What is my purpose in life? Will it, cosmically speaking, matter if I don't get up in the morning?
21 March 2019 by David Bott
Another Monday, another “start the week” meeting. Then on to a fascinating discussion with Lisa about how we got to the present portfolio – in a historical sense – and where we are planning to go. She has caused me a nasty worry that we have been justifying ourselves for 20 months and not really thinking. The only problem is that, a bit like Deep Thought, I am now committed to thinking about the problem – although it might not take 3 million years!! Bring on the A3 sheets. Then it was our “mend the bridge” meeting with BBSRC. They started with taking an early idea and telling us that we ought to run with it, but it settled down to be an effective sharing of ideas and goals. They are going through the process of realising that we weren’t set up to take their ideas and pay for them to be developed but that we start with challenges, find the firms addressing them and then look for what they need from the knowledge base to succeed. Monday ended up with a “Heads of” meeting for Innovation Programmes, where we discussed the Delivery Plan and how to integrate it into the Performance Management system, and the process for agreeing bonuses and salaries. Deep joy.
Tuesday was a London day and started with a discussion with someone from IfM who wanted me to do something. I think I agreed but ought to work out what it was!! It was too early for coherent thought. Then Allyson and I had a meeting allegedly with Sebastian Madden of the Office of Security and Counter Terrorism. Allyson has been trying to break in (no pun intended) to these guys for some time but their boss keeps postponing, so we grabbed what we thought was a meeting with people from his team. What we got was a couple of consultants who didn’t really know what they wanted but were looking for ways of delivering it. We did the standard “you don’t know anything about the Technology Strategy Board, you haven't lived.“ discussion so it may lead to something. Then I joined Fearless Leader for a meeting with the proposed Future Media Institute. These were the guys that His Spittleness has mentioned at the last Board meeting and FL had wrestled it away from him. It was probably one of the more interesting meetings I have had this year. It turns out that we had known a bit of the story, with our involvement in Media City in Salford. The BBC is closing its R&D department in Surrey and rationalising its R&D department into 2 main centres - Salford and London. (I got the impression that London was the first among equals). It is therefore looking for a suitable site in London. UCL had seen this as an opportunity to start an institute of media – combining the BBC R&D guys, an academic institute and an incubator for digital media. They have a limited time period, a high level business plan and are looking for sources of money to tip the project into reality. We need to support them but haven’t got the money, FL’s credit card is maxed out!!
Then we went onto a Board to Board meeting with the MOD. We have had several types of interaction with the MOD over the last 20 months, but they always seem to fizzle. Both sides have noticed it and this meeting was to work out what we could do to make the relationship fly. The meeting started well, with FL summarising the current state of our activities, then a 25 slide presentation from Chris Mace. FL then talked about SBRI and how we are developing it. They seemed quite exercised about how they are already doing SBRI –indeed, Chris bordered on passionate when he said declared that all of CDE was SBRI. When we got into detail, we began to surface the real issues. They have their way of doing things and don't really want to change. They believe that their industry is different from all the others. Internal communications on both sides is not stellar. We seem to have dropped the ball on Emerging Technologies, they seem not to understand KTNs very much. They are looking at budget cuts and want to ensure we still keep developing technologies that would feed into their markets. It looks like we need a “campaign” to engage them more. They have been at their version of the game for a long time and are very good at what they do, but I think we are a more revolutionary organisation that they are comfortable with being, so we will need to take account of their culture as we go forward.
Wednesday I decided to work at home – I had 2.5 strategies to sign off and needed uninterrupted time. Medicine and Healthcare passed the test of readability and clarity but my inner OCD kicked in and I questioned some numbers. Biosciences required a herculean effort to work out what the message was, but the underlying components passed the usual tests, so it’s a matter of restructuring rather than re-writing. Transport only reached top of the pile at 9 o’clock, so got postponed.
Thursday was another London day – this time is was the Strategic Advisory Group. The last couple of these have, as far as I can see it, failed to harness the power of the group and ended up talking rather than making decisions. This time someone came up with the idea of goading them. Brian showed a plot of the main areas of our activity on a simple graphic which plotted “degree of alignment” versus “priority”. No-one really liked it but couldn’t prove it wrong, so it got them debating the issues. I think in the end we agreed that the “degree of alignment” axis was useful and measured the interaction between the RDAs and us, but that the “priority” nomenclature was misleading and what it really represented was the “alignment” within the RDAs with one end denoting things that they all thought were important and the other capturing things that only one or a few RDAs wanted to concentrate on. What we did agree as that it wasn’t a normal “everyone has to be in the top right hand quadrant” plot. We all agreed that the graphic it its present form should be destroyed and all evidence of its existence erased before it fell into the wrong hands, but it had served its purpose. I’m going to sell mine on eBay! Next up, Mark gave a short but effective presentation on SBRI. He did make the slight mistake of turning to Robin Young for support at one point, which prompted a polite rant about how civil servants had lots of ways to stifle creativity and innovation, but I think overall they now understand that we are developing another explicit tool in our armoury, and that we are serious about making it work to serve our goals of supporting innovation UK companies doing innovative things!!
By way of contrast, after the SAG meeting I made my way up to Holborn to meet with Frontier Economics (http://www.frontier-economics.com/europe/en/). They had contacted me on the advice of someone called Chris Nicholls in DECC (who was also supposed to have briefed me on the requirement). Their project is to advise Government (by which they mean DECC) on “how Government policy can support innovation in low carbon technologies in the UK.” They asked a whole series of questions and elicited the usual story of the development of the Technology Strategy Board and the Innovation Platforms (albeit in an odd order) and professed surprise that all this existed and DECC had employed them! The discussion followed the usual lines of “what can Government do?”, “what levers does it have to enact policy?”, “how will it know if its interventions have been successful?”. I suspect the only one they weren’t totally satisfied with was the “metrics” question. I am beginning to feel more and more exposed that we don't have a common response to what is a fairly basic question. I usually fudge it by giving a variation of the talk I used to give in ICI, but it flatters to deceive and we ought be be better. Meanwhile, I have met 3 really nice economists (there, I’ve said it, they were economists and I liked them) but cannot help wonder at the unjoined-upness of Government.
Friday was a Swindon day. I took my quarterly beating from Fearless Leader and caught up with a number of people, but the centrepiece of the day was a visit by the dudes from Polecat ( http://www.polecatting.com/). Zoe, Iain and I have known these guys for 4 or so months, but in the context of them organising WebMission (http://webmission.co.uk/). What I hadn't done is found out what they did as an SME in a fast moving and highly competitive space. A quick canter through their website suggested that Lisa and Steph might prop up my ignorance but Zoe was too busy filling in her expenses to meet the month end requirements. Once they started, I realised I had missed an opportunity and lured Claire into the meeting with a promise of sandwiches. I won't pretend I understand it all, but words like ontologies, semantics, parsing, semiotics and contextual language evaluation give you an idea of the basics. What they can do is examine how a company (or individual) is perceived in cyber space. They trawl through media websites, analysts reports, subscriptions, blogs, and probably even twitter logs, and analyse hot only what is said about you (we can do this already) but the context in which it is said. In itself, it doesn't mean anything, but once you track this over time or in relation to customers and competitors, you can work out a lot about how you are thought of. We agreed to run a pilot with them to analyse how we have been perceived over the last 6 months, and run a small workshop to explain the result to us. If it works, we think we can do much more, but we need to learn to drive before we race at Le Mans (can’t think where that metaphor came form?). I then met with Neil Olds, who almost understand what he is doing but has apparently been told many things in his first 2 weeks.
I then had several briefings about the outcome of our (over)successful competitions. The bottom line is that oversubscription means more disappointed people and statistically, more of them are likely to complain that they don't like the result, that our feedback is insufficient and so on. It is a difficult call, but I think that the purely statistical feedback we now give for rejected Expression of Interest means that we are behaving more like a funding agency that an organisation that if dedicated to “connect and catalyse”. We need to find a way to give those rejected more meaningful feedback so that they can apply with more success next time. What we are testing their proposals on is what they would get within a business or from a venture capitalist, so it is all part of upping the innovation climate, surely. I realise it will mean more work for us, but I cannot help thinking that we are missing a trick here.
Finally, we had the official office opening. I do like those miniature éclairs, but so does EJ