
customers consisted at first of national incumbents and, in some countries, new entrants. As
time went on and regulators liberalized the mobile market in different countries, most of the
growth came from new operators competing to provide mobile communications systems.
This was a new segment of operator customers that Nokia focused on. As liberalization
continued, again the industry structure changed. Operators started going international.
Major international operators such as Vodafone, NTT DoCoMo, Telefonica, Deutsche
Telecom, Hutchison, France Telecom and others became global players. The changes in the
operator industry structure demanded that equipment suppliers focus their organizations
and sales effort to supply these specific customer groups better to develop customer
bonding and customer lock-ins (Hax and Wilde, 2001). Nokia was able to satisfy existing
customers and gain new ones within a strategic setting.
There were also important changes in mobile user segments. Mobile telephony started as a
service for niche segments able to pay for the expensive service. As penetration of mobile
telephony increased, better economies of scale were realized and prices dropped, spurring
the emergence of new mobile phone user segments. Segments such as professionals,
young people, women, and fashion-oriented persons emerged. Together, Nokia and the
operators developed new services for these emerging segments.
Mobile communications technology also changed from first generation analogue systems to
digital second generation systems. By 2000, third generation systems started to emerge.
New technologies offered advantages such as more capacity, better services, and ultimately
mobile multimedia services.
The dynamics were easier to predict globally since some of these trends appeared first in
lead markets such as Finland where penetration was the highest in the world and where
Nokia is headquartered. Understanding the industry dynamics in lead markets before they
spread and applying that knowledge in the strategy process was very important for Nokia.
Management recognized the new industry dynamics and was excited about the
opportunities. Acting on the knowledge was fundamental for Nokias success. For every
dynamic identified there were specific strategic actions taken.

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VOL. 29 NO. 1 2008 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY PAGE 27
Acting before a slowdown occurs
Taking strategic actions consistent with industry dynamics and inflection points allowed
Nokia to become the most prominent mobile equipment supplier by 2000.
As a result of modeling the industry demand, Nokia forecast in 1998 that there would be a
market slowdown within three to four years. The data generated controversy at Nokia
because people were thinking only about how to grow faster. Nokia was half the size of
competitors in terms of headcount. Most departments were demanding resources to cope
with the increasing sales and workload. The organization attributed its success not only to its
great products and customer-service focus but also to the speedy response to growth and
its ability to expand logistics. Telling people to go in the other direction and prepare for a
slowdown seemed foolish. But the firm needed to assess their scale of operations well
before a major change in demand happened.
Communicating a drastic message that contradicts the general operational mode is never
simple. Arie de Geus, the former head of planning for Royal Dutch Shell Group, a titan in the
oil industry, had this experience (de Geus, 1997, 1988). His group discovered that the highly
integrated oil industry was not going to stay that way. The groups conclusion had
repercussions as it contradicted the firms existing models. With high integration there is high
level of control in the industry value chain and a high level of optimization.
Arie de Geus and his managers advised top managers that they needed to change their
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operational model, presenting scenarios on the industrys development. As de Geus reports,


the first reaction was polite at best. But after three months, more questions arose and a
discussion started. This second phase he calls absorption. The third phase of digestion,
confirmation, and action lasted nine months as the organizations mental models
integrated the industry analysis. Management drew conclusions on the revised models and
verified them against experience. The process led them to conclusions for action that
enabled major positive changes. De Geus contends that converting disbelief to action
usually takes from 12 to 18 months.
At Nokia, a similar experience resulted. It took about 12 months to go through the whole
cycle from the time the authors first communicated our drastic message to management to
when Nokia fully acted upon the information. We did anticipate that our results would at first
be viewed with scepticism. After a lukewarm reception, we tried a similar approach to de
Geus. We organized a scenario exercise for management and used our industry-analysis
model to project the demand under different mobile penetration and mobile usage
assumptions and went back to management with information. The results were eye-openers.
Now a serious and more open discussion ensued. But still management wondered whether
the data could possibly be true. That doubt was actually very positive because it kept the
issue percolating in their minds and sensitized management to similar indicators from other
sources. Our conclusion indicated the need for drastic action, but there was still time for
management to test the projections on their own.
While the internal communication exercises were going on, the industry was convinced that
growth would continue for a long time. Most of the competitors, customers, and analysts
gave upbeat reports on industry development. They asked: what indications showed that a
slowdown would become a trend. The answer appeared in the lead market of Finland. As
mobile penetration surpassed 60 percent of the population, investment patterns for network
infrastructure equipment changed. Operators reduced their investment in network
infrastructure equipment according to the needs. Also, the handset market started to

Understanding the industry dynamics in lead markets before


they spread and applying that knowledge in the strategy
process was very important for Nokia.

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PAGE 28 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY VOL. 29 NO. 1 2008
switch from handsets sold to new subscribers to handsets sold as replacements. So the
evidence was there.
Management got the message. Two to three years before the global slowdown, Nokia was
ready. The firm was much better prepared than its main competitors, and the scale of
operations grew according to the conditions expected. Nokia was also able to influence the
key dynamics for not decreasing sales as much as its main competitors, even though it was
smaller. Nokia was able to act on the demand drivers to boost handset replacement sales by
integrating innovations in the handsets; including new fashionable designs, messaging
capabilities, color screens, cameras, fold designs, as well as phones with newer technology.
Regarding infrastructure, Nokia was able to launch new solutions, as with next generation
mobile technologies GSM-EDGE and WCDMA, to penetrate new markets, and boost infra
investments by increased usage by individuals.
It is important to mention that communicating important changes in the industry cycles is not
an easy task. It is very difficult to predict industry cycles by interpreting early signs and
uncertain data. Understanding the lead markets, in this case Finland, helped. There are
implementation challenges, as well, in terms of strategy and leadership. Top management
must get the message across to the organization and persuade people to act upon it. There
were also challenges regarding structure and process. People in the organization felt that
they were being removed from their familiar structures. When Nokia restructured sales and
marketing by focusing on the largest global customers and consolidated operations,
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customer consolidations, uncertainty and anxiety resulted.


Table I shows Nokias strategic actions in anticipating industry dynamics.

Table I Nokias strategic actions in anticipation of major industry dynamics based on the discussed framework
Targets for individuals and
Industry dynamics Strategic actions groups Organizations assessment

Handset market driven from new Boost replacement by launching Development and launch of new New handset launches
users to handset replacement new, innovative handsets handsets with new designs and Sales of new handsets
features, including, for example,
color screens, cameras, fold
designs
Mobile infrastructure market Boost mobile infrastructure Development and launch of new New solutions launched
driven from coverage to sales by launching new, mobile infrastructure solutions Sales of new solutions
capacity and then new services innovative solutions for capacity
and multimedia and then services and
multimedia
Changes of mobile operator Increase customer intimacy Sales of equipment by specific Sales of equipment by customer
competitive landscape from mainly in the infrastructure operator groups where most of groups
incumbents to new entrants and division by organizing the the sales were anticipated to
thereafter global operators customer salesforce targeting come
new entrants and then global
operators
Changes of mobile user Increase sales of mobile phones Development and launch of New handset launches
segments, from wealthy with segmented and new, targeted mobile phone Sales of new handsets
individuals to having new customized mobile phones models and features for specific
segments such as styles and features to satisfy market segments
professionals, young people, differing market needs
women, etc. . . .
Changes of mobile technology Invest in the new generations of Development and launch of new New solutions and handset
from first-generation analogue mobile technologies according products and services in the launches
systems to second-generation to the proper timing next generations of mobile Sales of new solutions and
digital and third-generation technologies according to handsets
digital specific road-maps
Mobile equipment market Influence dynamics in Development and launch of new New solutions and handset
slowdown increasing replacement market handsets and solutions to launches
and usage increase replacement and Sales of new solutions and
Boost market-share usage handsets
Scale operations accordingly Manage headcount carefully Headcount

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VOL. 29 NO. 1 2008 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY PAGE 29
The implementation of strategic actions produced positive results. Most organizations saw
decreased numbers from 2000 onward, except for Nokia. But also there are other
measurements and comparisons in Figure 3[3].
As a result of applying the framework, Nokia was able to scale its operations to be better
prepared for future competition. In comparison with other players, Nokia has grown in step
with industry demand. It has been more rational and has experienced fewer fluctuations than
peers who were late in adjusting to the actual industry cycles. Competitors may achieve
some streamlining and focus by their reductions, but dramatic downsizing can do more
harm than good. It is expensive to hire personnel that later will be let go. Downsizing hurts
morale and causes other internal difficulties. A good understanding of industry evolution can
prevent such abrupt decisions. We maintain that a sustainable strategy is based on a solid
understanding of how an industry will evolve.

Conclusions
This paper offers a perspective on how a firm can formulate and implement a method to
understand industry cycles and take action. Firms need to understand industry cycles and
their dynamics. Lead markets can play a significant role in predicting inflection points in
other global markets.
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Keywords: It is also important to link knowledge of industry cycles to the strategy of the firm. Companies
Strategic management, need to be flexible since the market seldom develops as forecasted, even less so in
Market system, high-tech. It is more important for the firm to understand the industry cycle dynamics than
Process management, focus attention and energy on very exact forecasts. Our experience supports the view that it
Mobile communication is difficult to identify future inflection points in the industry cycles and take action. This is
systems, where companies such as Nokia that are capable of good foresight and action can stand out
Telecommunications from the crowd.

Figure 3 Average annual sales per head of major competitors in the mobile equipment
industry

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PAGE 30 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY VOL. 29 NO. 1 2008
Research method and design
This study is part of an ongoing research project that tracks the strategic direction of Nokia. The
research was based on a longitudinal case study design within one corporate setting. Internal
documents, databases, archives and interviews were collected on the evolution of the mobile
phone and mobile infrastructure business groups at Nokia. We selected documents and data
based on their strategic importance for the firm and industry. The initial data collection was done
while one of the authors, Raul Carral, was working at Nokia. We interviewed Nokia executives during
the internal strategy work and talked informally with Nokia competitors, customers, and analysts at
major trade shows.

Limitations
The study is subject to the general limitations associated with field research. Since the research
concerns a single successful corporation in the telecommunications industry, it would be useful to
study a larger sample that includes failing corporations and an in-depth study of strategy-making
processes in these firms. But the concentration on one company has facilitated access to sources
with intimate knowledge of the details of the strategy-making and its overall impact. Having
excellent access made it possible to be in the managers temporal and contextual frame of
reference.
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Notes
1. The figures are taken from company publicly available reports, and are translated into USD based
on the yearly average exchange rate for the sake of comparisons. It is important to note that the
growth for Nokia in the years 2002 and 2003 in USD was due to depreciation of the dollar. On the
other hand, when looking at the figures in Euros, the situation is even worse for the industry players.

2. Simplification of modeling exercises by Nokia and various external analysts.

3. All charts compare competitors in terms of mobile infrastructure and handsets. Although many of the
companies have significant businesses in addition to the mobile communications equipment, such
as fixed network equipment and Internet-related businesses, all the companies operate in the
communications industry.

References
Burgelman, R. (1994), Fading memories: a process theory of strategic business exit in dynamic
environments, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 39, pp. 24-56.

de Geus, A. (1988), Planning as learning, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 66, March-April, pp. 70-4.

de Geus, A. (1997), The living company, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 75, March-April, pp. 51-9.

Eisenhardt, K.M. (1989), Building theories from case study research, Academy of Management
Review, Vol. 14, pp. 532-50.

Glaser, B. and Strauss, A.L. (1967), The Discovery of Grounded Theory, Aldine, Chicago, IL.

Golden, B.R. (1992), The past is the past or is it? The use of retrospective accounts as indicators of
past strategy, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 35, pp. 848-60.

Hax, A. and Wilde, D. (2001), The Delta Project, St Martins Press, New York, NY.

Leonard-Barton, D. (1990), A dual methodology for case studies: synergistic use of a longitudinal
single site with replicated multiple sites, Organization Science, Vol. 1, pp. 248-66.

Van de Ven, A.H. (1992), Suggestions for studying strategy process: a research note, Strategic
Management Journal, Vol. 13, pp. 169-88.

Yin, R.K. (1984), Case Study Research, Vol. 5, Sage, Beverly Hills, CA.

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VOL. 29 NO. 1 2008 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY PAGE 31
Appendix

Research method
This study is part of an ongoing research project that tracks the strategic direction of Nokia
and took place between 1997 and 2003. During the late-1990s and 2000s, Nokia became a
world leader in mobile communications. Nokia provides equipment, solutions and services
for network operators and corporations.

Research design
The research design was based on a longitudinal case study design within one corporate
setting (Yin, 1984; Leonard-Barton, 1990; Burgelman, 1994). Internal documents,
databases, archival and interviews were collected on the evolution of the mobile phone
and mobile infrastructure business groups at Nokia. These cases were selected for
theoretical reasons as an intentional sample (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Eisenhardt, 1989).
The selection criterion was strategic importance for the firm and industry but also the
conditions under which the company has produced a significant success measured in sales
and sales growth as compared to the reported sales of competitors.

Data collection
The initial data collection was done while one of the authors, Raul Carral, was working at
Nokia. Selected internal documents, databases, archival data and interviews were
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collected. All data collection was longitudinal. The data regarding company sales and
number of employees was collected from company annual reports available from their
websites. Access to Nokia internal data was possible but it is highly restricted due to
sensitivity issues regarding internal strategy.
Interview data. We have interacted with Nokia executives during the internal strategy work,
and maintained over 200 pages of notes together. The ways that we have collected the
information is unstructured. But also we have casually interacted with Nokia competitors,
customers, and analysts in important trade shows including the Cellular
Telecommunications Industry Association CTIA in the US, the GSM Association, in
Cannes, France trade shows, together with other events and meetings. No tape recorder
was used during but the interviewers made extensive notes. In some cases, interviews were
made together with another Nokia analyst. After the interviews, transcripts of the research
notes were compared showing consistency, and providing confidence that the data was
reliable.
Market data. The market data is collected as part of Nokia market intelligence process in a
quarterly fashion. A market intelligence group prepares the collection tools, collects
information from the regional sales organizations and makes extensive validity cross-checks
and also other external cross-checks with other external analysts. The data could be
considered as extensive and reliable, and it has been widely used internally at Nokia but also
in external presentations by Nokia executives.
Archival data. The archival data from the analysis documents, companys history and annual
reports were obtained from Nokia. Many other industry publications have been consulted
during the research project. The archival data, together with data from other public sources,
made it possible to construct a quantitative and qualitative picture of the
telecommunications industry. The internal data could be juxtaposed to the external data
to check for potential systematic biases in retrospective accounts (Golden, 1992;
Burgelman, 1994). Discrepancies between data from different sources raised a number of
questions that guided further data collection and analysis. Mainly, the discrepancies were
explained by the differences in definitions of what is included and what is not included in the
estimates. For instance, the estimates for mobile infrastructure market value could vary
substantially if in the figures it is included implementation services, transmission, antennas,
power systems, etc. There is a wide range of equipment and services that could be
included. Data collection was concluded when a level of saturation was reached (Glaser and
Strauss, 1967).

Limitations
The study is subject to the general limitations associated with field research in addition to
some other limitations (Burgelman, 1994). First, the research concerns a single and
successful corporation in the telecommunications industry. It would be useful to study a
larger sample that includes failing corporations and an in-depth study of strategy-making

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PAGE 32 JOURNAL OF BUSINESS STRATEGY VOL. 29 NO. 1 2008
processes in these firms. Also it would be useful to have a large cross-sectional data with the
respective analysis of a large sample of corporations. However, the concentration in one
company has enabled the required access to sources with intimate knowledge of the details
of the strategy making and its overall impact. Having excellent access made it possible to be
in the managers temporal and contextual frame of reference (Van de Ven, 1992). Also,
there is a chance to triangulate data to alleviate some of the concerns with retrospective data
(Golden, 1992). Second, the industry was extremely dynamic. Hence, some of the
conclusions and analysis included in the present paper might not be generalizable to less
dynamic industries.

About the authors


Raul Carral is a professor at ITESM, Campus Santa Fe in Mexico City, and an International
Faculty Fellow at MIT Sloan School of Management. He has worked at Nokia Group in
Finland and the US. Raul Carral is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:
raul.carral@itesm.mx
Markus Kajanto is director of corporate strategy, in Nokias head office, responsible for
strategic planning at corporate level.
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2. 2008. Predicting industry inflections at Nokia. Strategic Direction 24:7, 13-15. [Abstract] [Full Text] [PDF]
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