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.

Cyber attacks on the ‘Middleman’…

Elexon announced last week that their internal IT had been impacted by a cyber-attack. Specific detail about the attack was not, understandably, released although there has been some speculation in the media. Elexon plays an important role in the UK electricity market by operating the Balancing and Settlement Code (BSC) and facilitating payments between generators, suppliers and brokers. Although the ‘critical national infrastructure (CNI)’ systems at the heart of electricity market operations were unaffected, the incident is nevertheless embarrassing for this ‘middleman’ organisation.

Coincidentally, the incident caught the Badger’s eye just after reading the UK Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport ‘s March 2020 Cyber Security Breaches Survey. Broadly, the report concludes that with Board attention on cyber security and the advent of GDPR, organisations are becoming more resilient to cyber-attacks and faster at recovering from breaches, but less likely to report the negative impact and cost of breaches. The report also reiterates that the nature of cyber threat is continuously evolving and that organisations are experiencing attacks more frequently than 5 years ago. Essentially, progress is being made but there is still lots to do and no organisation can be complacent.

The Elexon incident is yet another reminder that organisations and the public in today’s digital world can never be immune to cyber threat from ‘bad actors’ of any type. It is a reminder that personal and organisational cyber security awareness, diligence, discipline, and professionalism are essential if threats are to be minimised, attacks repelled, and security, data, and privacy preserved. The fact that the Elexon incident did not impact the electricity market systems per se, or the ability to keep the country’s lights on, is not surprising because CNI systems are obvious targets for ‘bad actors’ and their protection is taken very seriously by complying with good advice and guidance from national authorities.

A couple of days ago, a conversation with an acquaintance about the Elexon incident took an unexpected turn. They said if they were a ‘bad actor’ like Blofeld out to destabilise an entire country, they would unleash a simultaneous cyber-attack on all ‘middleman’ organisations similar to Elexon and DCC (for Smart Meters) in all key sectors. Why? It would be easier and simpler than going after CNI systems per se, because the ‘middleman’ is likely to have more weaknesses in their cyber defences. National turmoil would ensue without damaging the CNI itself. Just think, they said, what knocking out all ‘middleman’ organisations simultaneously would lead to in terms of pressure on the government, business frustration, social media backlash, loss of national confidence, political turmoil, international embarrassment and so on. The door would be open for a new regime!

The acquaintance sensed the Badger becoming concerned and suspicious. They quickly pointed out that they were not, of course, actually Blofeld! And, just in case you are wondering, neither is the Badger…

Want to be a Project Manager? Read Kipling’s ‘If’ first…

Over the years, the Badger immensely enjoyed engaging with youngsters early in their careers, especially young team leaders keen to become project managers in the IT services world. As someone with a long career delivering IT projects, the Badger was often ‘an invited guest’ to give the benefit of his experience at the final sessions of team leader training courses. The young, enthusiastic, attendees always asked probing questions about the Badger’s experience and the sessions – free format, open, informal and honest – always proved informative for the guest and participants alike!

Many of the questions across the sessions were predictable. Many related to ‘structure and process’, for example, or the soft skills needed to create ‘team spirit’, but most were simply about what young, impatient, team leaders needed to do to be appointed as a project manager. Hardly surprising, because youngsters are always eager to get project management on their CV, to have career progress, and to earn more money as fast as possible – either with their current employer or some other company! Most saw project management as a necessary first step into real management and leadership with power and authority. Most were familiar with materials from the Project Management Institute or the Association for Project Management, but few had a realistic appreciation of the personal characteristics, qualities and skills needed to manage a client, a project team, a contract, the attention of line management, a plan, a financial budget, a whole project lifecycle, change, risk and so on, all at the same time!

The Badger always told them that not all team leaders have the personal characteristics to be successful project managers. There was always caused a lively debate. In one session, the Badger was explicitly asked how to get an independent informal opinion of the suitability of someone’s personal characteristics for project management. The answer? Simple. Just ask 5 people you have worked with in the past -not friends or anyone associated with your current work – if you meet the spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’. If 3 or less say ‘Yes’ then you should ‘wonder if your personal characteristics are suited to project management’.

Sometime after the Badger bumped into two session attendees who had followed up on ‘If…’. One received 2 Yes’s and the other 3. Both valued the exercise because it made them question themselves, their motives, and especially their personal ability to cope with possible failure. Both still wanted to be project managers. Indeed, both went on to be successful project managers! So, what’s the Badger’s point here? Simply that you learn about yourself when you extend yourself, but it’s always prudent to test if others think you have what it takes before you do so. Just remember that at the end of the day, you don’t know what you can do unless you try.

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…

From OneWeb to Hydrogen Fuel Cells…

When OneWeb, a company aiming to bring connectivity to everyone everywhere using an enormous constellation of Low-Earth Orbiting satellites, announced it was filing for bankruptcy the Badger was unsurprised. Why? Because it always felt that the business case was somewhat dubious. Investors now seem to have decided likewise and have ‘drawn stumps’ – to use a cricket metaphor. Others closer to the space industry than the Badger also seem unsurprised by what’s happened – see here for example. It’s sad, of course for everyone working for OneWeb, but in the end this a simple reminder that viable technology isn’t a guarantee of business success. Business is about the juxtaposition of risk and commercial gain, and stakeholders rarely flinch from hard business decisions when the two are out of kilter.

OneWeb cited market and financial turbulence related to the COVID-19 as a factor in failing to attract further funding. With this in his mind, the Badger found himself musing on the combination of technology and business in the post-pandemic world while he walked down the middle of an empty road getting exercise in line with the UK pandemic guidance. The complete absence of traffic on the normally hectic road plus a news item about an advance in materials significant for hydrogen fuel cells, triggered thoughts about whether we will see changes in investment priorities when it comes to vehicular technology after the pandemic is over.

Why would there be, you may ask? Because if you holistically look at, for example, the Royal Society’s briefing on options for producing low-carbon hydrogen at scale, real world experience of using electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles (e.g. see here), and the relatively slow take up of electric vehicles powered by batteries, then you realise this kind of ‘material’ breakthrough should create an even more enticing investment and business opportunity for vehicle manufacturers and fossil fuel companies (who produce hydrogen) alike. The Badger, whose early roots were in materials technology, senses that the real scientific and engineering advances that could flow from the news item will significantly boost the business case for adopting hydrogen fuel cells for transportation and, accordingly, we will see business investment in this arena rise significantly in the coming years.

By the time the Badger had finished walking down the middle of the road, he had decided that everyone is more likely to be driving cars powered by a hydrogen fuel cell by the end of the decade than to have embraced driverless cars on public roads. (Tomorrow’s exercise might, of course, modify this conclusion!) As OneWeb shows, technology doesn’t mean business success, but any company that has bet the farm on the dominance of battery-powered vehicles should watch out, because hydrogen fuel cells are definitely coming along to eat your lunch…

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…

Quick to blame or complain, slow to praise…

If you’ve ever been asked to take on the responsibility for fixing a failing project, programme, or service delivery that’s causing serious relationship, financial, reputation or business difficulties, then you’ll know that when you take the reins lots of people will tell you about the bad things, who’s to blame, and what should have happened but didn’t. You’ll also know that far fewer people will tell you about the good things, the good people, and their good ideas to improve matters. There are always good things! They are, however, swamped by a fog of grumbles, complaints, politics and blame narratives! An experienced leader knows about this imbalance and ensures that ‘balance is restored’ by putting the right people with the right attitude in the right place to turn failure into success. After all, it’s a fully committed, positive and aligned team that really turns things around, not the person at the top!

Have you ever wondered why people tend to complain, blame, and exude negativity more than praise and positivity? The answer lies in the physiological wiring of the brain. Put simply, the emotional part of the brain processes ‘bad events’ whereas the rational part processes ‘good events. The former works much faster than the latter, which means we assign fault and blame quickly and frequently but think long and hard before giving praise. Fascinating stuff!

What triggered the Badger to think about this? Two recent events that made the Badger feel that today’s tech-dependent society has lost all sense of balance, objectivity, and community. Both events related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first was a conversation with friends that concluded that ‘Quick to blame or complain, slow to praise’ and negativity has pervaded every facet of journalism, the broadcast media, and social media, and that ‘blame and complain’ has more noticeably become the norm in society as digital tech has boomed over the last twenty years.

The second was in the local supermarket whose shelves and frozen food cabinets were largely empty due to panic buying. Behind the Badger at the checkout, two people proudly crowed about how they had each bought two extra freezers online ‘just in case’, They then bitterly complained to a store worker about the empty shelves and blamed the supermarket chain for incompetence. They then blamed a different local supermarket chain for not having what they wanted either, and the UK and Chinese governments for letting all this happen!

The checkout operator winked. ’I think it’s just the way their brains work. One has a cough so you might not want to serve them’, the Badger said in response. The checkout queue fell silent! The Badger left the store certain that it’s time for our tech-centric society to concentrate more on praise and positivity than blame and complain. That would, however, require a rewiring of our brains.

There’s no ‘Smart Living’ without ‘Smart Working’…

‘Smart working’ has existed in the tech and IT industries for years. With pandemic coronavirus, many companies in many sectors will be severely disadvantage if they don’t have the capability! ‘Smart Working’ has pros and cons, but the pros dominate by far in today’s world of work. A software engineer neighbour, for example, sees nothing but benefit from ‘Smart Working’. He works permanently from home and travels just one day each week to his employer’s office or that of a client. His deadlines are the same as being in the office, but he feels much more productive, less stressed, and has a better work-life balance compared with the grind of a daily commute. He feels strongly that ‘Smart Working’ helps his carbon footprint, his employer’s carbon footprint, reduce costs for everyone, and makes handling crises like coronavirus easier. His employer trusts him not to abuse working this way – a trust he repays with unwavering loyalty. He says he’ll never go back to working permanently in an employer’s office!

The Badger embraced ‘Smart Working’ anytime, anyplace, anywhere years ago. Since leaving the corporate hamster wheel, however, the Badger’s feeling that ‘Smart Working’ will soon be the permanent way of working has strengthened. Coronavirus will surely reinforce that the days white-collar-workers must travel to and work in offices of their employer or a client are coming to an end. We’ll always work in offices, you might say! After all, Aristotle pointed out that we are social animals that need workplace interactions. The Badger’s seen some truth in this over the years, but for today’s younger tech natives the social interactions aspects of the workplace are gravitating faster and faster to the virtual world as technology advances.

It seems likely that pandemic coronavirus, environment/climate change, and heightened public awareness of the delicacy of global supply chains will drive faster change in the way we live our lives. Society could be at a turning point with ‘Smart Living’ becoming a much more dominant part of our psyche and behaviour. This will happen faster if employers henceforth adopt ‘Smart Working’ from home as the norm. When the current economic turmoil triggered by oil and coronavirus abates, political and business leaders will realise attitudes on how people should work in order to mitigate risk in the modern global world must change. ‘Smart Working’ and ‘Smart Living’ should go hand in hand. Without the former there can be no latter.

So, now’s the time to press the case for ‘Smart Working’ if your employer doesn’t currently have it. Remember that ‘Smart Living’ is more about the way you think, behave and take action than it is about the Internet of Things and the interconnectivity of gadgets. As Mr Spock would say, ‘It’s only logical that ‘Smart Working’ has to be a core component of ‘Smart Living’ and we need both to address our problems’.