There’s no such thing as a grouchy old person…

The Badger has noted a rise recently in the ‘suggested for you’ items pushed to him on Facebook. Normally these items are simply ignored, but the other day when ‘Dumfries and Galloway! What’s going on?’ appeared as ‘suggested for you’ the Badger was intrigued. What had he been doing online recently that could make the algorithms behind the scenes conclude this might be of interest? After wracking his brain for a minute, the answer didn’t materialise. May be Facebook is desperately pushing anything to increase the time users stay on the platform? Perhaps, because user stickiness is, after all, core to social media business models, and Facebook will, no doubt, use whatever techniques it can to make money and counter waning user popularity.

The attention-grabber with the ‘Dumfries & Galloway’ item was simply the following headline text:   

‘There’s no such thing as a grouchy old person. The truth is, once you get old you stop being polite and start being honest.’

It made the Badger – who strives to be polite, honest, and never grouchy (although some may disagree) – chuckle, reflect, and realise that the sentiment conveyed by this text applies throughout our working lives and not just in our dotage.

Think back to when you left school, college, or university and entered the workforce. No matter how full of enthusiasm you were, you probably deferred to the views and decisions of colleagues ten or more years older than yourself because they were ‘old’ and more experienced. Now roll forward ten years to when you had married, acquired a large house mortgage, and perhaps a couple of young children. You were now part of the ranks at work that you once considered ‘old’, but you were still probably careful of openly disagreeing with ten-year older colleagues in senior positions to avoid putting your employment and salary income at risk.

Roll forward yet another ten years to when your mortgage is no longer a millstone, you have some financial security, and the children are finding their own way in life. You realise your career has plateaued, those ten-years older are retiring, that leaving the workforce is the next big personal milestone, and that you have nothing to fear from saying what you really think. Directness, impatience, and frustration come to the surface, and younger colleagues think you are just a grouchy ‘old’ person, which isn’t the case. You’ve just reached the part of the lifecycle where you realise that you can be completely true to yourself, and that politeness and saluting the corporate mast have their limits.

Always remember that throughout your career and whatever the role you have in your organisation, you are always ‘old’ to some. The ‘Dumfries and Galloway; What’s going?’ attention-grabber is a progressive truth, because there is no predefined age when you become ‘old’. It’s worth remembering that.

Nothing is forever…

The Badger’s first boss in the IT industry had their employment terminated  after the financial performance of their business unit disappointed for the third quarter in a row. They shrugged their shoulders sanguinely and told the Badger  ‘Nothing is forever. That applies to technology, organisations, and people. Always scan the horizon and prepare for possible changes as best you can’. These words came flooding back with the announcement that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s reign had come to an end. The Badger has found himself reflecting on these words given the huge technological changes that happened in the Queen’s 70-year reign.

At the time of her Coronation in 1952, television was black and white, in less than 20% of UK homes, and there was only one channel. Radio and paper newspapers dominated the flow of news to the general public, coal and wood were the primary fuels for heating homes, only 1 in 20 people had access to a motor car and the UK motorway network didn’t exist. The world’s first commercial airline service using jets had just started, steam engines pulled carriages on the railway network, and a landline telephone in the home was a luxury. Life was spartan, food was still rationed, satellites didn’t exist, microchips had not started to revolutionise the field of electronics, and the Information Technology sector had yet to be born.

Things are very, very different today. The technological change during the Queen’s reign has been phenomenal. It has been diverse, fascinating, and awe-inspiring, and it has evidenced the truth of the ‘nothing is forever’ words of the Badger’s boss. The Queen’s reign saw both the emergence of multiple new technologies that changed our lives, and their subsequent obsolescence. The emergence and then decline of video tapes, CDs, and DVDs with the advent of streaming illustrates the point neatly, as does the journey from bulky black and white and then colour TVs with Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) screens to today’s ‘Smart’ flatscreen, wall-mounted, multi-functional, entertainment devices. The journey from early mainframe computers for business, to personal computing, the internet, and the powerful tablets and smartphones in our hands also potently illustrates the numerous cycles of innovation and obsolescence that have occurred during the Queen’s reign. It’s a sobering reminder that the technology we embrace today is inevitably tomorrow’s obsolescence.

Nothing lasts forever’ is an undeniable truth, a truth that the end of the Queen’s reign brings into stark perspective. It’s a truth that applies to everyone, everything, and in every facet of life, and one that our new monarch, King Charles III, is now steadfastly embracing. These three words remind us that we should actively and positively deal with the cards that are dealt to us in life, and that there are no better role models for doing this than the Queen we mourn and our new King.

Driverless trains; a necessary transformation…

Train travellers in the UK are being inconvenienced by frequent industrial action by rail sector Trade Unions. Finger pointing, ideological differences, and slow progress in dispute negotiations are clear to see. Attempts by the employers to modernise working practices, improve efficiency, and move towards driverless trains, seem to be a red rag to a bull for the Unions, as the following two sentences from an RMT press release neatly illustrate:  

“Driverless trains are a Tory fantasy that should be consigned to the science fiction shelf. They are dangerous nonsense and just another dead cat lobbed on the table to distract from what’s going on in the real world.”

These words bring a wry smile to the Badger’s face, because they capture a holistic general truth, namely that technology is always available to enable change, but it’s the mindset of people and the motives of their leaders that determine whether and when – or not – the technology will be embraced.

The pandemic has seismically changed railway passenger numbers, people’s travel patterns, and reduced train revenues in the UK. It thus seems unrealistic to think that the way things were pre-pandemic is a good model for the rest of this decade, especially when technology like that here can contribute so much for the greater good.  This decade is transformational for society, whether we like it or not, as a result of global health, energy, and economic crises, geo-political redefinition, and rapidly advancing, technological capabilities. No person or organisation is immune to these changes, which need politicians, employers, and Trade Union leaders to cooperate with shared objectives if they are to be navigated effectively for the country’s benefit. Currently this doesn’t look to be the case when it comes to the railways.

Why is that? Well, successful transformations require stakeholder alignment with common, apolitical, objectives. The press release sentences above suggest this clearly isn’t the case with the UK railways. Deep rooted antagonism is obvious. The Badger feels that one reason for this lies with the fact that rail unions are themselves struggling to transform in today’s world. Government statistics show that unions have many membership, demographic, and societal change challenges, a fact fully recognised by the TUC itself.   Rail union belligerence towards driverless trains might thus be just an act of petulant resistance that does not benefit their members, the travelling public, or the country, in the years to come.

Progress towards introducing driverless trains should be more advanced than for driverless cars on the road network, but it isn’t, and it looks unlikely that they will be common on the UK rail network this decade. There are always pros and cons with automation, but the two press release sentences above help to illustrate why UK productivity is 15% below that in the US and France.  Things need to change…and driverless train technology needs to be embraced rather than demonised.

The ‘Decade of Great Correction’…

The Badger chuckled after chatting to an elderly lady going to the shops on a mobility scooter. They had commented on not only the state of the world and the impact it was having on them personally, but also on the puritanism and woke culture that’s made them cautious about talking to strangers in case they say something that causes offence. They also complained that people are too ready to accept what they read in the press and on social media, and that this meant we are all doomed before the decade is out! This prompted the Badger to cogitate on how historians might ultimately label our current decade.

Thoughts were consolidated over an americano in a local coffee shop. The Badger concluded two things. Firstly, that the online world hasn’t changed the basic fact that fretting about the state of the real world and its personal impact is an inherent part of both life and the human psyche. Online facilities have merely expanded the universe of what we can worry about! Secondly, that historians will label the 2020’s as the ‘Decade of Great Correction’ because the enormous breadth of difficult circumstances is fundamentally changing behaviours.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered seismic waves of change across social, economic, and political fronts. Personal attitudes, values, behaviours, and habits are changing as a result, and the ramifications will reverberate through the rest of the decade. The tech sector is not immune to these changes. Peloton and Zoom, for example, are already encountering tougher times, streaming services are worried about subscriber levels, social media platforms are coming under increasing regulatory scrutiny and geo-political influence, and consumers are savvier about the online world.

The Russia/Ukraine conflict has caused multidimensional disruption contributing to a dramatic rise in inflation everywhere. Individuals and businesses alike are struggling to survive with soaring energy prices, something that’s likely to persist given superpower relationships do not seem conducive to stability in the world. Overlaid on this is an unfolding global recession, an unwinding of the quantitative easing that has damaged people’s prudency regarding personal savings since the 2009 financial crash, and rising interest rates that will stress those who borrowed heavily during the era of cheap money. And then there’s climate change…

A correction in most people’s lifestyles is afoot (see an unusual sign here, for example). Many will retrench from consumerism and materialism to the same core priorities as our ancestors, namely shelter, putting food on the table, and protecting loved ones. This will impact industrial, social, and political dynamics for years to come. The ‘Decade of Great Correction’ thus seems an apt descriptor for the 2020s!

The Badger finished his coffee. He left the shop wondering if it would still be there once their next utility bill arrived.

Troublesome projects…and Bertrand Russell

Line managers always get pressure from senior executives to take swift action when a project they’re responsible for experiences serious difficulty. Line managers, especially inexperienced ones, often assuage this pressure by quickly changing the Project Manager. This often-knee-jerk response doesn’t always fix the problem because although the new appointee may be conveniently available, they may not have the breadth of personal, commercial, delivery and technical characteristics needed, or be properly empowered. One of the Badger’s experiences of being appointed as ‘the new project manager’ by a panicking line manager proved not only to be reminder of the strength and diversity of character needed to turnaround a troubled project, but also a memorable introduction to Bertrand Russell.

The project in question was not meeting its contract with an international prime contractor who was delivering a huge strategic programme for their end customer. The Badger’s remit from the line manager was ‘fix everything’ because the finances are perilous, and litigation is looming. Senior executives from all the organisations involved had met in a last ditch bid to avoid an expensive, embarrassing, catastrophe for all concerned. They had agreed to leadership changes and so the Badger found himself appointed at the same time as a new opposite number in the prime contractor.

Our first engagement shortly after being appointed was at a meeting involving both of our respective incumbent team leads, ostensibly as an opportunity for them to air their thoughts and feelings about the contract’s difficulties. The two teams were polarised, divergent, defensive, inconsistent, and in blame mode from the outset! After a particularly fractious exchange, the Badger’s new prime opposite number called a halt for a coffee break and took the Badger to one side. The badger was asked if he was familiar with Bertrand Russell and two of his famous quotes, namely:   

  • The fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
  • Collective fear stimulates herd instinct and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.

The Badger said no. His counterpart then used these quotes to make the point that if we could both see the problems and resolutions but were full of doubt and worry about being different to our incumbent teams, then nothing would change, and litigation beckoned. We agreed that we were not stupid, not members of the herd, only focused on finding solutions, unmotivated by personal kudos, and that we expected to take  unpopular decisions. Following this conversation, we both did difficult things with our teams and the turnaround started.

So, remember this. To fix a troublesome project needs a focused and resilient character, intelligence and a breadth of skills, and some awareness of Bertrand Russell’s wisdom!Anyone full of self-doubt or worried about being an outsider is unlikely to succeed.

UK Smart Meter rollout; updated official statistics due shortly…

The next official update of UK Smart Meter rollout statistics is due on the 25th August. The last update, here, covering the first quarter of 2022, showed that 41% and 48% of domestic gas and electricity meters, respectively, are now Smart Meters operating in smart mode. This means that, overall, 45% of all domestic meters are Smart Meters functioning as intended, an increase of 2.8 percentage points in the first quarter of 2022. It’ll be interesting to see how things have changed in the forthcoming update.

Since the National Audit Office’s spotlight on the rollout  in 2018, new obligations on energy suppliers, and a new target for completing the entire rollout by mid-2025, were introduced in July 2021 . The devil’s always in the detail with official statistics, so there’ll probably be scope in the forthcoming figures for politicians and energy suppliers to assert that things are on track to hit the new mid-2025 target. The Badger’s nose, however, is twitching, which is normally an early warning signal to expect more delay and cost. Why the twitch? Well, extrapolating into the future may be a dangerous game, especially in volatile energy supply, political, and economic times, but if the rollout continues to put just 2.8 percentage points on the overall number every quarter, then ~20% of the target will still be outstanding in mid-2025. If the forthcoming statistics are better than expected, then the Badger might need to recalibrate his nose as an early warning sensor!

Regardless of the marketing campaigns, Smart Meters provide little real benefit to the consumer who continues to pay for their rollout in their bills. They primarily benefit energy suppliers and the government, through various overhead and wholesale energy trading cost reductions and spin regarding commitments to 2050 net zero emissions. UK Subnational Electricity and Gas consumption statistics show that in 2020 domestic electricity consumption had reduced by 18.6% compared to its level in 2005. Similarly, domestic gas consumption had reduced by 28% over the same period. It’s notable that the national Smart Meter rollout began in earnest in 2016 and so hasn’t played any significant role in these reductions. The devil’s again in the detail, but you really have to be rather blinkered to believe otherwise.

The Badger feels that mainstream media’s focus on energy prices and their impact on the cost of living in recent months – a focus driven by post-pandemic, geo-political, and bust supplier issues – has changed the use of energy by consumers faster and more permanently than Smart Meters have or will do in the future. Well done the media, for a change! So, if the Badger’s twitchy nose still has some credibility, what’s next for the Smart Meter programme if the forthcoming rollout statistics are poor? Perhaps this expensive programme will achieve formal white elephant status and consumers will get a rebate? Dream on…

Returning to balance in supply chains…

Every commercial enterprise and every public sector organisation has a supply chain. When the supply chain works well no one really notices, but when it’s disrupted, for whatever reason, all hell can break loose unleashing all kinds of reactions, realisations, and changed behaviours to deal with the situation. The Covid-19 pandemic and conflict in Ukraine illustrate this rather neatly. They have shown to governments, businesses, and the general public alike, that global supply chains cannot be taken for granted, are  fraught with risk, and can have dramatic economic and inflationary impact when seriously disrupted.

Global supply chains are at the heart of the functioning of the developed world, and the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply highlights some of their advantages and disadvantages.  Globalisation has meant greater exposure to the risk of economic, political, and financial instabilities, health and natural disasters, and to the logistics,  communication, security, and lack of direct control risks that come with far off places. This truth is plain to see as governments and businesses, and we as individuals, deal with the ramifications of the pandemic and geo-political events. It’s unsurprising,  therefore, that much is going on in governmental and business circles to return supply chains to some better balance in order to reduce risk and improve economic resilience. As pointed out here, supply chain reshoring, where this is possible, and the establishment of multiple supply paths with overtly ‘friendly’ countries are being actively progressed to improve future business and economic continuity.  

The Badger’s harboured a feeling for some time that our reliance on complex global supply chains was a problem waiting to happen, and that some kind of ‘event’ would force some retrenchment. It seems that the pandemic and Ukraine have been the trigger  ‘event’, but if this hadn’t been so then it was probably just a matter of time before climate-change weather disasters or military belligerence between superpowers had the same effect.  There have, of course, been global supply chains for centuries – think back, for example, to the Silk Road and the Spice Route. What’s happening in the world today is not their death, but a ‘returning to balance’ that should provide a more balanced, baseline template for the future.

Decades ago, the Badger ran a project that included building hundreds of bespoke computing devices whose LCD screens were produced by just one company in Japan. All went smoothly until the Japanese company unexpectedly stopped manufacturing the screens. The ramifications took months to sort out. The subsequent review and lessons-learned report not only highlighted flaws in the Badger’s company’s approach to managing suppliers the other side of the world, but also recommended that the company’s approach to international supply chains was overhauled to ‘return to balance’ . The phrase is worth remembering and seems very pertinent to what’s happening on the world stage with global supply chains today.

What’s colourless, odourless, beneficial and toxic, and runs the world?

The Badger has a small, framed, vintage print of the Periodic Table of Elements from his school days on his desk. It’s been a constant reminder over the years that everything in our physical world is made up of elements in this table. While at his desk listening to a rather frustrating podcast featuring a climate emissions evangelist and a business leader arguing about fossil fuels, the Badger’s eye was drawn to this trusty print. Something said in the exchange between the protagonists in the podcast made the Badger mentally tune out and recall how his school chemistry teacher used to describe elements in the Periodic Table and common chemical compounds. The trigger for this was the business leader saying that ‘fossil fuels run the world economy and hence our lives and will do so for some time yet’.

It made the Badger look at the framed print on his desk, think of his school chemistry teacher, and decide that it’s not fossil fuels but something colourless, odourless, beneficial and toxic, that cannot be touched or felt and that can be produced by any country, that really runs the world and its economy today, namely software! Fossil fuels and industries that heavily use them bear the brunt for most activism on reducing global carbon emissions, whereas software, which constantly proliferates at the heart of our ever-expanding digital and ICT world, seems to have a lower profile on the ‘green’ activism scale. Notwithstanding Microsoft’s drive to be carbon negative by 2030 and the existence of the Green Software Foundation, it feels like the design, development, testing, release and use of software in every facet of life deserves much more quantitative ‘green’ attention if global digitalisation and the processing and storage of huge amounts of data isn’t to become the next generation’s emissions and resource sustainability crisis.  

Some argue that software and global digitalisation can help to cut our overall global emissions by 15% or more.  However, researchers at Lancaster University suggest not only that this might not be so, but also that while ICT has driven efficiency and productivity improvements over the years, the historical evidence shows that global  emissions have still risen relentlessly.  The devil’s always in the detail, of course, and spin and greenwashing are everywhere, but surely there’s a need for much clearer, quantitative, transparent data and public awareness about emissions  relating specifically to the design, production, and use of software – that colourless, odourless, invisible, cross-border item that runs the world?

The Badger’s school chemistry teacher knew nothing about software, but they were inspiring, articulate, a creative describer of matters of importance, and a stickler for quantitative assessment. They would have applied the same approach for assessing the production and use emissions of software as if it was an element in the Periodic Table…and, perhaps, so should we.

The Metaverse; What matters most will be trust…

There’s always a technological development lauded as the ‘next big thing’ that will change our lives forever, after huge financial expenditure, of course. One such is the metaverse which, according to Gartner, will not reach the ‘mature’ phase of its evolution  before 2030. The Badger admits to having an objective scepticism about the metaverse, ostensibly because ‘next big things’ often fail to meet their hype in anything like the forecast timescales. Development of the software, systems, and platforms for the metaverse is, of course, progressing apace, but that’s rather different to it ultimately being embraced by the masses because it provides tangible benefits to their lives.

During a social meeting recently, a tech-savvy millennial asked the Badger to answer  the following three questions about the metaverse using the simplest possible terms:  What is it? Will it happen? What about it will matter most to the average member of the public? An academic treatise can be written for each answer, but the Badger kept his answers, below, as simple as possible.

What is it? To borrow from Deloitte, the metaverse is, in the simplest of terms, the internet but in 3D, with facilities that provide users an immersive, 3D, virtual experience when engaging with virtual environments or other users. It’s a 3D virtual world within which virtual incarnations of a user can interact with simulated environments and other people for social or work purposes without being physically present.

Will it happen? Eventually…perhaps. Aspects of metaverse technology have developed in online gaming over the last 25 years, and Microsoft, for example, has implemented avatars and meetings in virtual reality into Teams. However, that’s still a very long way from a coherent metaverse that changes everyone’s life, especially when the legal, regulatory, data security, and privacy issues  with it are much more profound than with the internet and online world that we currently know.   

What about it will matter most to the average member of the public? Trust. If the lessons from rampant online evolution over the last 25 years are not learned, then the same mistakes will be replicated and amplified in the metaverse. Today we are generally more careful with our personal data and privacy, and more conscious of online security, rampant mis/disinformation, abuse, commercialisation, and the weaponization of information. If trust is not the starting position for the metaverse from the outset, then it will be just another ‘next big thing’ that irritates rather than benefits our lives.

The Badger told the millennial that others have different answers to these questions. They just nodded and said ‘It will be dominated by those who want to manipulate or control us. If I don’t trust it, I’m not going to participate’. If this view is widespread amongst millennials, then the metaverse may stall. Time will tell.

Innovation, USPs, and the herd instinct…

Have you ever listened to leaders talking in person, or via video or teleconference, about innovation, unique selling points (USPs) that make the company stand out from the crowd, and slogans to be used to grab the attention of potential customers? The answer is  ‘probably’, a word used to great effect in Carlsberg advertising campaigns  that trace their roots back to 1973. The Badger’s sat through many such talks over the years, but one more than twenty-five years ago generated a memorable insight that’s still relevant today.

At a senior staff gathering in a London hotel conference centre, the Group Chief Executive gave a lengthy presentation that announced and justified the company’s move beyond its software, systems development, and systems  integration roots into outsourcing and offshoring services. The presentation not only boasted about this being innovation, but also it conveyed new USPs. Many present were, like the Badger, experienced, delivery-centric people who felt the assertion that this was innovation was highly dubious, and that the new USPs were aspirational and not underpinned by any reality. The audience understood the IT market was changing, but they reacted badly to the claim this move was innovation because competitors were already way-ahead, and it felt like the company was just following the herd rather than playing to its true strengths.

In the hotel bar afterwards, a subsidiary executive provided some wise words of insight when tackled informally about the presentation. They pointed out that although the business world worships innovation as necessary for survival and growth, the reality is that true innovation is rare and it’s imitation that is the endemic driver. They used examples of the new products and approaches emerging across the IT industry at the time to illustrate that these were born out of imitation and not innovation. The executive also highlighted that since the herd mentality is a feature of human behaviour, no one should ever be surprised that companies follow the herd and assert USPs that are primarily just slogans to differentiate in business conversations with potential clients. The bigger a company, the executive asserted, the more the slogan is influenced by spin and market trends, and the more tenuous the link with raw capability. This has coloured the Badger’s calibration of company sales and marketing messaging ever since, and the executive’s innovation, USP and herd mentality insight still resonates in today’s world in which we are bombarded with information relentlessly, and organisations do everything they can to grab, keep, and capitalise on our attention. So, just remember that if something claims to be an innovation today, then be sceptical because imitation is endemic and true innovation is scarce. Similarly, always explore any asserted USP to see if it passes the ‘unique’ test amongst industry peers, because it’s the herd instinct rather than uniqueness that dominates the world of business.