Uncertainty creates opportunities for young universities
A Huawei book launch and roundtable Q&A discussed how to negotiate disruption in a new era of technology and communications
A professor at the Renmin University of China’s School of Business and a senior management consultant at Huawei, Weiwei Huang (pictured) is also the author of Built on Value: The Huawei Philosophy of Financial Management.
His book provided the inspiration for a fringe event at the 2019 Times Higher Education Young Universities Summit, which began with a presentation from Professor Huang during which he noted: “Change is the only constant in the world. Uncertainty arises from change. When an uncertainty arises, it’s critical to determine what to do and how – the question is ‘how can we see farther and avoid making mistakes when predicting the future?’”
In answering this, Professor Huang referenced American academic Clayton M Christensen’s distinction between sustaining and disruptive technologies, which concludes that “disruptive technologies are the fundamental sources of growth.” However, disruptive technologies also create a series of paradoxes – for example, that investing in them is, according to Professor Huang, “not a sensible financial decision”, that “organisational mechanisms that are intended to create value resist changes” and that disruptive technological innovation should be dealt with using “learning and discovery” and not execution plans.
In response to these considerable challenges, Huawei has taken a long-term view and adopted a series of measures, such as setting up strategic international hubs that include a microwave technology research centre in Milan.
“Huawei knows that it must absorb cutting-edge innovations from around the world to become a world leader in ICT [information communications technology]. In this process, Huawei believes that paying reasonable IPR licensing fees is worthwhile,” said Professor Huang. He cited Ren Zhengfei, Huawei founder and CEO, when he noted that “innovating blindly by ourselves is more expensive.”
Demonstrating market leadership qualities is vital for dealing with uncertainty. Professor Huang summarised these qualities as: having a vision for the future, sharing value throughout the value chain, committing to choices made and remaining pro-competition, and not seeking to monopolise the market. He also highlighted “the certainty of rules” – namely a strict adherence to compliance within the countries in which Huawei operates, which he described as “the best bulwark against political uncertainty.”
To further his point about “finding certainty in uncertainty”, Professor Huang explained that this could involve automation and artificial intelligence. For example, the digitisation of fixed asset management by Huawei’s finance department now utilises radio frequency identification (RFID). After deploying RFID, taking the inventory of fixed assets, a process that used to take almost a month, now takes minutes.
One of the central measures that Huawei uses when addressing uncertainty is its investment in research. Huawei separated its research department from its development department in 2011 and plans to increase the research percentage of its R&D budget from 20 per cent to 30 per cent.
Huawei enables uncertainty in research by allowing academics freedom – the freedom to fail, in particular. “We fund the research of professors,” explained Professor Huang. “We are not after their papers or patents. It doesn’t matter if they fail, as long as they tell us how and why they have failed.”
Professor Huang finished his presentation by advising that “past success is not a reliable guide to future success. When faced with uncertainty, only those companies that remain vigilant and self-critical, and that always maintain a sense of urgency, can ensure their survival.
He added that “Huawei’s goal is not to maximise profits or value for shareholders, but to seek sustainable and profitable growth [and] bring digital to every person, home and organisation for a fully connected, intelligent world.”
After the presentation, Professor Huang fielded question from the assembled roundtable of higher education senior leaders. THE editor John Gill asked how academia could embrace uncertainty. Professor Huang answered that “the majority of disruptive innovations will not come from old universities. Uncertainty brings opportunities to young universities like it did for start-ups. The question is how to acquire resources to support people with ideas and pioneering spirit.”
Sharon Robinson, senior professor in the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health at the University of Wollongong, Australia, asked how Huawei sources its workforce then trains and engages them. Professor Huang underlined the global reach of the company, referencing the example in Milan, but also mentioning Russia, where Huawei’s activity is focused on mathematics. “A lot of emerging talent may not have a ‘playground’. We want to provide that for them around the world,” he said.
Regarding recruitment, Professor Huang said: “We’re willing to recruit all graduates, including postgraduates and mature students, but we find that fresh graduates quickly settle into the Huawei culture and environment. They are assigned a mentor, an experienced engineer, to provide guidance, including what documents they need to read and modules to start work on but also suggestions about what to do on workdays and help with their personal lives to help them quickly fit in.”
There were several questions framed by the status of Huawei in the United States and if the company’s positive messages about research expenditure were being heard loudly enough. “Huawei is in the middle of the trade dispute between the US and China”, said Professor Huang. “The isolation is only temporary and will not do any good for any parties…we’re not afraid of criticism or charges and allegations – but please present the evidence.”
In closing, Habib Fardoun, director of the Observatory Centre for Academic Standards and Excellence at King Abdulaziz University, Saudi Arabia, asked Professor Huang to look to the future and comment on Huawei’s possible expansion into Saudi Arabia and the Third World. Professor Huang stated that he believed “there are a lot of opportunities in emerging markets. We can’t grow simply by relying on the domestic market. The future competition is based on talent. Where there is talent, there is Huawei.”
Weiwei Huang, professor at the School of Business, Renmin University of China and senior management consultant at Huawei (presenter)
Andrew Williamson, vice-president of the President's Office, Public Affairs and Communications Department at Huawei (roundtable chair)
Calum Drummond, deputy vice-chancellor, research and innovation, RMIT University
Habib Fardoun, director of the Observatory Centre for Academic Standards and Excellence, King Abdulaziz University
John Gill, editor, Times Higher Education
Jack Grove, head of summits content, Times Higher Education
Rob Koepp, network director, Economist Corporate Network
Jonathan Liebenau, associate professor, London School of Economics
Amy Lin, senior vice-president, Huawei
Sabrina Man Yee Lin, vice-president for institutional advancement, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Tim Marchant, dean of research, University of Wollongong
Seeram Ramakrishna, director of the Centre for Nanofibers and Nanotechnology, National University of Singapore
Sharon A. Robinson, senior professor in the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health, University of Wollongong
Gianfranco Siciliano, assistant professor of accounting, CEIBS
Miroslaw Skibniewski, distinguished professor, Chaoyang University of Technology
Learn more about Huawei and higher education.