Category Archives: management

Automation and the London tube strike

I was invited on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today Programme to discuss automation this morning, but on Radio 4, studio audio quality is a higher priority than content quality, while quality of life for me is a higher priority than radio exposure, and going into Ipswich greatly reduces my quality of life. We amicably agreed they should find someone else.

There will be more automation in the future. On one hand, if we could totally automate every single job right now, all the same work would be done, so the world would still have the same overall wealth, but then we’d all be idle so our newly free time could be used to improve quality of life, or lie on beaches enjoying ourselves. The problem with that isn’t the automation itself, it is mainly the deciding what else to do with our time and establishing a fair means of distributing the wealth so it doesn’t just stay with ‘the mill owners’. Automation will eventually require some tweaks of capitalism (I discuss this at length in my book Total Sustainability).

We can’t and shouldn’t automate every job. Some jobs are dull and boring or reduce the worker to too low a level of  dignity, and they should be automated as far as we can economically – that is, without creating a greater problem elsewhere. Some jobs provide people with a huge sense of fulfillment or pleasure, and we ought to keep them and create more like them. Most jobs are in between and their situation is rather more complex. Jobs give us something to do with our time. They provide us with social contact. They stop us hanging around on the streets picking fights, or finding ways to demean ourselves or others. They provide dignity, status, self-actualisation. They provide a convenient mechanism for wealth distribution. Some provide stimulation, or exercise, or supervision. All of these factors add to the value of jobs above the actual financial value add.

The London tube strike illustrates one key factor in the social decision on which jobs should be automated. The tube provides an essential service that affects a very large number of people and all their interests should be taken into account.

The impact of potential automation on individual workers in the tube system is certainly important and we shouldn’t ignore it. It would force many of them to find other jobs, albeit in an area with very low unemployment and generally high salaries. Others would have to change to another role within the tube system, perhaps giving assistance and advice to customers instead of pushing buttons on a ticket machine or moving a lever back and forward in a train cab. I find it hard to see how pushing buttons can offer the same dignity or human fulfillment as directly helping another person, so I would consider that sort of change positive, apart from any potential income drop and its onward consequences.

On the other hand, the cumulative impacts on all those other people affected are astronomically large. Many people would have struggled to get to work. Many wouldn’t have bothered. A few would suffer health consequences due to the extra struggle or stress. Perhaps a few small business on the edge of survival will have been killed. Some tourists won’t come back, a lot will spend less. A very large number of businesses and individuals will suffer significantly to let the tube staff make a not very valid protest.

The interests of a small number of people shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should the interests of a large number of people. If these jobs are automated, a few staff would suffer significantly, most would just move on to other jobs, but the future minor miseries caused to millions would be avoided.

Other jobs that should be automated are those where staff are give undue power or authority over others. Most of us will have had bad experiences of jobsworth staff, perhaps including ticketing staff, whose personal attitude is rather less than helpful and whose replacement by a machine would make the world a better place. A few people sadly seem to relish their power to make someone else’s life more difficult. I am pleased to see widespread automation of check-in at airports for that reason too. There were simply too many check-in assistants who gleefully stood in front of big notices saying that rudeness and abuse will not be tolerated from customers, while happily abusing their customers, creating maximum inconvenience and grief to their customers through a jobsworth attitude or couldn’t-care-less incompetence. Where people are in a position of power or authority, where a job offers the sort of opportunities for sadistic self-actualisation some people get by making other people’s lives worse, there is a strong case for automation to avoid the temptation to abuse that power or authority.

As artificial intelligence and robotics increase in scope and ability, many more jobs will be automated, but more often it will affect parts of jobs. Increasing productivity isn’t a bad thing, nor is up-skilling someone to do a more difficult and fulfilling job than they could otherwise manage. Some parts of any job are dull, and we won’t miss them, if they are replaced by more enjoyable activity. In many cases, simple mechanical or information processing tasks will be replaced by those involving people skills, emotional skills. By automating these bits where we are essentially doing machine work, high technology forces us to concentrate on being human. That is no bad thing.

While automation moves people away from repetitive,boring, dangerous, low dignity tasks, or those that give people too much opportunity to cause problems for others, I am all in favour. Those jobs together don’t add up to enough to cause major economic problems. We can find better work for those concerned.

We need to guard against automation going too far though. When jobs are automated faster than new equivalent or better jobs can be created, then we will have a problem. Not from the automation itself, but as a result of the unemployment, the unbalanced wealth distribution, and all the social problems that result from those. We need to automate sustainably.

Human + machine is better than human alone, but human alone is probably better than machine alone.

Will marketing evolve from fiend to friend?

Let’s start with a possibly over-critical view of marketing today, to emphasise the problem that I think needs solved.

Marketing helps to make us aware of new products and services we might want to buy, and provides some well paid jobs. That’s the good side. But marketing saps a lot of money out of the system, skimming off money as it helps move it around – like banking, or car parking fees for shoppers, without giving much back to GDP. It helps companies sell things, but adds costs to the customer that could have been spent on other products and services. We basically pay companies to tell us to buy their products. Of that money, marketers spend far too high a proportion on advertising, which is basically the lazy marketing option. They waste our time as we watch TV, cold call us, send nuisance texts and automated calls, fill our data quotas with video ads, delay downloads, force installation of applications to block them, which all requires extra computer power and maintenance. In short, we pay them to waste a significant proportion of our precious lifetime as well as our money. In fact the financial cost added to every product is dwarfed by the costs of the extra time consumed. All the extra energy used to broadcast ads on TV or the net or the extra paper and bleach and ink to put them in magazines has an enormous environmental impact too. Advertising consumes a huge amount of resources but on a per-advert basis is very ineffective at making us buy. Google makes a fortune from UK companies for its adverts but by diverting the ad sales through Ireland, manages to avoid paying UK tax, therefore pulling off an excellent vampire impression, dressing stylish and looking cool while sucking the lifeblood from industry. By using up so much air time and online bandwidth advertising directly impedes productive uses. On current form, because of excessive reliance on the lazy option, marketers are more fiend than friend.

Marketing has almost become a one-tool profession, too willing to annoy a lot of people to get a few sales. Other components of marketing such as launch events and trade shows are effective and very effectively target those who are likely to be interested, but advertising dwarfs them. Surely there has to be a better way. How do we get marketing to go from fiend to friend?

There is. Pull marketing (if done properly) gives people what they ask for, in the right form, on the right platform, when they ask for it, not what they don’t want, in their faces, all the time. Marketing will evolve from push to pull. However much the marketing industry and advertisers don’t want it to go that way, the potential value for a given spend via pull marketing is so much higher that it is inevitable. Think about it. Only an idiot would employ someone to stand in a doorway blocking the entrance, jumping up and down screaming messages at customers that are actually trying to squeeze past into the store to spend money. That is the difference between push and pull. Unfortunately for marketers, pull needs different skills, so if they don’t have them, they need to retrain or they will eventually be made redundant. They can hide and massage performance figures for a while to hide the ineffectiveness of throwing money down the drain on advertising, but not forever.

People want to know what is available that might be of interest to them. They also want clues to help filter the vast number of potential products down to a manageable choice. They don’t want silence from suppliers, but appropriate and timely information. Branding is aimed at this of course. So is PR. Marketing should be better integrated into ongoing background brand management and public relations, with excellent web sites to provide information when people want it. In that way, people will think of them when they want something, and be able to find the most appropriate product easily.

The task of providing a good website is often allocated to other groups in the company. This is a mistake. The website needs to be extremely well integrated with marketing, PR and brand. In many companies, only the brand people get a strong influence. A potential customer coming to the site from any angle of approach should be faced with extremely easy navigation, immersed in the values and styles they already associate with that brand and assisted as far as possible in what they are trying to do. They should not be bombarded with waves of ads, popups and guano that prevents them from finding what they want. Even if a customer wants to cancel a service, it should be very easy to do so. They are far more likely to come back than if they had to spend ages finding their way through a maze and over barriers to do so.

One way of keeping customers aware without ramming branding message down their throats every day is to integrate into target communities as useful members rather than just seeing them as potential sales. People will always favour their friends, so actually being a friend is a good idea. That shouldn’t be any great revelation. Big companies recognise their relative inability to engage with local communities across their range and harness an army of resellers who can better achieve this local involvement. Social networking provides a good alternative channel to local resellers, but not by using the wasteful and annoying blanket broadcasting that we usually see. It needs to be focused. A reseller wouldn’t waste time cold calling every resident in an area just in case. They focus efforts on targets that are likely to buy. They do the customer’s work for them, identifying those for whom a product is suited and then making contact. Being friends also means giving genuine discounts or exclusive deals to regular customers. It doesn’t mean using them to palm off products that you can’t shift through normal channels.

Lifestyle is an easy route too. Everyone lives differently, but many people reveal their lifestyles via magazines or newspapers that they buy, the places they visit, the things they do, and indeed the products and services they buy. These are obviously high value marketing hooks. People like their existing opinions and attitudes to be reaffirmed. Letting them know they have made a good decision buying your product makes them feel better about the spend. It takes skill to package such affirming in a way that it doesn’t come across like the lazy ‘congratulations on buying this’. Providing favourable reviews, news links and ongoing support would soon become spam if used too much, but sparingly and with appropriate products, it can be useful.

Handled properly, excluding employees with deep staff discounts, the most likely person to buy is someone who has bought from you before, then in second place, someone who has bought equivalent products from a competitor, then someone who has a strong proven interest in that field. Much further away is someone with a casual unspecified interest in the area who just happens to have chosen a particular keyword in a search for any reason whatsoever, and in the very far distance, a total stranger. Yet those last two are where most advertising revenue is spent.

Magazines are an excellent platform to reach targeted groups, but they still need the right approach. An advert in a magazine is more likely to be read than one in a newspaper, but is still likely to be ignored. An article by a trusted writer will be read, and if it mentions your product favourably, the trust in the writer transfers to your product. If they already have it, it builds the feel-good factor. Strongly themed magazines form an important part of the self-selected lifestyle choice, especially since people can only buy a few each month, and this trust and identification with its writers can go far beyond the magazine itself, into their social media and blogs, and soon, into their augmented reality as they wander around. As social media continues to expand into the high street with location-based services, that relationship will grow and winning the favour and approval of writers will become a more important part of marketing. Care is needed of course. Writers will not want to appear partial since that would compromise their trust and their following, but providing exclusive information to them and being honest about defects wins support without threatening impartiality.

As we move into the era of augmented reality, companies are already discovering how to use precise location. Today, location doesn’t just rely on GPS or mobile signal strengths. Image recognition can identify a customer and also exactly where they are, what gestures they are making, even the expression on their face. From those and various other contributing factors is evolving the huge technology field called context. Context is very important in knowing whether to give marketing information at all and if so, how and what. It helps make sure that efforts are spent to make customers want to buy rather then to make them avoid you. A family might be interested in meal vouchers when lunchtime is creeping up. If they’ve just eaten (and paid), the same vouchers may be very unwelcome. If I have just bought a car, the last thing I want is proof that I could have got it or a better one cheaper or had some extras thrown in!

As context technology develops in parallel with positioning, image recognition and augmented reality technology, we will see the air around us essentially digitised, context-sensitive messages pinned to every cubic millimetre of the air. Digital air, or virtual air, will be a major new marketing platform that will offer hugely more potential and value than advertising, with far less cost and customer annoyance. It also offers the potential to bombard customers with unwelcome blanket ads too, so it will be easy for the industry to shoot itself in the foot. Not just easy, but probably inevitable in an industry with some players who think it is smart to deliberately offend people. If that happens, spam filters will block such ads and the potential will be damaged irreparably for everyone.

Word of mouth is one of the best forms of marketing. It is free and natural and goes to companies who provide good products or services. In its simplest form, it is like ebay’s  reputation score on Facebook’s ‘like’ button. At a higher detail level, companies such as Trip Advisor make good income by harnessing the desire people have to tell others about their experiences, good or bad. People will often take guidance from strangers when there is no better alternative, and even though everyone knows some reviews are by friends, competitors or by people who have never even had any experience of the supplier, if there are a lot of strangers giving reviews, the assumed probability is that most will be telling the truth and any bias will be reduced.

Even so, these sites don’t reach the same level of trust that people have in their friends and colleagues. We should expect that to be harnessed far more in the next few years. Innovative Amazon is among the leaders as always, trying to harness this with its ‘I just bought’ social network button. However, I’m not at all interested what my friends have bought. I am far more interested in whether it turned out to be a good or a bad buy, and then only if I am looking for something similar. I certainly don’t want spam every time anyone I know buys anything. A service that lets people review stuff and then allows people to see the reviews, sorted according to social proximity of the reviewer would be far better. If such a site already exists, as it may well do, I am not yet exposed to it, so it has its own marketing to do. So what is needed would be a site like Trip Advisor, but with a social proximity selector that strips away reviews from friends and competitors, restricts to those who have actually purchased, and then sorted according to social proximity with the reader. By linking to your other social network sites, and identifying your friends and colleagues, it would be able to show you any reviews from that group.

Unfortunately, we already see a rising barrier to this kind of development. Too often, companies want access to our social networks to do push marketing to a broader community of relevance, to make personalized ads, and essentially to use our contacts to abuse us even more efficiently. That is an industry destroying its own future prospects. By misusing the potential to do its push marketing today, it is destroying the potential to do far more effective pull marketing tomorrow. It gets a tiny benefit today at the expense of a huge one tomorrow. Most of us have already become wary of allowing access to our contacts lists because we already assume for good reason that they will be abused. Spam filters quickly remove any short-term benefit they may have won, and prevent future mutual benefit.

Most of these areas of future potential share the same threat of destruction by the very industry that can benefit most. Marketing will move from push to pull whether marketers want it to or not. By trying to force the worst practices from the push era onto the areas that offer the best potential in the pull era, they will only ensure that marketing will remain an underachiever. Sadly, a few players today can and probably will ruin it for many tomorrow. The result is that marketers will marginalize themselves, making themselves relatively powerless in a world where they could have been powerful.

People will find what they want, and what their friends think of things, but they will do so via sites and intermediary companies who respect them, respect their privacy, and give them what they want, not what they try hard to avoid getting, not via push marketers. Pull marketing done well will go to new players who have no time for the old practices and values, to people who want to improve the lives of others by helping them make the right purchasing decisions, not trying to make them buy the wrong ones.  The likely mechanism for this is use of social networking sites that have a different business model than selling adverts – perhaps even ones with the primary purpose of helping the community and improving quality of life rather than making money.

Marketing will evolve from fiend to friend. Hopefully it will be by the fiends reforming, rather than simply dying.

And another new book: You Tomorrow, 2nd Edition

I wrote You Tomorrow two years ago. It was my first ebook, and pulled together a lot of material I’d written on the general future of life, with some gaps then filled in. I was quite happy with it as a book, but I could see I’d allowed quite a few typos to get into the final work, and a few other errors too.

However, two years is a long time, and I’ve thought about a lot of new areas in that time. So I decided a few months ago to do a second edition. I deleted a bit, rearranged it, and then added quite a lot. I also wrote the partner book, Total Sustainability. It includes a lot of my ideas on future business and capitalism, politics and society that don’t really belong in You Tomorrow.

So, now it’s out on sale on Amazon

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-humanity-belongings-surroundings/dp/1491278269/ in paper, at £9.00 and

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-Ian-Pearson-ebook/dp/B00G8DLB24 in ebook form at £3.81 (guessing the right price to get a round number after VAT is added is beyond me. Did you know that paper books don’t have VAT added but ebooks do?)

And here’s a pretty picture:

You_Tomorrow_Cover_for_Kindle

Death by accountant

Some people are not very good at their jobs. Accountants are one of the critical roles in a successful company. If they are good, the company can flourish. If they are bad, it can die. I have come to the conclusion that the worst employee a company can have is an accountant who thinks they are clever but is actually an idiot. If they work with an equivalent self-regarding idiot from marketing, they can destroy a company. Again, many marketing people are essential and very talented, but some just aren’t.

Permit me one rant as a good example:

My dishwasher just broke, again. It is Hotpoint. I wasted a fortune and six hours of my time to get one of their engineers out to fix it, under guarantee, then another to repair the damage he’d done by doing it wrong. Total repair time was 3.5 weeks because they don’t have enough engineers. They cost money apparently. The 6 hours was because an accountant had decided that they should use fewer staff in the call centre to save costs, and even though their customers probably earn more than a call centre staff member, that would be their money, not Hotpoint’s. It’s OK to waste customer’s money and time, even if they never want to buy from you again as a result. And I won’t!

I would normally have trashed the dishwasher, but the girl in the call centre assured me that this model should last for several years after the repair, and they’d give me a 3 month extended guarantee. So I did. Big mistake. Now, 3.5 months later, it has broken again, £110 for 3.5 months dishwasher, not good value at all. This time I decided to fix it myself, but I’d watched a TV program about people who had dishwashers repaired by independent engineers and they wouldn’t work because they weren’t allowed the codes to reset the machine. An accountant had worked out that that blocking independent fair-priced repairs would guarantee high-priced work for their own engineers. However, this is a broken hinge, so might not be part of the control system. I found the broken part, a far-too-thin for the job bolt, which had sheared due to normal everyday forces on it. The thin bolt is cheaper than a strong one, saving several pounds a year for Hotpoint, and designed to last past the initial parts and labour guarantee. After that, the few pence for the bolt is covered by the 5 years by the parts guarantee, but changing it is a £110 call-out fee. Savings are minimal, the potential extra high value work for already overloaded engineers is actually minimal, but the cost of no more sales of white goods ever again to that customer is large. The outcome is a small short term gain, followed eventually by death as customers blacklist them one by one.

This kind of accountancy decision happens everywhere. Identifying tiny savings here and there presumably wins a little praise from a line manager, perhaps an extra bonus for the staff that thought it up, but who  checks the cost of losing the customer by thoroughly annoying them? That usually isn’t one of the beans that gets counted.

Comet went bust a while back. I remember going there. They had a price guarantee on all their products, so why would anyone need to go anywhere else? Well, an accountant and a marketer decided they could offer a price guarantee to fool all their dumb customers by adding a different letter at the end of each product code, so that they could claim that it wasn’t actually the same product, so the comparison didn’t count. So all their customers stopped buying from them. Death by accountant.

A few of our local restaurants suffered presumed death by accountant too. They were doing very well, filling the place, with lots of happy customers. One day, they look at the books and an accountant explained that if they sold lower quality food, or smaller portions, then profit per meal would be higher. But they presumably didn’t take into account the effect on sales volume of selling lower quality food or reducing portions. Customers stop coming and buying, so they went bust. Death by accountant again.

One or two well-known supermarket chains frequently tried for far too long to fool their customers with fake half price offers and selling large packs at higher price per kilo than small ones. Then it seemed to catch them by surprise that people were going elsewhere. Their accountants and marketers presumably think that customers don’t ever realise the tricks and don’t mind having their intelligence insulted and their time wasted calculating value every time they visit. Their accountants and marketers are actually by far the most valuable employees to their competitors, who see their market share increasing rapidly at their expense.

Telecoms companies, TV companies and many others who sell contract based services take confusion marketing and trick contracts to extremes, with relative novelties such as putting everything possible on their sites except links to let you end a contract, which they make as difficult and time consuming and error ridden as possible. Tricking customers by auto-renewing and making sure that the auto-renew engages a month before a contract expires, and not letting the customer know near that time is tantamount to fraud, but is apparently legal. As long as they mention it in the small print once during the entire life of the contract they can avoid punishment. Obviously their customers don’t check every service they have every week and enter diary reminders to check years ahead on everything they buy, so this is very deliberate trickery. It might make a short-term win, but once a customer is fooled once, they are very likely to avoid doing business with that company again. It may take time, but those customer migrations will eventually be death by accountant too.

Automatically increasing insurance and hoping customers won’t check also trades short term wins against long term survival. The problem seems to affect many industry sectors. This suicide-by-accountant trend seems to be an epidemic at the moment. It must surely end soon, because customers are proving that they are willing eventually to migrate their custom to companies that treat them better. Those accountants that are praising their own cleverness today are actually accumulating a huge volume of angry customers who will happily leave them to die when the market inevitably provides such a sensible competitor.

Customers aren’t stupid. You can treat them as fools for a while, but eventually they will resent it. Then you’ll lose far more than you ever gained.

Complete course covering company conception – cremation

If you’re sick of crappy management guides that insist on using the same letter for each point, fight back in kind:

Corporate Cycle

The bright potential future for BT

I left BT in 2007 after 22 years. (For my US readers, BT is Britain’s version of AT&T). Like most employees of most companies, I had a few gripes over the years, but overall, BT was a good company to work for – humane to its staff, while trying to do a good job for both shareholders and customers in a difficult political climate, with pretty sound ethics. It wasn’t perfect, but what company is?

I currently have BT broadband problems, as you do, again, but I still like BT and still keep all my shares, hoping one day they might get back up to what I paid for them. BT holds a unique place in my investments, being the only one I have ever lost money on (well, if I actually sold my shares now I’d lose). But it is a good company, and entirely fixable. My perhaps unjustifiably high regard for the company in spite of any evidence to the contrary doesn’t extend to the board. BT has a lot of excellent and devoted staff, and they are the reason for its survival, I would say very much in spite of it a long history of rubbish CEOs, including Livingstone. (I would exclude Vallance from my rubbish CEO list, I thought he actually did a pretty good job in the circumstances he faced.) As an engineer who could see the vast potential profits from relatively small investments that were open to a decent sized IT company, they all seemed incompetent to me, determined to ignore those potential markets and investing stupidly in others but focusing mainly on cost cutting as the only tool they could really understand. I don’t think any BT CEO since 1985 has deserved their grade or pay. BT gives its staff appraisals, and if I was his boss, I’d have given Livingstone 3 out of 10. At least now he’s in government, he will just be one incompetent among many so he will blend in just fine.

I won’t bother with the details of mistakes made. They are history. The future could still be bright if the new CEO is any good. Sadly, I don’t know Patterson. He joined the board after I left and I had no contact with him beforehand so I know nothing about him. I wish him the very best of success, for everyone’s sakes and if he does well, I’ll very happily sing his praises.

(I know it’s easy to say I could have done a far better job than most BT CEOs. I am certain that I could, and I certainly wouldn’t have made most of the huge errors that I saw, but anyone could say that and of course it is unprovable , and in any case,  I knew lots of other employees that would still have done much better than me. I guess it is a bit like US presidents. With 300 million people to pick from, you really have to wonder how the hell some of them ever got elected.)

So, what should BT do now? I declare my financial interests. I have a few shares, and one day if I am still alive they’ll give me a pension, and I remain a customer, so I do really want them to flourish, but otherwise I have had no financial exchanges with BT since I left in 2007.

A lot of the potential for BT has existed for a long time, and it is proof of previous CEO incompetence that it remains mostly untapped. Other areas are quite new.

There are a few valuable assets that BT makes too little use of to date. One is trust. BT has always achieved a very high trust rating from customers. Sure, they might whine about occasional lousy customer service or call centre delays, but mostly they still trust BT. Technically, customers assume their kit will work pretty reliably and they will eventually fix it with only modest annoyance when it fails. That’s better than it sounds compared to a lot of companies (Hotpoint, British Gas and O2 to name three at the very top of my most recent customer service hate list). They also trust BT on security, again an advantage not to be sniffed at. More importantly, customers trust it morally. It is quite a nice company. It pays its taxes. It has good old fashioned values and doesn’t do services that are morally questionable except where required to by law. It leans towards the customer’s side on questions of privacy v state surveillance. Again, a whole lot better on several important topical points than many big IT and web companies right now. A decent CEO would make his marketing departments do wonders with those advantages.

BT’s main physical asset is a very widespread network, much of which is fibre. But is has seriously floundered on decent speed broadband roll-out for badly miscalculated economic reasons and has ended up losing large numbers of customers onto mobile and other broadband providers. Firstly, it has to fix that by greatly accelerating its roll-out of fibre to cover the entire population within towns and suburbs. Further than that, it can plead poverty to government to extract subsidies for uneconomic roll-outs in some country areas, and fob others off with custom solutions. How close the fibre actually gets to the end customer is not important and there are many feasible architectural solutions. The data rate the customer gets is important.

The data rates it needs to provide via that fibre must be at least 50Mbit/s, which I calculated a long time ago is the latent demand of an average household today. It must be ready to increase those basic rates quickly through 100Mbit/s in 2015 into Gbits/s soon after.

It should by default provide high speed wireless from all of those homes into the nearby area. This will allow serious competition with mobile companies, especially since many customers carry tablets with only wireless LAN access. Those tablets and many smartphones rely on cloud provision for many services such as photo, video and music storage, as well as download services such as TV on demand. Decent wireless rates in the vicinity of most homes and business properties would make fairly ubiquitous broadband a reality, with none of the tiny date rate limits and poor connections offered by mobile operators. (As an aside, not doing that ages ago instead of crippling the company with the costs of unnecessary 3G licenses was one of the big errors I mentioned).

With high speed ubiquitous access, and still loads of building space to place storage and servers, BT could be a first class cloud provider (as Bonfield should have understood, coming from a computing company in the days when the cloud was still called distributed computing and computing on demand). Its engineers have understood cloud technology principles since the 80s, but it has never really invested in it properly. Now that other companies are threatening to put in their own access to their own clouds, BT is vulnerable to attack if it doesn’t quickly seize the opportunity by the throat. This may well become another missed opportunity for BT.

Another one (that CEO Heiffer should have understood, coming as he did from the finance world) is banking. BT manages to charge profitably on calls that cost just a few pence. Micro-payments is resurfacing once again as a valuable service. So far, no company has succeeded in delivering an acceptable micro-payments service but BT has the geographic coverage and technical skill to pull it off. It could go further and do proper full-service community banking. Again, a huge advantage has fallen into its lap thanks to the demise of trust in conventional banks. If any company could make community based banking work, BT could. The political climate is very favourable to get appropriate regulatory consent, society is ready and even eager, and the technology is available and proven with which to make it. Trust is the magic extra ingredient that BT has more of than other players.

Cloud financing, buying and other community based enterprises are all up-and-coming now, drawing from social and business versions of cloud thinking. Again, the core ideas go back decades. BT has been involved in their debates since over 20 years ago and holds a good hand of cards. It still could help a great deal to stimulate economic redevelopment of the UK by implementing just some of its ideas in this space. It is ironic that Livinsgtone failed to understand this enormous opportunity while he was CEO of BT, yet has now been made Minister of State for Trade and Investment. Why would anyone think he will suddenly understand now?

BT could also develop some of its many inventions made at its research labs. In many cases, small development costs are all that should be needed to generate large incomes. BT’s policy for ages has been to starve any forward looking R&D and only feed proven markets. That is no way to grow. Serious R&D investment could reap many times over in rewards. AI, convergence of IT with biotech, sponge nets, augmented reality, novel interfaces, 3D comms, digital bubbles, biomimetics and many others offer potential. Even the railways are open to attack. Conventional rail is still only equivalent to BT’s old circuit-switched lines that it used until the 1970s. A company that has been in front runners for 40 years of packet switching developments ought to be able to apply equivalent thinking to rail and road to gain rich rewards, converging time-wise as it does now with self driving cars, electrics, self organisation, high speed wireless, super-capacitor development and a host of other technologies BT understands well. Here again, rich pickings are available, and BT has one of the best positions to capitalise.

I could go on, but that is enough examples for now. BT has been offered a fresh start with a fresh CEO. If he is even a bit brave he could easily achieve things very far beyond any of his predecessors. As I said, I don’t know him so have no idea if he will be good or bad. Let’s hope he is up to the job and not just another huge disappointment.

Deep surveillance – how much privacy could you lose?

The news that seems to have caught much of the media in shock, that our electronic activities were being monitored, comes as no surprise at all to anyone working in IT for the last decade or two. In fact, I can’t see what’s new. I’ve always assumed since the early 90s that everything I write and do on-line or say or text on a phone or watch on digital TV or do on a game console is recorded forever and checked by computers now or will be checked some time in the future for anything bad. If I don’t want anyone to know I am thinking something, I keep it in my head. Am I paranoid? No. If you think I am, then it’s you who is being naive.

I know that if some technically competent spy with lots of time and resources really wants to monitor everything I do day and night and listen to pretty much everything I say, they could, but I am not important enough, bad enough, threatening enough or even interesting enough, and that conveys far more privacy than any amount of technology barriers ever could. I live in a world of finite but just about acceptable risk of privacy invasion. I’d like more privacy, but it’s too much hassle.

Although government, big business and malicious software might want to record everything I do just in case it might be useful one day, I still assume some privacy, even if it is already technically possible to bypass it. For example, I assume that I can still say what I want in my home without the police turning up even if I am not always politically correct. I am well aware that it is possible to use a function built into the networks called no-ring dial-up to activate the microphone on my phones without me knowing, but I assume nobody bothers. They could, but probably don’t. Same with malware on my mobiles.

I also assume that the police don’t use millimetre wave scanning to video me or my wife through the walls and closed curtains. They could, but probably don’t. And there are plenty of sexier targets to point spycams at so I am probably safe there too.

Probably, nobody bothers to activate the cameras on my iphone or Nexus, but I am still a bit cautious where I point them, just in case. There is simply too much malware out there to ever assume my IT is safe. I do only plug a camera and microphone into my office PC when I need to. I am sure watching me type or read is pretty boring, and few people would do it for long, but I have my office blinds drawn and close the living room curtains in the evening for the same reason – I don’t like being watched.

In a busy tube train, it is often impossible to stop people getting close enough to use an NFC scanner to copy details from my debit card and Barclaycard, but they can be copied at any till or in any restaurant just as easily, so there is a small risk but it is both unavoidable and acceptable. Banks discovered long ago that it costs far more to prevent fraud 100% than it does to just limit it and accept some. I adopt a similar policy.

Enough of today. What of tomorrow? This is a futures blog – usually.

Well, as MM Wave systems develop, they could become much more widespread so burglars and voyeurs might start using them to check if there is anything worth stealing or videoing. Maybe some search company making visual street maps might ‘accidentally’ capture a detailed 3d map of the inside of your house when they come round as well or instead of everything they could access via your wireless LAN. Not deliberately of course, but they can’t check every line of code that some junior might have put in by mistake when they didn’t fully understand the brief.

Some of the next generation games machines will have 3D scanners and HD cameras that can apparently even see blood flow in your skin. If these are hacked or left switched on – and social networking video is one of the applications they are aiming to capture, so they’ll be on often – someone could watch you all evening, capture the most intimate body details, film your facial expressions while you are looking at a known image on a particular part of the screen. Monitoring pupil dilation, smiles, anguished expressions etc could provide a lot of evidence for your emotional state, with a detailed record of what you were watching and doing at exactly that moment, with whom. By monitoring blood flow, pulse and possibly monitoring your skin conductivity via the controller, level of excitement, stress or relaxation can easily be inferred. If given to the authorities, this sort of data might be useful to identify paedophiles or murderers, by seeing which men are excited by seeing kids on TV or those who get pleasure from violent games, so obviously we must allow it, mustn’t we? We know that Microsoft’s OS has had the capability for many years to provide a back door for the authorities. Should we assume that the new Xbox is different?

Monitoring skin conductivity is already routine in IT labs ass an input. Thought recognition is possible too and though primitive today, we will see that spread as the technology progresses. So your thoughts can be monitored too. Thoughts added to emotional reactions and knowledge of circumstances would allow a very detailed picture of someone’s attitudes. By using high speed future computers to data mine zillions of hours of full sensory data input on every one of us gathered via all this routine IT exposure, a future government or big business that is prone to bend the rules could deduce everyone’s attitudes to just about everything – the real truth about our attitudes to every friend and family member or TV celebrity or politician or product, our detailed sexual orientation, any fetishes or perversions, our racial attitudes, political allegiances, attitudes to almost every topic ever aired on TV or everyday conversation, how hard we are working, how much stress we are experiencing, many aspects of our medical state. And they could steal your ideas, if you still have any after putting all your effort into self censorship.

It doesn’t even stop there. If you dare to go outside, innumerable cameras and microphones on phones, visors, and high street surveillance will automatically record all this same stuff for everyone. Thought crimes already exist in many countries including the UK. In depth evidence will become available to back up prosecutions of crimes that today would not even be noticed. Computers that can retrospectively date mine evidence collected over decades and link it all together will be able to identify billions of crimes.

Active skin will one day link your nervous system to your IT, allowing you to record and replay sensations. You will never be able to be sure that you are the only one that can access that data either. I could easily hide algorithms in a chip or program that only I know about, that no amount of testing or inspection could ever reveal. If I can, any decent software engineer can too. That’s the main reason I have never trusted my IT – I am quite nice but I would probably be tempted to put in some secret stuff on any IT I designed. Just because I could and could almost certainly get away with it. If someone was making electronics to link to your nervous system, they’d probably be at least tempted to put a back door in too, or be told to by the authorities.

Cameron utters the old line: “if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear”. Only idiots believe that. Do you know anyone who is innocent? Of everything? Who has never ever done or even thought anything even a little bit wrong? Who has never wanted to do anything nasty to a call centre operator? And that’s before you even start to factor in corruption of the police or mistakes or being framed or dumb juries or secret courts. The real problem here is not what Prism does and what the US authorities are giving to our guys. It is what is being and will be collected and stored, forever, that will be available to all future governments of all persuasions. That’s the problem. They don’t delete it. I’ve said often that our governments are often incompetent but not malicious. Most of our leaders are nice guys, even if some are a little corrupt in some cases. But what if it all goes wrong, and we somehow end up with a deeply divided society and the wrong government or a dictatorship gets in. Which of us can be sure we won’t be up against the wall one day?

We have already lost the battle to defend our privacy. Most of it is long gone, and the only bits left are those where the technology hasn’t caught up yet. In the future, not even the deepest, most hidden parts of your mind will be private. Ever.

Phoenix-based business strategy will win in a fast-changing world

I am leaving for a conference in a few minutes, so this one will be brief. I hate working in airports and hotels.

Businesses worry how they will survive the next 5, 10, 15 years. They should perhaps stop worrying. The primary purpose of a business is to make money. So here is a better strategy than worrying and spending loads on long term planning:

Spot opportunity

Use cloud based thinking and virtuality to get business up and running explosively quickly.

Employ as few staff as possible as full employees, buy the rest in on short term consultancy contracts and freelancing. That keeps admin overheads minimal. Make them use their own kit and use cloud for IT support and provision. That makes IT staff, risks and costs minimal.

Develop quickly and make your money fast with no regard to longevity.

When competition or other market erosion forces start making an impact, cash in and close down while value is still good

Re-invest in next idea, rising like a phoenix using the cash from the last business

This approach is very light-weight. It needs far less administrative load and can be far more task focused, with higher profit margins.

Live fast, die young, resurrect.

OK, flight to catch.

 

The rise and fall of the web

This is my part of a joint newsletter with Rohit Talwar, his was published just now as a guest blog.

The rise and fall of the web

20 years ago, the web was in its infancy and the first conferences appeared where we could all discuss what was coming next. Even then the need was obvious for search engines, portal sites, firewalls, social networking, online shopping, auctions, discount buying schemes and so on and even the seedier side of the web was already obvious back then. Not much around today on the web wasn’t being discussed 20 years ago. It just took that long to emerge and evolve into what was anticipated. What has happened is exposure of the naïve optimism of some of the early debate.

Over the coming years we saw the expected creation of companies like Amazon and ebay, Facebook, Twitter and Google, and the rise of already existing companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Samsung, in some cases from niche player to market dominance. Without exception, the companies I mentioned deserve praise for struggling through the difficult phases of market creation and the sometimes huge and prolonged losses leading up to break-even and eventual profitability. They all started with a dream and made it happen, knowing they would succeed if they worked hard enough at it.

Without wanting to remove any of that praise, it is hard not to wonder if at least part of the dream is starting to turn sour. Is there evidence now that power corrupts? Does possession of a strong market position always lead inevitably to market abuse?

In each case, there are recent examples of less-than-saintly behaviour, but some issues are spreading as a problem, so rather than pick on individual companies, I’ll focus on the issues. In each case, a large company with little effective competition is in strong position to force these policies since they know customers and clients can’t easily just walk away. There is no cartel, but if a problem happens to affect all the main providers for a service, or it is a de-facto monopoly, you really have no choice.

Privacy invasion or at least scant regard for privacy is the biggest issue for some, introducing policies that make it hard for users to remain private. In this case, the reason is obvious. Privacy conflicts with extracting maximum market value from a customer’s personal data. I don’t personally want everyone to know what I just bought online, what I watch on TV, what games I play or what music I am listening to, or to have full access to everything I ever typed on a social networking page. The choice we seem to be presented with is simple. If you don’t want to be fully exposed 24-7, either don’t use the web or a mobile app, or be prepared to spend time frequently to check every site you use carefully for their latest policy changes to make sure an oversight doesn’t allow your privacy doesn’t fall through a new hole they just dug. But even that may not be the real choice now. The emerging pattern seem to be that changes may be introduced retrospectively, eradicating any value in privacy commitments in existing policy. If that behaviour spreads, then any privacy you think you have today is merely an illusion.

Burning the candle at both ends is another recent issue. Although the web has few of the costs associated the with high street, large web companies are charging high fees now to companies to sell via their site, much the same as property developers with the best locations can charge high fees to shops. That end of the candle is well alight, but customers are finding the discounts offered are often far less now too. Now that they have been psychologically hooked by the web empires, prices are rising.

Walled gardens were a consideration for regulators when mobile and broadband networks were emerging – I took part in several workshops discussing their merits and drawbacks. Telecoms regulators understood well that dominant telecoms companies might try to force customers to use only services within their own areas of control, i.e. to stay in their walled garden, and they legislated accordingly to protect customers. It was presumed that competition would suffer greatly if people were not free to wander as they pleased and exploitation would follow soon after.  However, although some of the web giants are heading rapidly and determinedly down exactly that path, the authorities are either looking the other direction or unable to do anything about it. It seems that any regulators that do exist have too vague boundaries on their remits, or the companies fall outside their jurisdiction geographically, or they simply have too many issues to deal with and can’t keep up. It is unacceptable that we now by default have arrived at a business platform that lends itself to abuse but isn’t being properly controlled by the normal regulator processes that apply as standard elsewhere.

Arrogance is a term we hear thrown at web giants frequently now, and it does seem appropriate when a large company ignores protests by its customers and imposes policies that significantly affect the terms and conditions that applied when they first became a customer. Even incrementally small changes can add up to large change in a short time, but if customers have invested time and effort building a profile or establishing a place or network on a site, the personal costs of migration can be too high. There ought to be equivalent rights protecting the interests of customers online just as in the physical world, but online providers appear to be able to make their own conditions of use with much greater scope for abuses, knowing that very few customers will read many pages of small print. Especially where websites feature heavily in everyday use, and where not being a user might even may be a career or social impediment, there should be more protection from arrogance and unilateral determination and management of user rights. Some regulatory body should be making sure terms and conditions are fair and balanced because the market isn’t doing that by itself.

Another aspect of arrogance is the enthusiasm to avoid taxes by exploiting holes in the law, and reading between the lines, it is as if the companies think they know best how money should be spent for humankind’s best interests, not governments. They may be right about government, but that doesn’t excuse arrogance.

Reintermediation is a direct consequence of walled gardens but is an issue in its own right. Early analysis of the web suggested it would lead to perfect markets, where people would be in direct contact with suppliers, thereby cutting out the middle man and his costs while forcing perfect information and hence maximum competitiveness. With good search, it would be easy to find all potential suppliers for something and compare them directly, and there would be no need to go via an agency. What we have now is interesting in that the search sites have themselves become intermediaries, and comparison sites another layer of that, listing results from a subset of suppliers. So instead of removing an intermediary we generated two new ones, three if you use an app store to do it. Everyone wants a slice of the pie of course, but the web was meant to bypass that, and it simply hasn’t. People can go direct, but it doesn’t take long to discover that using a search engine will often put hundreds of pages of the wrong sites before the one you search for. Most of the listings on the first several pages will often be intermediary sites.

In spite of all this, the potential of the web hasn’t gone away. It still allows word of new sites to spread rapidly, for reputations to be made and lost, for empires to spring up overnight, and for old ones to crash and burn. Boredom is under-rated as a motivation to change too. Social network sites in particular are highly vulnerable to their customers simply getting bored and leaving, but new designs and novel ideas can present a real threat to any of them. The sword of Damocles hangs over all.

For all their size and momentum, none of the web giants is guaranteed longevity. As some of yesterday’s giants discovered, a startup can replace them in just a few years. Maybe the first generation of web giants has climbed high, but decadence and abuse of power have made them ripe for conquest. All we need now is to wait for the imminent emergence of the second generation.

Technology Convergence – What’s your Plan? Guest post by Rohit Talwar

Rohit is CEO of Fastfuture and a long-standing friend as well as an excellent futurist. He and I used to do a joint newsletter, and we have started again. Rohit sends it out to his mailing list as a proper newletter and because I don’t use mailing lists, I guest post it here. I’ll post my bit immediately after this one. I’m especially impressed since his bit ticks almost as many filing category boxes as it uses words.

Here is Rohit’s piece:

Technology Convergence – What’s your Plan?

I have just returned from South Korea where I was delivering a keynote speech to a cross-industry forum on how to prepare for and benefit from the opportunities arising from industry convergence. South Korea has made a major strategic commitment starting with government and running through the economy to be a leader in exploiting the potential opportunities arising from the convergence of industries made possible by advances in a range of disciplines. These include information and communications technology, biological and genetic sciences, energy and environmental sciences, cognitive science, materials science and nanotechnology.  From environmental monitoring, smart cars, and intelligent grids through to adaptive bioengineered materials and clothing-embedded wearable sensor device that monitor our health on a continuous basis – the potential is vast.

What struck me about the situation in Korea was how the opportunity is being viewed as a central component of the long-term future of Korea’s economy and how this is manifested in practice. Alongside a national plan, a government sponsored association has been established to drive and facilitate cross-industry collaboration to achieve convergence. In addition to various government-led support initiatives, a range of conferences are being created to help every major sector of the economy understand, explore, act on and realise the potential arising out of convergence.

I am fortunate to get the opportunity to visit 20-25 countries a year across all six continents and get to study and see a lot of what is happening to create tomorrow’s economy. Whilst my perspective is by no means complete, I am not aware of any country where such a systematic and rigorous approach is being taken to driving industry convergence. Those who study Korea know that this approach is nothing new for them – long term research and strategic planning are acknowledged to have played a major role in the evolution of its knowledge economy and rise of Korea and its technology brands on the global stage. Coming from the UK, where it seems that long term thinking and national policy are now long lost relatives, I wonder why it is that so few countries are willing to or capable of taking such a strategic approach.

Rohit on the Road

In the next few months Rohit will delivering speeches in Oslo, Paris, Vilnius, Warsaw, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Denver, Las Vegas, Oman, Leeds and London. Topics to be covered include human enhancement, the future of professional services, the future of HR, transformational forces in business, global drivers of change, how smart businesses create the future, the future technology timeline, the future of travel and tourism, the future of airlines and airports and the future of education. If you would like to arrange a meeting with Rohit in one of these cities or are interested in arranging a presentation or workshop for your organisation, please contact rohit@fastfuture.com