Just about every organization is looking to innovate.

Making it happen? Not so easy. Stephen Speirs explains how to bridge the gap from a blank sheet of paper to a great customer experience (CX).

An almost 20-year veteran of Cisco, Stephen is a former software engineer who now works in Cisco CX focusing on Service Provider product management. His involvement in the pioneering 5G RuralFirst project is the latest illustration of his distinctive approach to innovation.


5G RuralFirst at a glance


  • A co-innovation project led by Cisco’s UK & Ireland Team.
  • A consortium response to the UK Government’s ‘5G Testbed and Trial’ competition.
  • Key focus — delivering the economic benefits of mobile connectivity beyond cities.
  • Rolled out across some of the most challenging environments in the UK, including Scotland’s Orkney Islands and Somerset in the country’s south-west.
  • 5G Core Architecture designed by Cisco CX
  • Supporting 15+ diverse business use cases, from AR experiences for tourists to autonomous drones and tractors for agriculture.


Power your lightbulb with diverse perspectives

Talk to Stephen about solving problems and driving innovation, and he’ll immediately flag the importance of starting with a customer problem, not a set of “wants” or technical requirements. Take his own experiences at the Glencoe Mountain ski resort.

Frustrated by long queues for tickets at the resort, Stephen discovered the problem was down to patchy internet access for the card machines on the mountain.



But just because you’ve identified a problem doesn’t mean you can solve it. It was only when Stephen connected with the University of Strathclyde and their MBA classes, as part of Cisco’s “Time2Give” program, that the lightbulb lit up for him.



Use cases and putting technology to work

Innovation and new technologies are great, but ultimately, they need to deliver value for people, society and business. That’s why, for Stephen, the use case is key. “The technology is just a contributor to the outcome. It’s one of many contributors. It’s all about making the technology do something useful in the real world.”

And actually, the value of technology may not be where you expect it.

Stephen sees 5G as a perfect example. Today, the main use case for a mobile network is voice and mobile data, mostly for consumers. But the high costs of 5G network rollout, compounded by the intense competition on price, means Service Providers (SPs) need to look for other ways to generate value from 5G.

He and many others see 5G as an opportunity to open up the mobile network for business services in a way that isn’t possible today. And use cases give SPs concrete examples of how this can happen.



The 5G RuralFirst project has demonstrated this through projects as diverse as IoT monitoring of salmon and dairy farms, autonomous drones and tractors for agriculture, data collection for renewable energy, and a 29 partner broadband, wireless and agri-tech trial in the British Isles. Through these targeted applications, quickly spun up and tried out, the project can test for viability and prove value far more effectively than an on-paper business case. And the value of these business-focused applications can be tremendous.

Bringing all these separate projects to life, over a huge expanse of remote landscape, is not something that Cisco could do on its own. Whenever he talks about 5G RuralFirst, Stephen is keen to emphasize the huge number of partners engaged in the project. These have spanned from the BBC, who trialled 5G for radio broadcasts, to local ISPs and specialist equipment manufacturers and academic partners like the University of Strathclyde.

He also emphasized the importance of the broader Cisco CX team, who played a pivotal role: architecting and building the 5G cloud core network that supported and delivered the project’s outcomes, “I wouldn’t want to be tasked with delivering a 5G project without those experts on the team.”

Stephen is certain this ecosystem model is the way forward for all technology projects: bringing together a breadth of skills from both inside and outside of Cisco to solve a problem.


Stephen Speirs on successful partner ecosystems



Take just one thing from Stephen’s approach to applying innovation, and it has to be the critical role partnerships play:

  • Recognize up front that you can’t do it all yourself.
  • Don’t hesitate to partner with other organizations, but don’t expect them to give their expertise away.
  • Ensure everyone can get recognition for the roles they play.
  • Overinvest in the PR and marketing of the project, including your partners — it’s vital to tell the stories of success that come from collaboration and acknowledge everyone’s role in it.

Remember you learn from working with others, and others learn from working with you.


Getting real business value from technology investments

Enterprises around the world have set the same basic goal: to maximize the business value they get from their investments. They may be investing in collaboration tools, data center equipment or security instead of 5G, but the goal is the same. And so is the challenge that stands in their way.

From Stephen’s perspective, a key part of the challenge lies in the products themselves.

As products become more sophisticated, the real hurdle is in successful adoption — enabling the customer to understand and fully exploit the power of what they’ve implemented.

As for his solution to this, Stephen believes vendors have a huge role to play in changing their behavior to become less about the technology’s “feeds and speeds”, and instead be more customer-focused.



In the 5G RuralFirst project he donned rain boots and stood on windswept Scottish islands, almost literally walking a mile in his customers’ shoes. This helped to design and deliver 5G solutions that really solve deep-felt customer problems affecting rural communities, not just in the UK, but globally.

Looking forward, Stephen believes the transition Cisco is making to CX, with new roles like customer success executives (CSEs), is one of the most exciting things the company is working on today.

5G RuralFirst: Find out more

Stephen Speir’s work: Read more

Cisco CX and our approach to solving customer problems on our CX hub: Learn more

Our solutions for 5G transformation: Discover now