Interview: John Conoley, CEO of Psion

John Conoley had his work cut out when he joined Psion in April 2008, tasked with driving change.

John Conoley had his work cut out when he joined Psion in April 2008, tasked with driving change.

In the 1980s, Psion was the number one manufacturer of handheld computers. The success of its ground-breaking Organiser device took Psion into the FTSE 100.

Psion was a household name, a UK success. It kick-started the development of the Symbian mobile phone operating system (the most widely used mobile phone OS) by contributing its 32-bit Epoc operating system to the initiative.

But this is a distant memory. The Psion Conoley joined as chief executive has spent the past 10 years focused on building rugged mobile computers, such as the devices used at airports and in warehouses.

In September 2000, Psion merged with Canada-based Teklogix, a global provider of mobile computing and wireless data collection devices.

Strategy for change

Having spent several years not innovating and generating quite poor financial results, the board wanted someone to drive transformational change, so they hired ex-IBMer Conoley, who also previously headed up energy company EON's corporate business division, where he was responsible for improving the performance and profitability of a division with sales of £1.5bn.

To start with a clean slate, Conoley threw out the sacred cows and developed what he describes as a culture of ingenuity. "The company was operationally a mess, we had a poor supply chain, high production costs and lacked an innovation culture," he says.

Conoley has unveiled a strategy for the turnaround. The company still produces rugged devices, but is taking a radical approach to product development, by using web 2.0 techniques such as crowd-sourcing, blogs, wikis and Twitter though a community site called Ingenuity Working.

Modular development

All of these can drive innovation by providing a forum for ideas, but Psion needed a way to develop products more quickly.

Luckily for Conoley, the company had begun producing modular product designs about a decade ago, which allowed it to create various products from standard modules, such as a keyboard module or display module. Conoley realised the potential of modular designs to speed up product development. Taking a cue from the open source community, Psion's new approach to product development, dubbed Open Source Mobility (OSM), makes these modular designs available to developers and resellers.

"With modular designs it becomes trivial to customise our products," he says. This means Psion can cater for the variety of requirements from its customers, in terms of the type of mobile device they require. "In our main product we have dropped the number of different parts from 600 to 400, yet we are able to generate 14,000 product variations, compared with 7,000 previously."

There is also a benefit for businesses buying these devices. Conoley says customers no longer need to throw away the devices if their business needs change. "They can plan larger projects because the modules can be changed." Psion will be able to extend the useful life of products in the field by replacing defective or obsolescent modules, rather than replacing the whole product.

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