Observing the NHS…

Opening bleary eyes at 5:30am in a hospital ward bed to see the smiling face of a PPE-clad nurse wanting to thrust swabs into your nose and throat for a COVID test is an interesting start to the day! This test marked the start to each long, visitor-free, in-patient day that would eventually end around 10p.m. at night.

Patients were not allowed visitors until their stay surpassed five days. After that, one person could visit for one hour, but only once in every subsequent five-day period. No one grumbled. Instead, the Badger and fellow patients used video calls from personal smartphones or tablets to maintain contact with loved ones. The absence of visitors meant we experienced and observed ward operations performed without distractions, and we habitually shared our remarkably consistent primary observations during the quiet troughs that speckle an in-patient’s day.

Firstly, there was unanimous respect for doctors, nurses, and the ward staff who kept things shipshape (many of whom work 11 hour shifts with just a 30-minute unpaid break). Secondly, we observed that although the NHS is slowly transforming to the digital world, there’s still too much paper-based activity constraining efficiency. One nurse commented, ‘If someone borrows your drugs form before I get to you, it’ll take me half an hour to track it down’. Thirdly, we observed that nothing happens unless a busy doctor says so and signs a piece of paper, which they rarely do promptly. Telling a patient in the morning they’re being discharged, and then telling them in the evening that the doctor’s been busy and has gone home without signing the discharge paper is incredibly annoying and systemically inefficient!

There was also a consistent view that debates about NHS funding, a staple for media reporting, are red herrings because there’s much the NHS can improve itself that needs will rather than money. Its own Long Term Plan shows that it knows it must transform from a way of delivering health services that’s still locked into a model largely created when it was founded in 1948. It just needs to progress faster.

Finally, like most transformations, we observed that it’s the people and working practice issues of change rather than technology that is the biggest challenge. Transforming the NHS, the biggest employer in Europe and the world’s largest employer of highly skilled professionals with a headcount of 1.35 million, over half of which are professionally qualified clinical staff, is undoubtedly a massive task. It’s akin to reengineering a giant A380 plane full of passengers while it’s in flight, but it has to be done for the service to be sustainable. Even with its observable flaws, inefficiencies, and transformational strains, we all felt safe, in expert hands, and hugely proud that our country has the National Health Service as part of the bedrock of life across the population.

A change would do you good…

We can be happy, fulfilled, stressed, anxious, bored, and frustrated at work  all within the same day! It’s normal for our feelings to oscillate like this, but when we’ve endured months of feeling unfulfilled, bored, and frustrated with no improvement in sight our thoughts often turn to leaving our employer for pastures new. Thinking about leaving and actually leaving are, of course, different. It’s common to think about leaving  but circumstances and priorities in our personal life often stay our hand from actually resigning. Our subconscious also tends to persuade us to put up with the status quo for much longer than sensible in the hope that things will get better.

A few months ago, the Badger met someone wrestling with these dynamics. For the first time in a decade with their employer, they were thinking of leaving because their knowledge, skills, and experience had been under-used since a company reorganisation two years ago had replaced their respected boss with a new one. They were desperately bored and frustrated, and the relationship with their new boss had progressively become more distant. They asked the Badger how frequently he’d thought about leaving during his career, and whether he’d any thoughts to offer. After a sharp intake of breath, the Badger ignored the former question but delivered the following insightful words.

We all deal with thinking about and the decision to voluntarily leave an organisation differently, because psychologically we each deal with fear of the future in diverse ways. No one truly knows what the future holds for them. This uncertainty psychologically steers many towards staying in their comfort zone and avoiding risk. This means that when job satisfaction is low, we may well think long and hard about leaving but not actually take the ultimate step of resignation. So, if you’re thinking about leaving, first ensure you know yourself and what makes you tick. Make sure you not only assess all the pros and cons of staying objectively, but also consider matters in your private life that have a bearing on your decision carefully and honestly. Listen to  George Harrison’s song  ‘All things must pass’  because it’s a reminder that things never stay the same in life, and make a plan covering how and when you will resign before making your final ‘stay’ or ‘go’ decision,

Yesterday, the person called the Badger to say they’d left their employer and to thank him for words that made them realise they shouldn’t be fearful of the future because people adapt to the twists and turns of life. As the Badger felt quietly pleased at having helped in some way, ‘A change would do you good’ by Sheryl Crow started playing from a smart speaker in the background! We laughed, and agreed that strange surveillance sprits are at large monitoring conversations in today’s world…

The origin of the word penguin…

The Badger rang the call centre for help after experiencing problems using a company’s online mechanisms. After listening to a recorded message about covid and navigating the various options, the Badger joined a queue wondering if Blondie’s ‘Hanging on a telephone’ would be better music than Vivaldi. Eventually Bronwen came on the line. Her unmistakably Welsh accent and name struck a chord as she resolved the Badger’s problem. The Badger thanked her for her help and asked if she was actually in a call centre in Wales. Bronwen chuckled, said that many callers ask the same question, and then confirmed she was in South Wales and that the weather outside was typically Welsh!

Speaking to Bronwen triggered fond memories of visits to Wales,  a part of the UK with beautiful landscapes, a rich industrial heritage, and a strong cultural identity. It’s a country that’s seen a huge decline in its coal mining, steel, and slate mining industries over the last half-century. The Badger’s first visits to Wales were in his student days. The first was a weekend stay with his London flatmate’s family in Pontlottyn in the Rhymney Valley. The warm welcome was unforgettable. The second visit was part of the Badger’s degree course. It involved a week touring  metal production, casting, and fabrication facilities across South Wales. The highlight was watching the operation of a blast furnace, a Bessemer converter, and a rolling mill flattening giant red-hot steel ingots into 3mm strip at Port Talbot. It was an awesome experience!

Since that time, tourism, public services, customer support services, and light manufacturing in areas like electronics and technology have taken over from coal, steel, and slate as the mainstays of the Welsh economy. Today Wales has the largest data centre campus in Europe and it’s an attractive place for technology-centred companies to have operations. In the Badger’s student days, there was net migration of people seeking employment and a better quality of life outside Wales. This isn’t the case today. With modern service, technology, and digital businesses continuing to grow, Wales is seeing inward migration and growth in its population.

Twenty years after first visiting as a student, the Badger became a more frequent visitor  when his employer acquired a datacentre and IT service desk in South Wales. Welsh pride and values was encountered in abundance during these visits, and the Badger learned that if you build on rather than denigrate the character, culture, and heritage of a workforce then they will always rise to a challenge. As an English friend with Welsh family roots put it a few days ago, the word ‘penguin’ derives from the Welsh language which illustrates that the Welsh people have always made a mark on the world. A growing worldwide reputation in the arena of semiconductor technologies might have been a better illustration…

Transformation with chaos…

After a morning browsing High Street shops, the Badger and his wife popped into a well-known pizza chain for lunch. The number of empty shops and limited footfall meant that our shopping experience had been a sombre one with little atmosphere. As we waited for our pizzas, it was impossible not to listen to the amusing, interesting, and thought-provoking conversation of a spirited group of 30-somethings at an adjacent table. Their conversation seemed to centre on the importance of social media to free speech given Microsoft’s withdrawal of LinkedIn from China, the forthcoming COP26 climate conference, and transformation of the world! The Badger found himself silently oscillating between admiration at their optimism and idealism and dismay at their simplistic view of our globalised world.    

Three things in their conversation grated. The first was a belief that social media is a bastion of free speech. It isn’t. Free speech has existed in societies long before the advent of social media. Yes, social media is a modern channel for sharing information, but it’ll never be a bastion of free speech when people and organisations with nefarious characteristics or intent cannot be held to account. What keeps most people attached to social media, the Badger feels, is simply FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out – not free speech.

The second thing which grated was the view that it’s the UK government’s responsibility to ‘save the planet’ via COP26. It isn’t. The uncomfortable truth is that the UK can facilitate and be an exemplar on dealing with climate issues, but ‘saving the planet’ is more in the hands of the USA, China, Russia, and India than this tiny island. The final thing that grated was a view that the COVID pandemic has shown that our online tech has already transformed the world and that a green, tech-centric, utopia is just around the corner. That’s not the case! The pandemic has, in fact, highlighted that we’re entering an unruly extended period of global transformation which will affect every facet of our lives. Transformation with chaos will be a feature of the years to come!

Transformations succeed when everyone aligns and commits to common goals, plans, budgets, and so on. There’s little real evidence for such alignment and commitment amongst the major powers. The US, EU, China, Russia, and India all have their own economic and internal pressures. US relations with China show little sign of improvement, countries and companies are re-evaluating the strategic wisdom of extensive globalised supply chains, and the move away from carbon creates different tensions as demand for old commodities declines and demand for different ones rises. With this backdrop it’s foolish to think a green, tech-centric utopia is just around the corner.

As our pizzas arrived, the Badger’s wife said ‘There’s a generation whose entire lives will witness perpetual transformation and chaos’.  The Badger simply responded with ‘That’s life’

Has tech lost its association with ‘fun’ as a result of the pandemic?

The Badger recently witnessed a young mother struggling to deal with the noisy, stamping feet tantrum of her infant son at the school gates. The reason for the boy’s tantrum became clear on walking past; his mother had confiscated his mobile phone!  The Badger felt rather sad that such a young child had and was so attached to a mobile phone. It was also sad to see the lad’s mum making as much noise as her son by deploying shouting from the arsenal of parenting skills. My, how the world’s changed.

Should infants have their own mobile phones? Has modern tech infiltrated our lives to such an extent that it’s become unhealthily addictive for infants, children, and adults? Will society descend into anarchy if the internet suffers a catastrophic outage, for example, as a result of a solar superstorm? When tech has become such an important tool in our day to day lives then the answers to such questions are not as straightforward as Yes or No.  Tech was a boon during the pandemic, but the Badger senses that the more we used it the more we’ve come to appreciate that a) it’s a tool and not a lifestyle or ideology, b) it can be corrosive to well-being if used unwisely, and c) that we need real rather than virtual social interactions in our lives because they’re more important to our holistic well-being.  The use of tech during the pandemic has opened the eyes of adults, parents, and children to the downsides of letting it dominate our lives.   

One opinion expressed in The Register’s recent weekly debate on the motion ‘Technology widens the education divide’  was that ‘‘tech’ has massively overreached the point where it’s helpful, and is now obstinately wedged into every single corner of our lives, to the detriment of our ability to think and act as independent human beings’.  Harsh, but it’s a growing sentiment. Another interesting contribution to the debate came from Maria Russell, an early-years teacher in North London, who observed that when her young pupils returned to school, their attitudes had changed due to mixed experiences with technology during the pandemic.  Technology has lost its association with ‘fun’ and become less compelling for her pupils who now crave completely different things like climbing, playing with their friends, reading physical books, and having stories read to them.   

Does this mean we might see infants with mobile phones as the exception rather than the norm in the future? Who knows, but when early-years school children don’t consider tech as much ‘fun’ as they used to pre-pandemic, then a seed of change is germinating that could blossom into significant shifts in attitudes towards the tech in our lives as this generation grows up. Time, as they say, will tell.

London, millennials, a stag night, and immersive television…

The Badger spent last weekend in London attending a stag night.  Our party of 8, mainly millennials, had a great time without succumbing to a drunken stupor. The weekend featured a crazy golf competition, a great meal, a stay in the Hard Rock Hotel, a bowling competition, and many wide-ranging discussions during the quieter times. Although the Badger was positively geriatric compared to his millennial companions, he gained much respect by doing well in all the competitions!

The members of the group came from different backgrounds and parts of the country. Bonding was helped by the fact that it was everyone’s first stay in London since the start of the pandemic. Although initially apprehensive, we all relaxed when it was clear that all venues were applying covid-safe procedures rigorously, and that most people everywhere were complying with government guidance. It felt strange, however, to see that millennials were by far the dominant generation on the streets and on public transport, and also that no one gave the groom – dressed as Star War’s C3PO – a second look as he walked along Oxford Street! 

Spending a weekend with a group of millennials having a good time proved strikingly educational for the Badger. This is a generation whose lives have been impacted by a global financial crisis, a global virus pandemic, and enormous advances in digital technology.  Most of them don’t remember a time when they received a sensible interest rate on their savings. Most depend completely on their smartphone and use gaming or Netflix for entertainment rather than television. Most use social media heavily, only shop online, expect things to happen fast, and use cash minimally.  Over the weekend everyone used contactless payment for public transport and even to play air hockey in an arcade at one of the activity venues. Smartphones were used to order and pay for full English breakfasts at a table in Wetherspoons, at a fifth of the price for breakfast in the hotel. This is a generation of digital natives who know that continued rapid tech advances will dominate the rest of their lives. 

During one discussion that morphed from the limited success of 3D TV over the last decade, most in the group believed that television will shortly become immersive using virtual reality technology derived from gaming. Time will tell, but it’s a brave person that says they’re wrong.  It was discussions like this that made the Badger thoughtful on the way home. London’s Oxford Street is cleaner, the buses are hydrogen powered, many shops are empty, but the multitude of American Candy stores and the small number of the Badger’s generation out and about highlights that the world has changed and that millennials have the future in their hands. The Badger’s stag night companions were hungry to embrace every aspect of the digital future ahead.

Bank branches, the decline of the High Street, and risk with online-dependence…

Living in a town of 14,000 people, it’s painful to watch the decline of its ancient, characterful, High Street due to the impact of the modern online world. This week it was announced that the town’s last bank branch will close later in 2021. There were 6 major banks on the town’s High Street in 2015, all of which had occupied historic buildings for decades. In a few months there’ll be none and all the old buildings that housed them will be empty. The nearest bank branch will be 10 miles away, the town will have just 2 ATMs, and the local Post Office will be the only place providing basic banking services.  Apart from its empty premises, the High Street is already dominated by more coffee shops, eateries, hairdressers, and estate agents than appears sustainable. This is the same in many towns because the world has become online-first and our behaviour has changed.     

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online-first for everything. The use of physical money – cash – for in-store purchases halved in 2020 and the downward trend is unlikely to change. As cash disappears, we’ll soon see people rattling charity tins for donations, tip jars on the counters of coffee shops, collection plates at church services, and funfair slot machines all disappear too.  Banks can’t be blamed for behaving like the businesses they are, or for adapting to the needs and expectations of their digital-native customers, especially those born since the 1980s, but the closure of physical branches does impact on society, as outlined by the parliamentary report here.  The High Street’s decline isn’t the fault of the banks, it’s a consequence of the internet, relentless progress in digital technology, and our own behaviour. The decline comes with a sting in the tail for completely digital-native generations as they get older, because the concept of local community is eroding and being replaced by the personal isolation that comes with total dependence on the online world.

A society that’s online dependent for everything isn’t free of risk. The pandemic illustrates just how disruptive a biological virus can be, so just think how troublesome a future global cyber equivalent – deliberate or accidental – could be if you can’t access your money or do anything online. It’ll never happen, you say.  Never say never, especially when 20 years ago people worried about a ‘millennium bug’, 10 years ago there was a global banking crisis, and recent cyber incidents have caused chaos with fuel pipelines and forced store closures. If a cyber-space catastrophe happened, there’ll be no point meeting anyone for coffee in the High Street, because the High Street won’t exist and there’ll be no means to pay for the coffee. It won’t be the fault of banks; it will just be the manifestation of one of the current risks in modern life that we don’t seem to think too much about.

Four wheels and a motor…

The UK government announced in 2020 that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned from 2030. Electric cars, powered by batteries or fuel cells, are the future but there’s a very long way to achieve their mass adoption by the public. The marketing of current rechargeable, battery-powered, electric models trying to persuade us to buy one seems to rise weekly. So far, however, none of it seems to have triggered a truly massive step-change in mass demand from the public who, like the Badger, are still a long way from giving up their existing vehicles for an electric alternative.

New figures show that the average age of cars on UK roads is 8.4 years, that only 1.3% are plug-in hybrid or battery electric, and that more than 60% of cars are 7 or more years old.  Indeed, the Badger’s own trusty vehicle is 10 years old, and fossil fuelled. It’s comfortable, practical, reliable, economic, easy to maintain, 95% recyclable at end of life, and it’s used in a climate-friendly way. Electric car evangelists may think this is heresy, but there’s currently no hard-nosed economic case for the Badger to relinquish it for a used or new electric vehicle. Many people appear to have come to the same conclusion and a recent OFGEM announcement about putting ~1800 new ultra-rapid charging points across the UK motorway network’s service stations  is unlikely to persuade people otherwise.  

The transformation of society to electric cars is a marathon rather than a sprint. We may have started on this marathon but there’s an awfully long way to go with lots of opportunity for bumps on the way. Battery technology continues to advance rapidly and batteries with a 5-minute charge time could be in mass production by 2024. If that’s so, then it shouldn’t be a surprise if people decide against spending their money on new or used electric cars that use today’s battery technology. Range anxiety and effective and convenient charging infrastructure remain barriers to adoption. There are also strategic and geo-political issues associated with sourcing many of the materials necessary for battery manufacture. There are also significant recycling challenges  – see here and here – regarding the recovery of valuable elements from end of life batteries.  Whereas the recycling of fossil-fuelled vehicles, where ~70% is of ferrous metals, is well established and straightforward, electric vehicles contain a far greater variety of metals that are much more complex to recover.

There’s much more to the electric car picture than just zero tail-pipe emissions, and that’s why there’s a very long way to go in this marathon transformation yet. That’s also why the Badger’s own trusty vehicle, which still fulfils its primary function of taking occupants from A to B safely with maximum flexibility and minimum fuss, has some years left before it takes its final journey to the scrap heap to be, perhaps, reincarnated as the bodywork of an electric vehicle…

Changing of the guard…

A chance meeting with a frustrated young manager recently led to an interesting discussion about the ‘changing of the guard’ at the company where they work. Their company has been acquired by a much larger one. Apparently, it was a strategic purchase that provides the new owners with lots of opportunity to ‘maximise synergies and improve efficiency’’. Hmm, the Badger immediately thought having lived through this kind of thing several times. The youngster was frustrated because the acquiring company had injected new, inexperienced management whose dominant priority seemed to be procedural and administrative rather than ‘business’.  

The youngster was irritated that the ‘changing of the guard’ had led to reporting to others of similar age who were opinionated, procedural, and intransigent, but fundamentally lacking in knowledge, relevant expertise, and experience. The youngster felt ignored and belittled. The Badger advised calm, objectivity, and not to rock the boat in the short term, but to have game plan to look after their personal interests if things were not really going to work out. The youngster had one and was already executing it!

‘Changing of the guard’, of course, happens all the time in business and wider life. It is a perpetual reality. It does not, however, always put the right people in the right positions, nor does it mean that better decisions will be made. As recent items from City A.M and the IET highlight, we are in the throes of ‘changing of the guard’  today, with millennials – broadly those under 40 – beginning to take  the leadership helm in business and across society. Millennials are wholly digital-native, and have attitudes, expectations, beliefs, and an impatience to redefine the status quo that has been shaped by ‘information age’ technology, the impact of the 2008/9 financial crash, and the COVID-19 pandemic. As they progressively take the helm, it is safe to assume that they will focus on addressing their complaints about the situations left by preceding generations.     

But will things be better in their hands? With millennials often labelled as volatile, fickle, easily offended, over-emotional, work-shy and dominated by social media, it is far from a certainty. Every generation thinks they know best, and every generation makes mistakes which the next one complains about. It will be no different for millennials! Reading the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Risk Report highlights soberingly that we need the world to improve in the hands of the millennials, but evidence that it will is sparse so far. We need our millennial generation of leaders to be focused, resolute, have a strong work ethic, and to take real responsibility and accountability because ‘changing of the guard’ to a cadre of over-emotional, unrealistic, handwringers will just make matters worse. It is time for millennials to step up and really show that the labels used to describe their generation in the past are wrong.

Five years…

David Bowie passed away five years ago on the 10th January 2016. His legacy is a portfolio of great music and it was while listening to some of his songs that the Badger mused on some of the things that have happened  since his demise.

The UK Brexit referendum on 23rd June 2016 upended British politics, changed Europe for ever, and caused widespread public frustration with the shenanigans of politicians in handling the exit process. The whole process exposed the dysfunctionality of politics and politicians across the UK and across the EU, more so than ever before.   

In 2016 Donald Trump – a businessman rather than a career politician – was elected the President of the USA. His term in office, including his impending departure, has been a tsunami of controversy. Mr Trump’s election was founded on a ticket that gave voice to millions of voters frustrated with their career politicians. His enemies would, and did, throw everything at him during his term in office. The pendulum has now swung against him, and the USA seems, to an outsider at least, to be exhibiting the polarisation and in-fighting typical of a failing empire, which does not augur well for the future.

During the last five years, the EU struggled with a humanitarian and political crisis caused by the influx of more than a million refugees, Greta Thunberg brought global focus on climate issues, the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements made a mark, and the Cambridge Analytica affair exposed some truth about social media platforms and their use of your data. And then, of course, there is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Badger, however, thinks the biggest happening over the last five years pervaded all of the above, namely the fact that the social media platforms have an uncontrollable influence on our lives and democracy. These platforms claim to be a bastion of free speech but they give voice to extremes, fake news, disinformation, the darker side of the human psyche, attention seekers and faceless disrupters of all kinds. So much so that Western democracy is threatened. The tech giants have resisted regulation by politicians for years, but – regardless of your views on Mr Trump – they now appear to be regulating elected politicians!  It appears from the happenings of the last five years that social media giants wield more unaccountable power than is sensible for the preservation of Western democracy, and that our elected leaders need to take these tigers by the tail and regulate them.   Alternative views, of course, exist.   

There is a great Bowie song that is as pertinent today as it was when released in 1972. That song is Five years, a great version of which was recently released by Duran Duran.   The Badger thinks its line ‘Five years, that’s all we’ve got’  sums up how long elected leaders have to sort themselves and the giant tech companies out if  Western democracy is to thrive through the rest of this century.