The ‘Smart’ prefix has had its day…

If something is prefixed with ‘Smart’ today, then the Badger tends to wince and immediately think of the need to tread carefully! Why? Because ‘Smart’ has become over-used in today’s digital world, although many may beg to differ.  The fact is that every new gadget in the last 100 years was thought to be ‘smart’ by those living at the time. The Badger’s parents, for instance, thought the introduction of a timer on their washing machine some 70 years ago was ‘smart’. They thought answering machines some 40 years ago were too.

In today’s Information Age, the word ‘Smart’ is much overused by marketeers, media pundits and politicians alike. For many the word has become tainted and a signal for something whose benefits are oversold, whose downsides are understated (or ignored), and whose value for money and longevity is questionable. Many feel that ‘Smart’ implies they will be fleeced of their hard-earned cash (and maybe their personal data, privacy, and security) for something that might quickly become obsolete.

Using the word ‘Smart’ as a pre-fix to something is becoming a euphemism for high cost and questionable benefit, at least from the average consumer’s perspective.  For example, the UK government’s ‘Smart’ Meter programme has already cost consumers through their bills, its roll-out is grossly late, and it’s not really delivering the promised benefits for consumers. Expensive ‘Smart’ Motorways appear to lead to more not less death on the roads, and the expense  of these complex ‘enhancements’ seems somewhat  questionable and wasteful to the average consumer if safety on the road has got worse.   And then there’s Smart Homes full of interconnected lights, fridges, power sockets, and so on. Do we really want or need to live inside a machine?

And then there’s the ‘Smart’ phone in your hand.  Apparently, the device itself has an average life of 4 to 5 years and we keep them, on average, for between 2 and 3 years.   How much did you pay for it? The percentage depreciation is probably worse than your car over the same period.

So, what’s the Badger’s point?  Simply that the term ‘Smart’ is not a relevant label for digital technology anymore.  Consumers today are no fools, are distrustful of the big Tech companies, and are more vocal about government expenditure. The pandemic has changed the way we think, behave, live, and work. It has made us realise not only the importance of technology in today’s world, but also that it doesn’t need to be labelled ‘Smart’ to have a positive impact on our lives, the planet, the climate, and wildlife.  The ‘Smart’ prefix has had its day.  There’s only one thing that should attract this label, and that’s us – we human beings! And some of you may well argue with that…

The most powerful people in the world are not who you think…

With coffee in hand, laptop on the knee, thunder overhead, and ‘what is wrong with people’ news on the radio, the Badger sat in his conservatory watching rain pummel the garden flowers and had a thoughtful moment. As the petals of a large peony disintegrated in the rain, one thing came to the fore in the Badger’s mind – that the world is in the grip of non-biological pandemics, not just the biological COVID-19 one!

There’s a pandemic of misinformation, disinformation and distortion, an escalating pandemic of disrespect for law and order, and a pandemic of the ‘human stupidity’ virus – a virus which appears to spread much faster than even COVID-19! Rational evidence for all this is easy to find. For example, this week  UK House of Lords peers led by Lord Puttenham issued a report demanding legislation because misinformation, disinformation and distortion is threatening lives and democracy,  the press is full of examples of unnecessary thuggery,  and Bournemouth beach illustrated just how quickly the ‘human stupidity’ virus has taken hold.  It seems to be similar in other countries too! On a more positive note, however, there is also a pandemic of appreciation that if human behaviour doesn’t change then our planet will be unsustainable, and we will be responsible for our own extinction.

The Badger sipped his coffee, watched a Blackbird tug at a worm in the lawn, and pondered on whether the most powerful people in the world are capable of addressing our problems. But who are the most powerful people in the world? A quick scan down the list here – where power is about control over resources to drive the world in a particular direction – doesn’t inspire confidence. The Badger found himself thinking laterally and deciding that these aren’t the most powerful people in the world! So, who are? The answer is real scientists and engineers, most of whom are not and never will be household names.

Chris Packham’s stirring and inspiring speech on why Alan Turing is the Greatest Person of the 20th Century, makes the point that scientists, not high-profile politicians, corporate leaders, media stars, musicians, sportsmen, or celebrities of any kind, are the only hope for the future.  The Badger agrees.  With deference to the last section of Chris’s speech, just pick up your phone, stare at it, and know that it only exists because of scientists and engineers.  If you are a youngster considering education choices, marvel at the device in your hand and know that if you study STEM subjects then you will become one of the most powerful people in the world. You will also be our hope for the future.

Where have all the STEM-educated news correspondents gone?

The BBC’s Director-General recently said ‘People have turned to the BBC in their droves in recent weeks’, especially the young. Hardly surprising when people are locked down at home and the corporation, funded by mandatory TV Licence fee, broadcasts diverse radio and television programmes that are also accessible on-demand via iPlayer or Sounds.

The Badger’s consumption of BBC material throughout this pandemic has actually reduced, seemingly going against the tide. Yesterday the Badger and his wife debated why this was the case and concluded that the reduction boils down to consuming much fewer BBC News and current affairs programmes. Rather than consume an entire BBC News programme, the Badger now absorbs just the opening headlines and that’s it! Part of the reason, as the Badger’s wife wryly pointed out, is that hearing someone interviewed on Radio 4’s Today radio programme at 7:00am, and then hearing the exact same item repeated with video on the lunchtime, early and late evening TV news programmes is not news by midday, just time filler! Another part of the reason is that it’s become quite entertaining to sample many different sources of ‘impartial’ news to decide which you believe is balanced, fake, misinformation, or political or commercial propaganda!

The Badger’s found BBC News coverage throughout this pandemic frustrating, and the approach of well-known journalists – from the BBC and elsewhere – at the televised daily No 10 pandemic briefings predictable and an amusing illustration of well-known human behaviour. Their fixation on berating scientific advisors and politicians for any perceived difficulty in an unprecedented national crisis and reluctance to properly acknowledge and encourage the many magnificent things that everyone has achieved is a wonderful example of the psychological phenomenon of negativity bias! Over the Summer, Times Radio is arriving on the scene to compete with Radio 4’s Today programme using a different style and feel. It will be interesting to see if this manages to avoid the same trap.

But something else has also contributed to the Badger’s reduced consumption of BBC News. It came to the fore when the wife asked, ‘What is a PPE degree?’ PPE is Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and most news journalists – including Health, Science, and Technology correspondents – have this, History, Journalism, Medieval Language, or English degrees rather than degrees in STEM subjects. STEM not only underpins our lives, but also our salvation from pandemic apocalypse, and yet mainstream news journalism is devoid of visible STEM talent, instinct, or psyche. The Badger sees this lack of educational diversity as a problem and a factor in his reducing news consumption.

So ‘Where have all the STEM-educated news correspondents gone?’ Nowhere. They weren’t there in the first place. But they should be. STEM educated people are under-represented and just as capable as those with other backgrounds. Indeed, in today’s world when every politician, leader, and commentator can interact directly with the public using readily available digital tools it can’t be long before the younger generation force this imbalance to change.

Time for a ‘Smart’ National Healthcare System…

Some years ago, the Badger led part of a national UK programme for trading wholesale electricity. The national programme was struggling to stay on plan, a fact increasingly obvious to all the industry, supplier and public servants involved. Delay was inevitable, and most organisations involved inevitably manoevured to avoid being blamed and being exposed to the associated commercial ramifications. The Regulator asked the Badger for an honest view of the programme’s status. The Badger set out the facts and said a delay was inevitable. The Regulator smiled, and said ‘I know, but there needs to be ‘an event’, dear boy, before our masters will accept the need for any change’. Experienced large-scale programme, project or service delivery leaders will recognise the truth of the Regulator’s words.

The COVID-19 pandemic is ‘an event’ that has challenged national healthcare systems across the world. In the UK, for example, the National Health Service (NHS) has moved faster to overcome embedded bureaucratic, administrative, structural and operational issues in the last two months than it has ever done in its entire history. This imperative has rapidly changed the way things currently work for General Practitioners (GPs) in the community, hospital managers, doctors, nurses and other clinicians in hospitals, those providing goods or services in supply chains, and of course patients alike. Everyone, including patients, are realising that speedy change for the better is possible and that technology is nothing to be frightened of when used intelligently and properly.

The Badger saw such enlightenment first-hand last week. A very elderly neighbour was fretting because their routine hospital outpatient appointment had been changed to a telephone consultation. However, after the telephone consultation with the same doctor they would normally have seen face to face, the neighbour’s anxiety had completely evaporated. They were overjoyed to have avoided travelling twenty miles for a face to face meeting that would rarely be on time and last only a few minutes. They were also very keen to try a video call for the next appointment, as suggested by the doctor, even though they have neither broadband nor a smartphone!

The pandemic constitutes ‘an event’ and an opportunity to trigger permanent change and improvement. If we have ‘Smart Meters’ and ‘Smart Motorways’ isn’t it time we had a truly ‘Smart National Healthcare System’ that embraces the different ways of working suited to today’s digital world? Our leaders must ensure we emerge from COVID-19 with a stronger national healthcare system. It would be a travesty to revert to old ways, especially when this ‘event’ has shown that technology is not the barrier for a truly ‘Smart National Healthcare System’…it’s the willingness to change long established operational and functional practices.

What’s the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?

When President Trump suggested over the weekend that his daily coronavirus briefings are no longer ‘worth the effort’ the Badger laughed. Why? Not because Mr Trump’s a professional comedian, or because the Badger is particularly a supporter or opponent of the President, but because he asked what many leaders and managers in business – regardless of how well they are trained – say too infrequently, namely ‘What’s the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?’

Meetings are, of course, an important part of the drumbeat and fabric of most organisations. But, notwithstanding the passage of time since the article here was written in 1996 and the massive advances in technology since then, has anything really changed when it comes to the people and meetings? Most leaders and managers would like to think so, but the Badger’s not so sure. Lots of training courses on how to focus, organise, run and behave at meetings have existed for years, but it still seems that the question ‘What’s the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?’ doesn’t get asked as frequently as it should.

The Badger learned many things about meetings over the years, and President Trump’s comment brought three of those learning points immediately to the fore.

The first was that the more senior you are, then the more time you spend in meetings and the less time you spend doing something that is personally productive. Second was that the regular monthly and/or quarterly reviews that project, programme, line and executive leaders will recognise as part of the operational drumbeat in most organisations are about gamesmanship! Those being reviewed try to focus attention on what they know and issues that are being addressed with clear action plans and remain tight-lipped on growing worries or issues which are currently unquantified. The reviewers know this and try to expose the answer to the question ‘What do they know that I don’t, and what should they be doing that they aren’t?’ The Badger’s been both sides of the table many times! Of course, policies in organisations encourage openness but that’s rarely the case in practice because meetings involve people, and people have egos, personal motives and individual agendas to feed.

And the third learning point? Simply the importance of systematically and repeatedly asking the question ‘What is the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?’ If the answer is confused or unpersuasive, then your time is normally better spent doing something else. So regardless of the fact that President Trump might align with the same point, the Badger’s ‘simple knowledge, simply conveyed’ advice is always ask the question ‘What is the purpose of this meeting and is it necessary?’ and take action appropriate for the answer you get…

The 6 Cs – Control, Care, Commerce, Community, Consumption & Communications

Long days of pandemic-related lockdown do strange things to your thoughts. We obviously think about our personal circumstances and fears, but simple things can trigger thoughts that can take you to unexpected conclusions. The Badger, for example, has noticed that simple observations trigger thoughts that meander to a conclusion that barely relates to the observation itself, as illustrated below.

The Badger recently noticed his wife’s growing irritation with mainstream TV News. She increasingly asserts ‘TV News has more dinner party chat dressed as analysis, complainers and people with an axe to grind, spin, and scaremongering speculation than straightforward factual news.’ Hmm. ‘A Story’ is what drives journalists, which in today’s instant communication era suggests that no TV broadcasters, print or social media/internet platforms can really provide reliable, factual, spin-free news.

Anyway, that’s a digression, because observing the wife’s rising irritation triggered the Badger to think about what he would do if he were leader of a country when the current crisis has abated! The Badger cogitated under a fruit tree in full blossom over a couple of cups of coffee. The answer – to initiate an independent ‘lessons learned’ review to identify improvements and inform the country’s future policies and direction – soon emerged.

The review would cover six pillars:

  •  Control – What improvements in command, control and logistics mechanisms are needed to be better prepared for this type of future crisis?
  • Care – What are the lessons for the country health and social care system and how can weaknesses be addressed in an economically viable way?
  • Commerce – What are the economic and operational lessons for Public Services and Business? What do these mean for future workforce planning, productivity, business activities, financial prudence, and supply chain policy?
  • Community – How has the crisis changed social attitudes, behaviours and the priorities and demands of the general public? How has the public mood changed regarding nationalism versus internationalism and globalisation? How does this compare between demographics and with other countries?
  • Consumption – What have consumers and businesses learned about what their demand for goods, commodities, and services has on life, the climate, the environment, and sustainability? What impact will greater consumer enlightenment have on country priorities and wealth?
  • Communications – What lessons emerge from crisis communication direct from government to the general public? What can change to reduce misinformation in printed, broadcast, and internet-based media, and on social media platforms? How have public attitudes to regulation and privacy changed due to the pandemic?

Tech crosses all 6 pillars. It has mostly been a saviour in this crisis, especially when you realise that if this pandemic had happened 10 to 15 years ago when tech was less mature, the impact on our lives would have been orders of magnitude worse.

So, there you have it. A simple observation can trigger an unexpected train of thought. Fortunately, the Badger’s not a country leader. One thing’s certain, however. The world has changed and things really can’t be same as they were. Our leaders must know that?

Crisis! A time that always exposes ‘True Colours’…

A week ago, on a sunny UK Spring day, the Badger sat in his conservatory reflecting on how COVID-19 has emptied the streets and impacted lives and livelihoods. The birds and creamy yellow clumps of self-seeded polyanthus in the garden provided a reminder of nature’s glory as the Badger thought about the pressures on those leading the response to the pandemic. The Badger knows from coordinating his employer’s business continuity responses to events like the 7th July 2005 London terror attacks and the 2010 volcanic ash clouds from Iceland, that decisions must be taken and a course of action set even if the information available is conflicting or fuzzy. Some will always challenge the decisions and course of action, but the Badger learned that it’s important not to become distracted or defensive. Proper lessons to be learned come from a proper post-crisis review in calmer times.

As the Badger cogitated, Cyndi Lauper’s song ‘True Colours’ came on the radio. The ‘true colours’ idiom comes from the 18th century when ships showed their country flag (‘colours’) when going into battle. Many showed a flag of a different country to make opponents think they were friendly, only to show their real flag (‘true colours’) as they attacked. The song reminded the Badger that, in his experience, the ‘true colours’ of leaders, business executives, suppliers, clients, and staff quickly move into plain sight during a business continuity crisis, sometimes producing unexpected surprises. As leaders tackle COVID-19, the Badger thinks ‘true colours’ are being exposed everywhere and the picture they paint of the modern world isn’t pretty.

The Badger decided that a few points captured his opinion on what the pandemic has exposed about the world so far, namely:

  • Modern tech is both a help and a hinderance, but without it and the resilient IT supporting institutions, businesses, individuals and economic activity, things would be apocalyptic.
  • When government, businesses, and people come together to ‘do the right thing’ awesome things of complexity and scale can be achieved in a short time.
    • In the digital age people are more profligate, selfish, impatient and prone to panic than they were 20 years ago.
  • Doctors, nurses, health care and emergency service workers do what we have always known they do – selflessly put patients first.
  • Governmental chief scientific and medical advisers are excellent, clear, and credible (at least in the UK). It is scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians who are at the heart of finding solutions to our problems.
  • Which news sources do you trust? Social media and broadcast news appears to dwell on negatives, spin, and those who want to complain about something. Journalists need stories not necessarily facts, but at times like this balance and trustworthiness rather than bias is crucial.
  • Life will be different when the pandemic is over. Public tolerance of globalisation, over-reliance on global supply chains, inaction on climate change, executive excess, businesses that operate with little prudence, and any resistance to ‘working from home’ for sections of society is at a low ebb and will force the hand of politicians over the coming years.

That was a week ago. Would the Badger change anything after another week of lockdown? No. Why? Because the ‘true colours’ of the pre-COVID-19 world are even more evident on a daily basis. Things must change…

‘We are all doomed!’… No we are not…

This blog item – the 100th since the blog’s inception – arose from a conversation with someone grumbling about their employer offshoring software development and IT support to India. They used the phrase ‘We are all doomed!’ from the UK Dads Army TV series and ignored the Badger’s ‘No we are not’ riposte.

The Badger remembers ‘We are all doomed!’ being frequent refrain of UK IT staff in coffee-point discussions during the surge of offshoring to India in the early part of this century. UK IT staff were initially sceptical and dismissive of the capabilities in India, and hence reluctant to move work offshore. Offshoring, however, was a necessity driven by market forces and staff eventually realised that ‘No we are not’ was the right riposte to ‘We are all doomed!’. Today, globalised IT work is a norm. The Badger was part of this journey because ~20 years ago he helped to acquire a small software company in Bangalore and then monitored it proudly as it blossomed into a very large, successful, global IT delivery centre.

That small Bangalore company was full of young Indian staff who were hungry to learn and succeed. It was clear from the outset that they would flourish after being acquired because they had an impressive commitment and attitude that contrasted markedly with an ‘entitlement culture’ evident in some UK youngsters at the time. Today, however, things seem different.  Based on the number of UK millennials who want to work hard, learn, acquire skills, and be successful that the Badger meets, that ‘entitlement culture’ appears to have waned. Coupled with advancing technology and changing geo-political environments,  perhaps we’ll see some retrenchment of offshoring and IT globalisation in the future.

The Badger thinks that ‘We are all doomed!’ has also become an unspoken undercurrent to matters relating to the potential coronavirus pandemic in recent weeks, especially in social and broadcast media and the press which seem to have erupted with a questionable mix of instant opinion, misinformation, grumbles, individual experiences, and comments on country responses. Even stock markets have taken flight, ostensibly because – surprise, surprise – no one can predict the future. The Badger takes the hopefully rational view that we are definitely not doomed! Why would we be when we have overcome challenges from ‘The Millennium Bug’, SARS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, and Ebola in the last 20 years?

The Badger does feel, however, that coronavirus is the starkest reminder yet of the downside risks of the relentless march of globalisation. Perhaps this combined with climate change will mark a turning point for globalisation? Time will tell.

Finally, just remember that humans are excellent creative problem solvers, so if someone suggests ‘We are all doomed!’ just say ‘No we are not’. Then playfully ask their view on what would happen if social media, global communication, and internet services collapsed. They’ll look you in the eye and scream ‘We are all doomed!’ much, much louder…

Time for ‘manned’ Space missions to be curtailed?

It’s 30 years since the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ picture of Earth taken by Voyager 1 as it left our solar system. When reading about it, see here and here, the Badger was struck by the obvious fragility of our existence on a planet that’s barely a speck of dust in the Universe!

The picture caused the Badger to if our Space ambitions align with the interests of human life and our planet. The oversight of projects involving very talented ‘Space techies’ developing software for interplanetary missions, earth observation, and satellite control featured many times during the Badger’s career, and it’s pictures like the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ that are good reminders to stay realistic about ‘Space – the final frontier’. It’s right that we should have ambitions, dreams, and scientific knowledge pertinent to Space, but it’s also right to regularly wonder if we have our priorities right. This decade sees US astronauts return to the Moon and a raft of other missions led by different countries and commercial organisations. There’s a view that Space is the new ‘Wild West’ and that ‘Space has shifted from a place purely to ‘go’ to a place to do business’. Hard to disagree! The global Space market will double to ~£400 billion by 2030, so this decade could see Space really become the ‘Wild West’ given it’s no longer the preserve of just governmental agencies but of private companies jockeying for position and commercial advantage as well.

Staring at the ‘Pale Blue Dot’, the Badger cogitated on our Space priorities given the importance of preserving life and our speck of dust in the Universe. After doing some reading, perusing recent items like those here, here, and here, and some research on how Space impacts our bodies, the Badger quickly formed an opinion. Unmanned Space exploration makes sense and helps the scientific and engineering advancement needed to benefit human life and our planet, but manned Space exploration is an expensive holy grail because biologically and psychologically we are designed for Earth and do not adapt well to extended periods in Space. What’s the point in putting humans in Space at vast expense when robots are better suited to the hostile environment? As the video here concludes, using robots will tell us more about our planet and the solar system, whereas using astronauts tells will tell us mostly about ourselves.

Has the time come for man to curtail manned Space exploration and use the money for urgent human life and on-Earth planet sustainability initiatives instead? The Badger thinks ‘probably’. Just an opinion…you should have one too! Surely The sustainability of humans on our ‘Pale Blue Dot’ is much more important to us, our children, and our grandchildren than man in Space will ever be. After all, a Wild West in Space in the coming years is no use to anyone if we, or our speck of dust, disappear.