KPN: digital transformation from a different perspective

  • The digital transformation at the Dutch telecommunications company KPN is an ideal discussion tool for organisations in the telecommunications sector and beyond.
  • While other case studies on digital transformation focus on strategic aspects, this case study adopts a more holistic perspective.  

Digital transformation: where do you start? Are you on the right path? Are you making enough progress? Professor Stijn Viaene developed a case study on the transformation process at KPN, a supplier of telecom and ICT services and the Dutch market leader.


The case dates back to 2013. KPN was facing considerable challenges – both strategic and operational. In virtually all fields where KPN was active, over-the-top providers1 invaded the market. Speech and messaging services were rapidly losing ground to Skype and WhatsApp. TV struggled to keep up with players like Netflix and YouTube. In the B2C segment, KPN was systematically losing its market share, a trend that it needed to stop. Although KPN had various products in the B2B segment that could earn it a spot in the rapidly developing ecosystems of smart cities, digital healthcare, the Internet of Things, and Industry 4.0, there too competition was lurking as companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM, and Microsoft had not exactly been idle.

“We take the participants through KPN’s entire transformation process", Stijn explains. “The case runs through the different phases of the digital transformation, from its start in 2013 to 2018, when the organisation was ready to focus on new business models and growth.”

From product to customer focus

KPN’s approach to digital transformation was somewhat atypical. “Many companies start the process with a product focus", Stijn says. “In this case, the organisation was aware of the fact that its focus on product lines was partly to blame for the problems, i.e. silo formation and redundancy. Therefore, KPN resolutely opted to focus on customers. They thoroughly analysed the operational model and assessed the coherence between the front office and the back office in detail. As such, this exercise was a thorough first step in the debate on the changes needed in KPN’s business architecture.”

Strategic choices, bold decisions

“From the onset, competencies, talents, and the corporate culture took centre stage", Stijn continues. “The company quickly realised that all those aspects put together are the key to a successful transformation. Moreover, the company made clear strategic choices and took bold and courageous decisions for initiatives that were considered potential learning opportunities. Such decisions are fraught with risks, but it is to the credit of the project managers that they were managed properly.”

Scaling-up of agile working

A common thread in this case study is the scaling-up of agile working within a traditional organisation. In 2018, they had not yet fully achieved this, but the case study illustrates how KPN adopted a phased approach. “Instead of changing everything immediately, they allowed agile initiatives to grow gradually. They only introduced the structural changes in the second phase, and the organisational structure may change even further in the future.”

No recipe

Stijn stresses that this case does not show the ideal transformation process. “It is first and foremost a tool to encourage discussion that leaves scope for various perspectives, such as strategy, people, organisation culture, business architecture, and operational models. KPN’s story provides a holistic view of a digital transformation and encourages you to analyse your corporate situation by working out for each of these perspectives whether you have been considering them and, if so, whether you are making progress.”

This holistic view is what makes KPN’s case unique. Previously published case studies on digital transformation were limited to strategic aspects, i.e. from positioning to strategic choices and business models. 

Universally applicable

“Digital transformations in the telecommunications sector are interesting. The sector itself is information-intensive, yet many companies date from before the digital era, and they need to reinvent themselves”, Stijn explains. “However, the key questions in this case study apply to any organisation, even outside the telecommunications sector.”
KPN’s transformation is the main case study in our Digital Leadership programme. We have already successfully applied it to various customised programmes both at telecommunications companies and other businesses. “This case study takes the participants out of their comfort zones and encourages them to think about an organisation that may not be theirs, but struggles with similar problems and challenges, and where not everything is not plain sailing either.”

1 Over-the-top providers make audio, video and other content directly available via the internet, bypassing the traditional telecom operators and TV platforms. 

The case study “KPN: How to navigate the digital tides” is published by Ivey Publishing. It includes both the case description and the teaching notes for lecturers.  

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