ITER – Another step forward to the world’s new normal

The announcement that the assembly of ITER, the world’s first device aiming to produce net energy from nuclear fusion, has started put a spring in the Badger’s step. Why? Because it’s an international joint experiment that will ultimately benefit everyone on the planet, and also because it has the support and cooperation of world powers who, in the wider sphere of global politics, often spend more time antagonising each other.  Perhaps naively, the Badger feels ITER provides a twinkle of light in the current sea of sour relationships amongst the world’s largest powers.

ITER will move us closer to the ultimate goal of large-scale carbon-free energy. It also represents a ‘moment’ for the Badger who has had a long-standing interest in the science, engineering, materials, and information technology aspects of workable fusion reactors. It’s a massive ‘Build & Systems Integration’ project and the software system that makes it function is just as critical as everything else in its construction. But ITER is also something else; it’s yet another illustration that 2020 is heralding a decade of enormous real change in what constitutes ‘normal’ in life across the world.  The ‘normal’ of six months ago has disappeared and a new ‘normal’ is evolving fast.   Change is very much in the air. Just ask those you bump into in the local supermarket and you’ll find they feel it too.

SpaceX’s recent success, missions to Mars, satellite networks,  health and wearable technologies, video technology for consultations with health professionals, battery and hydrogen powered vehicles, 5G, robotics and artificial intelligence are all examples of an enormous wave of technological advancement that is rippling throughout the world with extra momentum in 2020.  Reliance on fossil fuel is declining. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that life goes on and the environment benefits with less planes in the sky and vehicles on the roads, that high street retail has changed for ever, and that working remotely from the office is effective and productive for many people.

Bosses and workers alike are now questioning the need for expensive offices in city centres and the daily commute. Cities and their transportation infrastructure are accordingly likely to change over the next decade.  The world order is changing too, with the USA and China jockeying for position as top dog and the EU in decline. The election of the oldest president in US history in the next few months doesn’t look as if it will change anything. The world order is increasingly distrustful of each other and the United Nations is largely toothless.

Everything above shows transition to a new ‘normal’ is fully underway. ITER is just one of many indicators of this and the speed with which world change is happening. No one can predict the future, but the Badger is certain of one thing. The first fusion plasma in ITER, scheduled for December 2025, will happen before fully autonomous vehicles are in widespread use on UK roads!

The Sillybilly Bank (TSB)…

Mainstream IT services companies wouldn’t be around today if they hadn’t learned lessons from poor delivery over the years. That doesn’t mean their delivery machinery is perfect – far from it – but it does mean they’re generally good at identifying and addressing risk. With 35 years IT delivery under the belt, the Badger’s nose still twitches when he sees, hears, or reads about IT delivery that’s gone wrong. Recently the nose twitched uncontrollably as the Badger caught up on past material about the 2018 TSB IT migration debacle and assimilated TSB’s independent review by Slaughter & May into their disastrous migration from Lloyds to their own systems. The latter has attracted lots of media comment – see, here, here, here and here, for example.

The Badger’s quietly followed the TSB debacle since it happened, labelling the bank as the ‘The Sillybilly Bank’ for the catalogue of failings. Throughout the last 18 months the Badger has always felt the debacle was unlikely to have just a single root cause. There’s been enough signals to suggest that corporate dynamics, financial pressure, poor planning, poor Go-live decision processes, lack of a solid fallback strategy, IT delivery expertise, and – as picked up in the media – poor common sense, all played a part. Future reports from the UK Banking Regulators will hopefully add more colour into the mix and provide more certainty.

In mulling things over, three impressions have come to the fore in the Badger’s mind. Firstly, that TSB’s parent Banco Sabadell – Europe’s ~36th largest bank and ~ 100th in the world – might be guilty of an ‘arrogance of acquisition, we know best’ attitude. They knew the migration was more complex than anything they’d attempted previously and they were warned in 2015 the migration budget was aggressive. Secondly, that Banco Sabadell appears keen to direct all the responsibility for the debacle onto TSB. This smacks of ‘responsibility denial‘ because Banco Sabadell must have endorsed the migration decisions and it was their own IT arm, SABIS, doing the IT. If they didn’t endorse decisions, then surely their corporate governance failed?  The third impression is that the Abilene Paradox was most likely rampant!

One recent piece of commentary neatly says ‘no one comes out of the TSB debacle smelling of roses’, and ‘the whole sorry episode is an example of how not to behave in an overseas takeover’. It’s hard to disagree. So, here’s a question. Would you trust a bank and its parent where there seems to have been governance, risk management, decision- making, and IT failures and the parent points the finger wholly at its subsidiary? You’ll have your own answer. One thing’s certain. When confidence is lost, customers overcome their lethargy and move elsewhere, which, if you look at the switching statistics, is exactly what TSB’s customers have been doing…

Customer centricity in online banking? It’s people not technology that make you feel valued…

Banks seem to believe ‘customer centricity’ means encouraging us to do everything online so they can close local branches. Where the Badger lives, for example, there were 6 branches five years ago – now there’s one. That’s not a problem for most of us – provided, of course, online services are joined up and work well. If not, customers get grumpy, re-evaluate their loyalty, and consider moving to where there’s a better ‘customer centric’ experience. The Badger’s doing just that! Why? Because of a recent experience applying for a savings account online with a bank where the Badger’s used their Internet Banking service for >10 years.

Things unfolded thus. A letter arrived saying the interest rate on an existing online savings account was reducing by more than a third. Shortly thereafter another letter arrived saying a ‘loyalty’ account with an enhanced rate could be applied for online. Time for action! The Badger logged in, applied, and was given a reference number. The account would be accessible in Internet Banking within 7 days. Seven days? Nah, surely with modern IT and an established long-standing customer it would be quicker. Hmm.
Seven days passed. Nothing happened. A standard letter then arrived saying a) the account couldn’t be opened because the Badger’s address didn’t match the bank’s records, and b) the Badger could correct his address via Internet Banking or by visiting a branch. The Badger logged in, found that all his details were correct, and was baffled. A 25-mile round trip to the nearest branch ensued.

A 25-minute conversation with a helpful cashier revealed that the bank had two customer records for the Badger, identical except for two slight differences. One has the Badger’s house name and street name, the other has the same plus the house number in the street. One has the Badger’s title as Dr. and the other as Mr. The cashier ‘sent some emails to get the data aligned’ and the Badger had to reapply for the account at the counter with the cashier.

The Badger was unimpressed. The original application was made when logged into Internet Banking so, surely, it could have been validated correctly and immediately? Surely with today’s powerful IT and modern technology, a bank has a single view of its customer and can identify from two near identical customer records that they’re the same person? Hmm. How silly to think that!

The Badger drew the following conclusions from the experience. Firstly, that the bank’s Internet Banking services are ‘bank centric’ and not really joined up or ‘customer centric’. Secondly, the experience at the branch reinforced the importance of face to face interaction with real people to make you feel like a valued customer. It’s this interaction that makes ‘customer centricity’ real…not technology. Loyalty is rattled. The option to move elsewhere is under active consideration…

The Moon, Mars, and the next giant leap for mankind…

Apollo 11 lifted off for the Moon 50 years ago today. Some things in life make an impact that never fades from memory, and the Apollo 11 mission and Neil Armstrong stepping onto the Moon’s surface made an indelible impression on the Badger who, as a young boy, watched ‘as it happened’ on an old, black and white TV. It was gripping stuff from launch through to return, but two memories are particularly vivid: Armstrong stepping onto the moon, and the tension as mission control tried to re-establish communications after re-entry to Earth.

The moon landing was a magnificent science, engineering and management and leadership achievement, all of which is celebrated in many diverse 50th anniversary articles – one is here . For the Badger, the achievement is reinforced today by knowing it happened pre-internet, pre the existence of Microsoft and Apple, and pre any of the tech at our fingertips today. It was an unequivocal example of what humans can do when science, engineering, management and leadership are fully aligned to a common objective.

The Badger’s been wondering about the next ‘giant leap for mankind‘ and was intrigued by a view that we have no choice but to colonise Mars if human beings are to have a future. The Badger’s rather doubtful that man on Mars is really a priority or the next giant leap for mankind. Why? Because the scientific monitoring of astronauts shows that scary things happen to the human body in space (see here and here, for example). The Badger – who is admittedly not a biologist – thinks this ultimately implies that our species will never really be suited to interplanetary travel without serious biological re-engineering! If that’s right then the case for humans on Mars seems dubious, especially if the advance of robots with artificial intelligence that we hear so much about in the press means we could send them instead!

Apollo 11 inspired the Badger to become a scientist and engineer, and for many years one of the mission’s photos was the screensaver on the Badger’s laptop. Any scientist or engineer thrives on the type of challenges posed by putting a man on Mars, and there’s no doubt that stepping onto Mars would be a thrilling broadcasting event watched by billions. But is it the next giant leap for mankind? Hmm. The Badger thinks the next giant leap isn’t on another planet, it’s on this one. We know lots about our home planet and what we’re doing to it and so the Badger thinks the next giant leap for mankind is when all countries really unite to ensure our beautiful planet, and all life on it, is sustainable for future generations. This, unlike putting a man on Mars, does not come with an event that can command a TV audience of billions…

Electric and self-driving vehicles for the masses? One day, but perhaps not soon…

The Badger’s considered changing his trusty but aging car for something more current and greener. There’s plenty of choice in the market so it should be easy coming to a decision, shouldn’t it? Err, No.

Why not? Because if you want to spend your money wisely then you have to recognise that entropy in the transportation world is rising dramatically! Entropy, by the way, is a measure of disorder and it always increases with time (as per the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics). The Badger has certainly observed the world become increasingly disordered over his lifetime and this isn’t going to change in the future.

Disruption and disorder in the transport world are easy to see. For example, UK government policy is to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040. Electric vehicles (EVs) are deemed to be the future, even though their climate credentials aren’t quite as positive as you might think. Car manufactures are pushing ahead with EVs swiftly, but with a current market share of ~3% across Europe there’s much to do to overcome their limitations and convince the public. In addition, of course, technology marches forward and – if you believe it – self-driving cars will be common on UK roads from 2025 and might improve traffic flow by 35%. Hmm. These are all things to think about if you’re thinking of buying a car today and want to spend your money wisely.

The Badger cogitated and has concluded that the timelines for establishing EVs and self-driving vehicles for the masses on UK roads are very optimistic. Why? Firstly, progress on addressing EV range limitations, charging infrastructure, and take-up by the public is still slow (but improving). Secondly, there’s about 1 billion lines of software in a self-driving car which means there’ll be many bugs when operating and ‘integrating’ with other conventional and autonomous vehicles at scale in the real-world. Thirdly, while the UK government is to report on the autonomous vehicle regulatory framework in 2021, legislation moves slowly and political objectives are rarely met on time, especially at a time of political disorder. And finally, the ‘Introduction to Service’ phase of any programme that changes personal and societal behaviour always encounters difficulties and delay. It took decades for motor vehicles to replace horse and carts, and it will be a similar story for EVs and self-driving vehicles overtaking today’s conventional vehicles. It seems naïve to think otherwise.

So, what did the Badger decide about changing his car? Not to! Because if you do the analysis, currently that’s actually the cheapest, greenest and most future proof option as entropy rises further. Electric and self-driving vehicles for the masses will happen one day, but perhaps not as soon as the hype suggests…

Systems Integration; the downfall of many a plan…

The radio alarm burst into life the other morning. The Badger simply paid no attention and turned over entering that strange dozing state somewhere between asleep and awake. Until, that is, the radio warbled the phrases ‘software’, ‘systems integration’, and ‘new plan’. This triggered a return to full consciousness and instant concentration. The new Crossrail CEO was being interviewed about revised plans to complete one of the largest and most challenging infrastructure programmes in Europe. If you’re unfamiliar with Crossrail then a quick look here, here and here provides context, and you’ll find one of many insights on the delay here .

The Badger listened carefully as the CEO talked about the difficulties regarding the software and systems integration of signalling and train systems. He emphasised that this and the testing of trains running safely through tunnels was at the heart of the revised programme plan. Interestingly, he emphasised a primary focus on ‘Systems Integration’ rather than ‘Contract Management’ going forward. The CEO sounded very knowledgeable, but the Badger couldn’t help feeling a little sad that yet again lessons from past software and IT intensive programmes appear not to have been learned. After all, it’s been known for decades that ‘Systems Integration’ is where the chickens normally come home to roost on major programmes!

Perhaps CityAM’s piece following Crossrail’s March update to the Westminster Public Accounts Committee (PAC) provides an insight to simple reasons underlying Crossrail’s crisis. It sounds like a) politicians were intransigent, b) Crossrail leaders were focused on the politics, contract management and ‘blame games’, c) programme status reporting and assurance mechanisms might have concentrated on the positives, and d) forward-looking risk management and mitigation processes were ineffective. A PAC member apparently said. “It’s incredible, incredible for senior people to sit here and tell me you were not clear this was going to fall over. It was perfectly clear it was going to fall over.” The Badger has uttered similar words many times in his career over the last 35 years! So why don’t lessons get learned, you may well ask? Mainly because of people, egos, political agendas, management and delivery culture, lack of time and an unwillingness to listen. These often conspire to persuade us wrongly that ‘This programme is different and lessons from the past have limited application’.

The radio interview was over within a few minutes and the Badger was reminded of a long- standing nugget of wisdom, namely: ‘System Integration is always where the chickens come home to roost; expect difficulty, plan it well and actively manage and mitigate its risks from the programme’s outset’. The Badger then rolled over and went back to sleep…