It is time to steer by the stars and not the lights of passing ships

It was Monday and with FLs absence exploring the Western Isles of Scotland in a camper van, Cyrus whipped through the meeting with characteristic efficiency and we finished early.  That gave us the opportunity for some 1-on-1 catch-ups before the official TIC Update Meeting.  Here we explored the challenge that there is time pressure on us to resolve lots of issues regarding the High Value Manufacturing TIC, but we are becoming more and more aware that we are in danger of setting precedents for the other TICs without realising it.  There was therefore a bit of discussion about how to balance this tension.  Cyrus sat in on the meeting and I guessed from his body language that he wasn’t fully impressed by the rate of progress or the quality of debate, but who knows?

After the usual “travel instruction set” download from Jools, and some consultation with David Way, Healthcare Man and FL’s Keeper about response to the MRC’s attempt to park their tanks on our TIC lawn, it was time for another Funders Panel.  This one was for the competition entitled Collaboration Across Digital Industries 2 (usually abbreviated as CADI2). CADI1 had sought to explore how the components of the burgeoning digital creative industries could work better together, and CADI2 sought to extend this into non-creative (?) industries.  We are putting this success of this competition in getting the mix it got to the principle that people are beginning to realise we mean what we say in the competition scope documents, the numerous presentations we make in the outside world and the general thrust of our engagement.  Anyway, it was very nice to see manufacturing and financial companies being successful in this competition.

Afterwards, I got a chance to catch-up with the young padawan, who had returned from an extended holiday, before having a very long phone call with another person from the MRC – one who hadn’t written us a letter but had been copied in on the ones we did have – confirming that we really didn’t see the Cell Therapy TIC as a novel way to put more money into the universities working on stem cell research and that we were serious about there only being one physical centre.  I am reminded of Cyrus’s favourite phrase “what is it about this you don’t understand?”

That finished in time for a meeting with the Energy dudes – minus their leader who was still suffering from his cycling acrobatics – to discuss competitions that will be run early next year.  Yes, that’s right, we are preparing well in advance!!  As it happens, they had some ideas for funding that Sir Humphrey would have described as “courageous” so we had to explain the limits of creativity in competition space, but otherwise it was a great discussion!

Then I went into a room with the bulk of the KTP team to explain how Innovation Programmes worked – the development of strategies, the identification of opportunities and barriers and the development of competitions to address the, the building of communities and the management of the resulting portfolio.  It looked like some of it was new to them, but that’s what happens with remedial courageous networking!

Finally, it was a Competitions Progress Meeting, with the usual swapping of expectations and desires!   These meeting have evolved into an important part of the calendar to make sure we get and remain aligned.  Finally, I took a phone call from the UK – an hour earlier than Outlook said because we seem to have an error in our time-zone allocation!

The next morning started with the young padawans PDR, and was followed by an Innovate Steering Group.  I am not sure what happened here, but as far as I can remember, we finished the whole agenda and on time – a never happened before occurrence.  We debated speakers – and wished we had started earlier, whether we were having a dinner and where it would be if we did have it – since we have moved Collaboration Nation to the day before Innovate and the High Value Manufacturing into the second hall to give it space there is not time for us to have the dinner on site, so we need to look for another venue.  We also realised we ought to send out invitations to the dinner – at least “hold the date” ones or having a dinner will not happen!

The next meeting was a couple of guys from the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge who are looking at including design in university level research.  Although I am a fan of integrated design, the examples they cited felt a little contrived and I got the impression we were being tapped up for funding.  Otherwise it was “mostly harmless”.

Finally it was the second meeting of the External Strategic Communications Project Group.  We started by going over the issues we had surfaced in the first meeting. 

The first issue was whether we actually knew how many companies actually knew about us and what we could do to help them be more innovative.  Although we know some companies, we don’t know the Rumsfeldian ratio, so we may well be telling people the wrong thing because we are mainly talking to people who already know about us.  The idea of a properly scoped and wider perception survey got a lot of airing.  Apparently, we have carried out one before but with a very small sample size (500) and it wasn’t necessarily scoped to find out the right things – and anyway, nobody knew what the results had been, so all-in-all…..

We passed over the profound disappointment everyone apparently feels about the CRM system and got onto case studies.  The Media Dominatrix drew the distinction between case studies and media stories.  When selling a story to a journalist, we are getting better are working out what makes it interesting – whether it is a novel view of the market, a new piece of technology or an interesting personality behind the company – and selling that aspect.  By contrast the case studies are thought to be a little bit “boring” (or “fluffy”) with no story associated with them.  They could well be regarded as building blocks for stories, but then they don’t seem to have enough detail – the financial figures or the actual technology.  They are also flat pdf documents.  We wondered whether videos – similar to those on the Creative Industries KTN website, or the ones we use to start the LaunchPads, or hypertext documents that linked the different aspects of the story and allowed readers to explore the ideas in their own way.

We had delayed the excitement of talking about the website until last!  Our website is apparently held in very low regard by everyone we talked to and we need to think hard about what it is we are trying to communicate with it.  We went through websites that we had been impressed by – see and for examples of how to ask basic questions on the front page and guide the different types of audience to the most relevant parts of the website, and for their ability for the reader to customise, got an honourable mention and is an outstanding example of the latest technologies used subtly.   We like the idea of a simple set of questions on the front page and the opportunity for repeat visitors to customise their own front page.

On my way home I took a call from Richard Jones, the PVC Research and Innovation at Sheffield University.  They are grappling with the need to engage more with both SMEs (particularly those in the Digital arena) and the evolving local government structures around them.  It was a bit like a conversation between two blind men trying to describe an elephant but it passed the time!

Wednesday was mainly given over to exporting my wife, but I did get home in time to catch up with a lot of traffic about both the TechCity LaunchPad Investor Event next week and the latest manifestation of the Eurostars issue.  On Eurostars, FL had received a letter from a disappointed punter the other week – one of a series of letters he had written to the government (including to his Daveness), the opposition, and various newspapers.  The specific cause of angst this time was that the FT had been spurred into questioning by John Denham’s office.  The main problem is that all countries allocate a budget every year to support Eurostars.  The proposals then come in from consortia across several European countries and are ranked on quality.  The process is then to go down that list taking the required funding from the individual countries pots of money until a country runs out – all further consortia that contain companies from the country that has run out and then not able to be considered.  It feels like this happens every year to one or two countries.  Some countries put more money into the pot that others (Germany and France seem to be prolific supporters of Eurostars) and some don’t have many companies participating (like Iceland).  The unhappy person had been in a consortium with companies from France and Iceland, so it was the United Kingdom that ran out of money!  Everyone pitched in to provide data and analysis and by Friday the journalist had decided that it was a non-story.  Good result because the tone was very dangerous for us and our relationship with our funders!!

Thursday was a depleted Executioners Meetings (cf depleted Uranium!).  Under Cyrus’s ruthless chairmanship, we cracked through the agenda, clearing up a number of outstanding actions, discussing and agreeing a number of PAFs and even having time to revisit the last meeting through the little used process of agreeing the minutes!!  With the addition of TIC Boy and the newly recruited TICComms Boy, we went on to explore the basics of TICness, agree with the new name/brand and action it to be developed and implemented – I can’t tell you or I’d have to kill you, I’m afraid!  In a fit of teamwork, Cyrus and I even agreed to re-order the Competitions Planning and Control Sheet to reflect the overall process – even though it ruins his colour scheme!  

Afterwards I had a long chat with TICComms Boy about how Innovation Programmes saw the fit of TICs into the overall framework of support goals and activities, and then it was off on the road, albeit later than planned.  I had given up a chance to see my old friends at Sharp Laboratories to represent the Technology Strategy Board at the Google Garden Party at Bletchley Park.  I was about half way there, and crossing the M40, when I realised that I was tracking the rain, so I checked and everyone was confined to the marquee, so I made my excuses and turned for home!

I had been looking forward to Friday because we were having an Innovation Programmes Away Day and Jools had put it at a hotel near where I live, so I got the lie-in.  I did have to be there by 9 o’clock to set up the room and the Skype link to the young padawan, who was in Germany doing what he always does there. When I got the link up, he was smiling, but I did worry about the lederhosen hanging on the cupboard behind him!

We started with a discussion about the upcoming strategy refresh process.  Will and the High Value Manufacturing team are probably most advanced because of the need to have a plan behind the TIC, but the consultation process has largely been dictated by circumstance, so we have the academic input ahead of the business input!  Nevertheless, the input from the Manufacturing Professors meeting the other week provided a useful jumping off point for the discussion.  We have agreed to adopt a common format, with a 10 page “principles” front end with an annually refreshed implementation plan and whatever annexes are needed to give avid readers the backing information.  We also agreed that “Technology” will be one integrated strategy in future and will be delivered in Q1 2012.

We then addressed the Framework for Sustainable Economic Growth that has been developed in conjunction with Forum for the Future.  This will be used as part of the strategy refreshes, the development of the rationales for the TICs and in the development of the Emerging Technologies and Industries work.  We agreed that it was important to emphasise the three pillars of sustainability (economic, social and environmental) and so see the use of the Framework in the development of the Cell Therapy TIC as important.

The young padawan then used the power of Skype screen sharing to explain the front end he has developed for the early stage evaluation and triage of ideas for innovation platforms (with only a small detour to explain the process of actually building the case for an Innovation Platform once an area is judged to be worth the effort!

The next section was an extended discussion of the activities we would be proposing as part of the 2012/13 Delivery Plan.  We will attempt to use the financial planning and control mechanisms to fit within the agreed area budgets – any variance needed would be agreed as transfer within the Heads of Innovation Programmes and signed off by FL.  We were also keen to build more integrated programmes where Feasibility Studies lead on to intermediate single company or consortium programmes, eventually leading to larger collaborative programmes, possibly even at the demonstrator scale.  We believe that ensuring the community has sight of our intentions will lead to better co-ordination and probably higher quality proposals.  We also agreed to share insight into the desires and policies of the different government departments, since the relationships are already being built.  Integration with SBRI contacts is not yet as good as it should be.

For the final session, we discussed our experience of the post-AwayDay project groups.  None of them are yet delivering any real changes, but it looks like insight may be growing.  Perhaps surprisingly, the usually bicycle sheds issues of communications did not raise too much discussion, but the competitions process and feedback groups are close to our hearts and we really need to implement some of the ideas that seem to have been kicking around for some time if we are to avoid the growing reputation we are getting in the outside world for “becoming more like the DTI”.  With Sustainability Man still enjoying his well-earned rest in Brazil, we didn’t get much feedback on the Management Information Systems project, but the rumours weren’t encouraging!

We stood outside the hotel in the sunshine and realised we had done more work – and resolved more issues – than we usually do at this sort of meeting when it is held in Swindon or London, so we agreed to hold another in a couple of months time and clear more of the backlog! 

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