If you ask just about any executive in the telecom or cable industries what “disruption” means in the business, and what it looks like, you will undoubtedly find that people talk about competition from new contestants. “Disruption” normally is seen as something that “happens to” telecom or cable providers. But that’s only half the story, and probably not the more-interesting part of the story. In recent days, we have seen some significant potential changes in the wireless part of the business that illustrate a whole new aspect of “disruption.”

With no disrespect intended, too often, the sort of thinking one encounters from telecom executives is of the “how can we be more relevant” in the existing capacity or service business providers already are in. When looking at social networking, the thinking tend to run towards “how can we get more transport or access revenue from Facebook,” for example. Where it comes to Google, the thought is whether some form of revenue sharing is possible.

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That’s eminently sensible and realistic, at least in terms of strategy. But what it doesn’t mean is a fundamental shift from “protecting the existing business” to “creating a whole new business.”

Note something important, though. The need for innovation occurs whether a firm or industry is playing defense or offense. Even when protecting an existing business, organizations must innovate, because that is precisely what the challengers are doing. So the difference between offense and defense is not a matter of whether innovation is necessary. It is necessary, in either case.

Significantly, though, some initiatives in the communications business now are aimed at disruption of another existing business. That’s a huge shift of thinking and strategy, as well as a huge potential shift in business opportunity. The best examples so far are mobile banking and mobile payments. In both cases, mobile operators are not simply seeking incremental, “line extension” sorts of growth, but seeking to establish leading positions in new businesses that means mobile service providers are the “disruptors,” not the “disrupted.”

The significant change is a shift from disruption as “something done to us” to “disruption as something we do to somebody else.” That’s a big deal. It’s the difference between playing defense and offense.

But there likely are huge strategic implications here. Innovation is necessary whether protecting the voice, broadband access or video entertainment businesses. But where it comes to innovation that seeks to grow whole new revenue segments, the effort is aimed outside the confines of traditional telecom. There’s nothing wrong with such thinking. It is how one plays defense, protecting the relevance and value of the network as new applications become big businesses.

Only now, in mobile payments and mobile banking, do we see something fundamentally different, namely the move off defense and onto the offense. Some will argue that telcos taking video share also is a move of an “offense” sort, and that’s correct. But it is more of a logical move to add competencies in an “adjacency.”

Banking is not a business that is a telecom adjacency. Mobile operators moving to provide banking and payment services is a huge step away from “defensive” innovation and embracing “offensive” innovation, at the application layer, not the transport layer.

That, it seems to me, is a huge shift of thinking.

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