Digital Scotland and The Royal Society of Edinburgh

Just returned from the Next Gen ’10 roadshow in Edinburgh.

The most interesting thing for me ( which I had compeletely missed before I went there) is that Scotland has approached this whole problem of upgrading the broadband network by commissioning the Royal Society of Edinburgh to look at the problem afresh.  Unlike The Royal Society (based in London), the RSE has maintained the “Scottish Generalist Tradition” and have brought an eclectic set of wise folk to apply new thought and rigour to working through the issue of broadband in Scotland so that it serves the wider context of society and the economy.  Technology is a means to a greater end, not an end in itself.

The Digital Scotland interim report can be found by first clicking on the RSE logo below and then clicking on the link right at the bottom of the page “Read Interim Report”:

Unlike the Digital Britain report which was written in the time of a dying administration by economist-politicians, bureaucrats and quangos, and then attacked by the new administration to become a nearly totally ineffective set of recommendations, Scotland has approached the problem with refreshing renaissance-style method that only a body like the RSE can do.  It is an elegant combination of mathematical logic combined with rounded, objective reasoning – and moves the debate forward so that Scotland might well take the thought-leadership position when it publishes its final report once the current comments have been digested.

One conclusion that I came away with is that the whole debate about where fibre goes should be re-focused around Fibre to the Community.  Many of the more rural areas in Scotland would benefit tremendously by digging a single fibre into the community.  The current ambitions of Jeremy Hunt and the Con-Lib coalition government for the UK to become the leader in Europe for broadband by 2015 – without any central government funding – becomes even more challenging when one compares us to Finland – which was very well articulated by Professor Michael Fourman in his detailed analysis backing up Digital Scotland at the conference.

One of the strange things is that the interim report talks of Fiber, not Fibre.  I am not sure how this American English has managed to get into a perfectly good Scottish-English Language document.  But Hey Ho – the world moves on!

The Scots, Edinburgh and the RSE have a long tradition of great invention and enlightened thinking.  This blog will keep a keen eye on developments North of the Border.

(P.S.  The talk that I gave on Sir Patrick Geddes will be put onto this post once I transcribe and edit it.)

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When the Pipe is Blocked

Most of the past week has been taken up with me trying to connect my right leg back to my body.

However, my leg has not been cut off – nor have I been involved in any domestic violence or serious accidents.

Let me explain…

Last Thursday, I had been suffering from a cramping pain in my leg for over a week.  The leg had been swollen for a while and felt quite detached from the rest of my body.  So I decided to go to the doctors on Friday – just before the long Bank Holiday weekend.  He suspected some sort of Thrombosis (or a blood-clot in a vein) and I started a course of medication to thin the blood.

A scan on Tuesday confirmed that I had Deep Vein Thrombosis or DVT.  The sort of things they get worried about when you are old and go on long-haul flights.  So I am now on blood-thinning medicines for 6 months to get rid of the clot.

Picture from: http://heartstrong.wordpress.com/2010/03/30/march-is-dvt-awareness-month-are-you-at-risk/

I suppose it is strange to you that I am writing about such a personal experience on my blog, but this blog is designed to make you think.  It has certainly made me think hard about the more important things in life like family, friends, fitness and general work-life balance.  Even my own mortality!

I have always taken good health for granted and I have not had to go to the doctor for anything serious for years.  But, more importantly, I was thinking how important good circulation or FLOW is in any organism….and I started to wonder what “Organisational DVT” might look like.

If you look for natural flows in an organisation, then there is deal flow and cash flow and the flow of information to fix a problem.  There is also the flow of planning information to coordinate future plans and get everyone (especially suppliers and customers) in-sync.  If things really go wrong, then we can end up with burst pipes and oil disasters.

So the concept of one of these flows within an organisation getting blocked becomes quite interesting to me in the work that I do.

In many ways, if things are flowing, then life is as it is meant to be.  If things are blocked, then life becomes a struggle and the consultants get called in – both medically and managerially!

So if the analogy can be taken further, then it is interesting to wonder what the equivalent of blood-thinning agents are to organisational DVT…  One of the most important is cash – and if you can’t borrow it, then parts of the organisation will surely become blocked and unhealthy.  But there are probably many more examples.

Now I know what is wrong with my leg, then I hope it will start to reattach itself to the rest of my body, as it were, so that I feel whole again as the clot dissolves.

After all, you only have one body – and selling-off parts or divisions to the highest bidder is not the answer in this particular case!  That is where the analogy between human bodies and organisational bodies perhaps starts to break down.

All the same, it is an interesting analogy and one that I may well explore further in future Thursday Thoughts.

As before, all comments welcome!

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When it’s Time to Quit

This is the first of a new series of “Thursday Thoughts”.  Please do sign up for future editions by completing the form on the THURSDAY THOUGHTS? tab above and I will send you an email in the future every Thursday to stimulate your thoughts!

Having spent a few weeks struggling to master a state-of-the-art Web 2.0 marketing package costing me several hundred dollars in monthly service fees, I decided, this week, to stop the subscription, clear the decks and start again.

In the high-tech world, times like this are both scary and exciting.  You press the “delete button in the sky” and all the work you have put into the old system is gone.  This is particularly true with cloud-based applications – where you have not only put time into configuring – but much the more valuable time of actually learning the system.

The good news is that in the past 24 hours I have managed to re-create a much better integration with my existing website and blog than I ever managed to achieve with the old system – at about a tenth of the ongoing monthly expenses!

The buzz in the past few years might well be right concerning Cloud Services, Software as a Service, Platform as a Service, On Demand etc. etc. as being the next big thing.  But some things don’t change.  INTEGRATION is absolutely key to creating a smooth flow of work between the various application stacks in any company.  This is where the workarounds and exceptions and “knowledge of how things work” becomes the expensive items in any organisation – whether in the Business or IT.

The corageous pioneers of this new cloud-based world will make many mistakes in the early days when choosing which platforms and applications should (or should not run) their companies.  It smacks of the pre-ERP world where integrators made a lot of money from bonding “best of breed” packages.  It was only because of the high costs and failure of many of these projects did  the big ERP vendors like SAP and Oracle make the move to mop up by presenting pre-integrated suites of applications.

From my experience, in the early days of developing anything new, you have to keep it REALLY SIMPLE, find applications that are already well integrated with other things you use.  So often we are taken down a blind alley because some hype or salesman has schmoozed us about all the exciting features in XYZ application – many of which we will never use – however competent we become.

In the past 36 hours I have re-taught myself that when things are simply not going right, it is often a big relief to “call it quits”.  I was pleased that I could at least extract the latest data sets of customers and products that I had on the old system and make an elegant withdrawal from the complexity, confusion and cost that it had given me.  It strikes me that a lot of politicians and civil-servants must be thinking the same about whatever their particular problem is at the moment.

Finally, I always think that the basis of a good decision is whether, 24 hours later, you regret making the change or not.  I am glad to say that today I am very happy with my choice of simplifying and getting back to basics.  Interested to any of your thoughts or stories that support (or counter) this, the First Thursday Thought!

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The Next Decade: The Decade of Games

It is well worth watching this latest TED video from Seth Priebatsch:

Seth cites four dynamics:

1. Appointment Dynamic

Where players have to do something at a pre-defined time/place…..I really like the way to create a game to take medicine as a real-world application.  I don’t play Farmville on Facebook – but my children do and I can see it is addictive.  The business world relies more and more on virtual appointments – but this area is surely still in its infancy.

2. Influence and Status Dynamic

Enough said!

3.  Progression Dynamic

“The average player spends 6.5 hours a day on World of Warcraft”……I constatly ask what does this mean for work and the next generation of folk in the workplace?  Players in this new world will demand more interactive, 3D experiences at work.  They will not be willing to take jobs that are considered “boring”.   This gap between the gaming world and the current tools and practices in the workplace is going to be a big challenge to bridge.  But lots of opportunities present themselves as well.

I also really like the new way of ascribing grades so they are not pass or fail but encourage you to develop to the next stage.  I am sure that good schools understand this already anyway!  It takes a Princeton drop-out not to see this perhaps!

4. Communal Discovery – everyone has to work together to achieve something

The DARPA Balloon Challenge sounds fascinating as a really effective search mechanism – not sure I fully understand it, but what a great way to collect information quickly by rewarding those along the chain of collection.

The question I have is what are the other three dynamics?

Comments welcome!

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Broadband: The Final Frontier

I hope you enjoy my first upload to YouTube!

It mixes ideas on Next Generation Broadband with the structure of a Palindrome.

If you have not seen one of these before, hang in there!  You won’t understand the real message until you get to the end.

Thanks to other Palindromes on YouTube for the inspiration!

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The Second Herculean Task: The Nine-Headed Hydra of National Procurement Schemes

On looking at the challenges the UK faces on reducing spending, I am reminded of the second Labour of Hercules:

——–

There was a beast living in the swamps of Lerna that ravaged the countryside devouring cattle. It was known as the Hydra. For his second labour, Eurystheus ordered Hercules to rid the world of this predatory monster.  Taking his nephew, Iolaus (who was a surviving son of Hercules’ brother Iphicles), as his charioteer, Hercules set out to destroy the famed monster – which had nine heads, one of which was immortal.

Of course Hercules couldn’t simply shoot an arrow at the beast or club him to death.   There had to be something special about the beast that made normal mortals unable to control it.  If ever one of the mortal heads were cut, from the stump would immediately spring forth two new heads!  Wrestling with the beast proved difficult because while trying to attack one head, another would use its fangs to bite Hercules’ leg.

Ignoring the nipping at his heels and calling upon Iolaus for help, Hercules arranged to have Iolaus burn the neck as soon as Hercules had chopped a head off.  In this way the stump could not regenerate.  When all eight mortal necks were headless and cauterised, Hercules sliced off the immortal head and buried it underground with a stone on top to hold it down.  Having dispatched with the head, Hercules dipped his arrows in the gall of the beast, and in this way, as he would soon learn, he made his arrows lethal.

Upon returning to the outskirts of Tiryns, Eurystheus denied Hercules credit for the labor because Iolaus had helped out.

——–

As I see it, the coalition government has a Herculean task of slaying the nine-headed monster of Government Procurement.  What is required is that all existing  mega-procurement national contracts are isolated and cauterised before two new heads can grow.  Savings are seldom made through encouraging this kind of national monster to feed on the fragile local economies that keep the country serviced.   The more contracts that can be given to local businesses the better.  It will take a lot of courage to ignore the heel-biting that will appear as this particular Hydra is systematically de-capitated and destroyed.

With the abolition of the RDAs and with a solid plan coming out of DCLG last week, along with other cuts in other national spending programmes, the signs so far are promising that the government has a systematic plan, like Hercules, to slay the monster.

It will considerable time to kill the other heads of the Nine-Headed Hydra of National Procurement – as well as some courage not to allow new heads to emerge in the before the monster is dead.  I already see new heads in BIG BUSINESS emerging under other guises wanting to keep the monster alive for as long as it can.

In the end, even if, as in Hercules’ case, David Cameron and his team do not get all the credit because they have been helped by the Lib-Dems, then the battle will have been worth it just to have slayed the monster.  Even so, some would say there are still ten Herculean tasks to go before we get the country back on track!

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E comes before F

Just as Ethernet comes before Fibre in the alphabet, I can’t help but think that rather than debate the merits of FTTH, FTTC, FTTX etc. we should be debating about:

Ethernet to the Home
Ethernet to the Small Business Park
Ethernet to the School
Ethernet to the Pub
Ethernet to the Fridge
etc.

If we put more emphasis on providing Ethernet to the Community….or ETTC and let the Fibre follow the demand for Ethernet services, then that would be a much easier model to rally around. The technology could then be pulled by the increasing demand for Ethernet services.

After all, E comes before F!

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Why do some organisations drive us totally bonkers?

Most of us can relate to examples of when customer service organisations have driven us completely bonkers: being passed off to another department that does not answer your call and drops you into a black hole; getting through to an Indian call centre that has not a clue how to address your problem; orders placed and fulfilled incorrectly……the list is endless.

With the so-called customer relationship being such a fundamental component to the success of any business, why do companies behave in such a maddening way? The answer may well lie in some interesting new research from psychology. It describes a model that helps to diagnose the roots of certain common mental health problems but can also be extended to help us understand some of the more general dysfunctions that we see within organisations.

The New Psychology of Caetextia (or Context Blindness)

Recent psychological research in the UK has come up with a new model for us to understand better what is going on with people suffering from a range of mental health conditions such as Asbergers’ syndrome, Autism and schizophrenia. In summary, these symptoms are best expressed by the inability of people to switch easily between several foci of attention – and to track them against the history and context that relates to them. This new line of research has been called ‘caetextia’ by the researchers: coming from the two Latin words caecus, (meaning ‘blind’) and contextus, (meaning ‘context’). Further details can be found at www.caetextia.com.

It would appear that organisations can also demonstrate the symptoms of caetextia (or context-blindness). Organisational Caetextia (or OC as we will call it from now on) can help us understand why some organisations exhibit a sort of madness when dealing with their customers and employees – yet give us a clue as to why they remain blind to the significant consequences of acting in such a crazy way.

In cases of caetextia in individuals, the new research has uncovered two types of context blindness – and OC can also be observed in two distinct types of dysfunctional behaviour. Before we look at these two types, though, it is worth looking in more detail at the part of the brain that allows us to process context.

Parallel Processing in the Human Brain

In order for us to have context, we need to be able to see events from different points of view. Recent research into how the brain works has revealed that all mammals have a part of the brain that can process masses of information at the same time – similar to the new ways that we configure parallel processing in computers. This part of the brain developed millions of years ago to guage the risks associated by processing multiple streams of information and unconsciously comparing them to previous experiences. This is something we take for granted today, but millons of years ago it was the key to any mammal’s survival and conserve energy by not reacting to every stimulus that came along.

The research has concluded that this parallel processing part of the brain can become impaired – and this is particularly prevalent in people who demonstrate symptoms on the autistic spectrum. In such cases the brain cannot do the parallel processing necessary to keep separate streams of attention, switching effortlessly between each of them to assess their relevance to what is actually happening in the here-and-now. This form of parallel processing requires the brain to dissociate: in other words to be able to to review what it knows about something that it has come across before, whilst also paying attention to that something in the present. It is no wonder that such people often suffer from learning difficulties!

Two types of Organisational Caetextia (OC)

The research has also uncovered two types of Caetextia: front-of-brain or straight-line thinking blindness and back-of-brain random association blindness. What is interesting is that these types of caetextia can also be applied to organisations and can help us understand why some organisations are so disconnected.

The first type can be called “Process OC”. This is where an organisation processes work in logical straight lines without taking into account the wider organisational implications of doing so. This type of OC is fixated in the front of the brain. Examples might be a call centre agent who does not know which person or department to hand-off someone to and simply puts them into a telephone black hole. Another example might be an agent who says “I am really sorry that this has happened to you, I will get someone to ring you back” – and they never do.

Organisational Caetextia of the process type tends to happen lower-down organisatons (for instance someone in the back-office saying: “that’s not my job, I only process this type of transaction”. Front line workers will often be encouraged to adopt to this type of thinking with phrases such as “You are not paid to think. Just do what I say”. This dysfunctionality is exacerbated by outsourcing arrangements where the supplier organisation fulfills its minimum service level obligations and is very much driven by the mantra “if it is not in the contract, then I can do it, but it will cost you more”.

The second type “Informational OC” tends to be found higher-up in organisations. This type of OC is based in the back of the brain. The symptoms of this type of organisational madness is driven by managers and “leaders” defining a whole world of information they need to run the business that is of very litle value other than to those managers holding their jobs down or playing the politics of the given day. Often the amount of information needed expands without any understanding on the cost associated with gathering it. The information is then dressed up as targets to “motivate” those lower down the organisation to stretch themselves to meet those targets and get a bonus. Vast parts of the organisation chase numbers that have no bearing on the reality of what is actually happening to customers on a day-to-day basis.

In times of stress, the information will often be used to create random associations between the data sets, coming to rapid conclusions to reinforce otherwise illogical assumptions and then finding it rather difficult to justify their decisions after the event. The whole saga of justifying Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq is a good example of this. Organisations also use such pools of information to get rid of people lower down in the organisation who are not “conforming”… even if the data bears no resemblence to reality and the people are doing valuable work with customers.

Conclusion

Successful organisations use back-brain (information = innovation) with front-brain (process = delivery) in a combination that drives continuous improvement. A well-known example of this is Google who allow each employee to spend 20% of their time on their own projects.

In less successful organisations, these two frameworks of OC might be useful in alerting organisations, managers and employees or service workers to the madness that is around them – and perhaps give them a perspective to stop some of the maddening things they are doing to their customers and suppliers at the moment!

References

More on the basic and ongoing research at Mindfields College (now Human Givens College) at: http://www.caetextia.com

The main ideas in this article were first published with Mark Richards (ex:pw consulting) in an article for the CRM evaluation centre.

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Fibre to the Third Place (FTT3P)

The third place is a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings which are separate from the two normal social environments of our homes (first place) and the workplace (second place).

In his influential book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg (1989, 1991) argues that third places are important for civil society, democracy, civic engagement, and establishing feelings of a sense of place. Oldenburg calls one’s “first place” the home and those that one lives with. The “second place” is the workplace — where people may actually spend most of their time.

Third places, then, are “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. All societies already have informal meeting places; what is new in modern times is the intentionality of seeking them out as vital to current societal needs. Oldenburg suggests that the three hallmarks of a true “third place” are that they are free or inexpensive; provide food and drink (while not essential, quite important); and that they are highly accessible. Starbucks and Costa are obvious examples, but villages and rural communities often have other third places such as a cafe, a pub, a church hall or a school hall.

As more and more people choose to telecommute and work from home, third places become ever more important as the bridge between the old world and the new world of work: both paid and voluntary.

If we are going to re-invent society around more local, sustainable ways of working, then the nurturing of our third places becomes central to this new philosophy for 21st century living.  And if we see  want these “communities of place” to replace the industrial factories and call-centres and office factories of yesterday, then we must provide them with the latest broadband.

Hence Fibre to the Third Place.  WiFi hotspots do some of it, but there remains a lot more work to do!

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