Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water
14 July 2022 by David Bott
It was Monday, but I got a lie in. This was because I had to go up to Sheffield and it didn’t seem that sensible to start off going 64 miles in the wrong direction! It did mean that I missed the “start the week” meeting! Instead I caught a train to Birmingham Moor Street and walked across to New Street. It is interesting to see how the development we discussed with Advantage West Midlands all those years ago is progressing - I still wonder if they managed to be at all “sustainable” about their design and implementation plans!
The meeting of Sheffield University Council continues to give me a valuable insight into how universities think (I realise that all are subject to the whims and peccadilloes of their Vice-Chancellors, but they face similar problems and seem to be adopting broadly similar strategies, so seeing how one works is a good proxy). We started with a description of what the plan for accommodation and commercial services was. They never explained why they were doing it, but instead talked about progress in outsourcing their commercial services. There were assumptions about the numbers of students and more about the “student experience” (which is code for “they’re paying now, so we ought to make sure we’re selling them something they will buy!”). As with many plans not firmly anchored in a clear strategy, they tied themselves in knots over the exact legalistic and governance formats they would use, and got a confused assent from the Council. Next we got an update on finances, which seemed different from the last one only a few weeks ago. When I was young, I used to think that counting money was easy, because you either had it or you didn’t. Over my life in business, I have learned that money is actually an abstract concept and exists in many forms - each with its own timescales and flexibility. This section got the more experienced non-university members of Council quite exercised - because it apparently varies year on year and within year and they are not impressed. The final section was about the vision for 2022. What was bizarre was that in the vision is a clear and unambiguous statement of delivering the required student experience and perfect strategic justification for the commercial services outsourcing we had discussed earlier - but there seemed to be no interaction!! The main focus was a presentation by the Pro Vice-Chancellor of Research on how the university might pick its focus areas for the future. I explained how we had derived and prioritised the list of areas for the Emerging Technologies and Industries activity and they got quite excited that there might be a process that was an upgrade on their current route of asking the more experienced members of the university what they thought was “cool” and getting a list of what they were already doing. I also cautioned them on language - because I noted that the “Institute of Inclusive Placemaking” was excessive use of jargon and that the “Sheffield European Institute” was imprecise. Discussion was concluded over a dinner where someone who had visited Australia talked about the role of universities in teaching their students cultural values. He didn’t do irony either!
Because I needed to be back in London at the beck and call of Media Woman the next morning, I was booked on the last direct train from Sheffield to London. The taxi was pre-booked and I immediately fired up the NRE App on my iPhone to check which platform I needed to be on. Quelle horreur! The train had been cancelled - but the App asked me if I wanted alternatives!! It turned out that if I caught the Birmingham train 20 minutes before the one I was booked on, I could catch a connection in Derby. The driver did his stuff and I raced across the station to catch the (almost deserted) train. Arriving in Derby, I discovered that there were “signalling problems” and that I would be catching the train that should have come from Sheffield! Instead a train was sitting at the designated platform, telling all the assembled punters that it was going TO Sheffield - so no-one was getting on. As the departure time neared, the signs changed, a crew arrived and we all took our places. It left 10 minutes late and then proceeded to lose another 50 minutes on the 2 hour journey, eventually arriving at St Pancras after midnight. I decided a taxi would be quicker and grabbed a taxi from the rank - only to find my driver was a cross between Ghost Rider and the Dick van Dyke character from Mary Poppins. I was therefore in my hotel room within 15 minutes and asleep in 16!
Tuesday was a weird mixture of interviews about the Delivery Plan and a meeting at the Home Office. That nice David from the Ministry had decided he wanted to announce the Delivery Plan himself and he was at the Farnborough Airshow. This resulted in a misunderstanding that had Vince Cable’s quote announcing £250m of Technology Strategy Board money going into the aerospace industry. (Okay, I joke, but it was a badly aimed and clunky quote). Media Woman has been trying to get the BIS Press Office to change but their position was that Vince himself had made the mistake and it was more than their job was worth to change his quote. FL waded in and they redacted the Farnborough reference, modified the aerospace reference to include other sectors but managed to make it more clunky. When MW tried to get them to split the Cable quote into 2 and put them in the relevant bits of the press release, we discovered that not only did Cable's quote have to come before the Willetts one, but it had to have more words. No wonder....
Anyway, with all this understanding, a copy of the draft Delivery Plan and several sets of lines and Q&As to hand I joined the first interview with the Independent, chaperoned by MW at the other end of a telephone! Apparently, the journalist was new to this desk and so was unsure of what the story might be, she didn't seem to bite on the 60 competitions worth £250m over 9 months angle, so we tried several other ways of explaining what we do. I guess we write it off as a relationship building call (see - http://www.independent.co.uk/biography/laura-chesters). After a break is was a more conventional call with Miriam Frankel of Research Fortnight (and with MW’s young apprentice as chaperone!). She was interested in the area, but more interested in how universities could get some of the money - and was particularly probing on KTPs and whether we would be complying with the recommendations of the Wilson Review (see - http://www.wilsonreview.co.uk/ and the BIS response - http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/higher-education/docs/f/12-903-following-up-wilson-business-university-collaboration-next-steps which was beautifully vague on just about everything, but mute on KTPs). I countered with the strategic redefinition of KTPs and a wider use of them as part of the toolset - and promised to send her the CIHE report when it was published. Nothing has been published!
Then it was down to the Home Office for a meeting of the Forum for Innovation in Crime Prevention (see page 7 of this A New ApproAch to FightiNg crime - European Crime Prevention ...). We ran through the projects. The one about getting people to be more responsible when connected to the internet has been producing papers and running cut-price surveys but really not accomplished anything. Bernie Rickerson has been making a bid for his gong with a project on metal theft (see - http://money.uk.msn.com/mps-back-scrap-metal-theft-bill for some idea of how much MPs like this subject. Bernie has used IoMMM money (and probably some KTN money as well) to drive a really good project on marking copper and lead. Lord Henley loves this project because he gets to show things! Our m-commerce activities are also popular because i) they like us because we are one of the 2 main outputs of the last incarnation of this body and ii) we are putting our own money into it! We had held a dinner for Henley and Willetts in May where Cyber Boy assembled the leading businesses in the area and they discussed what would make growth easier. We are now going to run a competition in the areas they suggested. (to be fair, Cyber Boy nailed the subject beforehand, but this looks really good because everyone else thinks they had the idea!).
Then it was another interview, this time with Elizabeth Gibney (now of the Times Higher but once of Research Fortnight, see - http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/biography.asp?contact=171). This went very much along the lines of the RF interview, mostly about universities and KTPs. Finally I had a quick chat with Catapult Man and Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult Man about the presentation to the EMT the next day! Then I went home, reading e-mail a BlackBerry for 2 hours - some attachments are really useless in this mode!
Wednesday was mostly an EMT day, but started with a debrief on the Governing Board meeting, going through Guy’s draft minutes as an aid to memory. In the closed “ways of working” session, they had obviously felt the same as us about the more positive nature of the meeting, but whereas we had seen this as being due to the absence of some argumentative members, they saw it as us responding to their coaching!! There were also some quotes about the lack of big business management experience in the EMT that turned Strategy Man into Grumpy Man. The final straw (for him) was when they also observed that not using PowerPoint made the meeting more interactive - mistaking the symptom for the cause!
The EMT meeting started late (what’s new) but we dispatched a couple of PAFs with alacrity and noted the ever-late actions, and moved on to think about the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult progress. After my trip up to Glasgow the other week, I have become increasingly worried that it was going nowhere and no-one tried to dissuade me from this viewpoint. The presentation was also more about what we hadn’t done, and highlights why we moved away from the consortium led approach. Because we have told them they are in charge, the only thing we can really do is to not fund, whereas in the Cell Therapy Catapult, we kept control of all the levers and so could be much more flexible when problems arose. We also got lucky with the rapid appointment of the CEO. What the OREC is lacking is leadership and the drive to implement the vision. Instead we have a lot of middle management types thrashing through the process without remembering what they are doing it for - hence the current evolutionary backwater. They even were recommending a project in an area the Governing Board had told us not to work in!
At lunchtime, I got a pass out to join the Automotive Council based contingent who had relocated to Swindon to catch us (Transport Man, Energy Man, Manufacturing Man and me). The back story is that the Roadmap and Capability Review long ago showed that cell production was the weak link in the UK supply chain for battery technology. At first, this had been ignored, but about 6 months ago, the Automotive Council reconsidered and realised they could build in time to meet the probable commercial deadlines. Unfortunately, BIS Automotive Unit decided to fudge the issue by running uncorrelated campaigns to get £5m of capital into WMG (as part of the HVM Catapult) and £7m of running costs through IDP7. Both failed, and they then asked us for help. The meeting started with Don Newton showing us why the proposal into IDP7 had failed with an appalling presentation (and he read from the slides which made it slow and boring!). Ashley then told us he had £50m for the project from the predicted BIS underspend (this is slightly at odds with the Fergus version of the story, but what the hey!). We agreed to help them assemble a case for the capital, supported by a series of annual competitions to support projects designed to take advantage of the capital - we used the industrial biotechnology model. There are also the points that this technology has wider applications outside the automotive sector and that other bits of the High Value Manufacturing catapult have important skills and experience to address this issue but WMG seemed to be in their usual mode of looking after themselves!
Back in the EMT, I had missed the brainstorm on the Communications Strategy but came back to find FL asking once more for the top ten stories - so thought I was in a time warp!
Then Process Man entered and told us about his assessment of the organisation against the EFQM criteria (see - http://www.efqm.org/en/tabid/132/default.aspx). Apparently we got 312 points out of a possible 1000. We then went through the point that one of the obstacles he had in even getting this score was our lack of management information systems. This meant that some of the things we had numbers for weren’t actually measure of success, but just numbers. He also talked about the restated Critical Success Factors - which now seem more like what we do and less like an anodyne statement of generalities.
Sadly I had to leave before we got onto discussing our European strategy because I had to go down to London for a meeting of the Foundation for Science and Technology - that we had actually sponsored (see - http://www.foundation.org.uk/) on the impact of social media on society and democracy (I should point out that Dougal chose the title!). For those of you who haven’t been to a Foundation event, I should tell you that it started life primarily designed for members of the House of Lords as “a dummies guide to...” and although it has evolved to a wider audience, it hasn’t really lost its origins. When I arrived, I discovered that (as is normal with our organisation) there had been confusion about who was going and so FL had asked Media Woman to attend - so we worked the room in parallel. After the pre-talk tea/coffee, we all assembled in the lecture theatre and heard first Mike Lynch, then Julian Huppert and then Kathryn Corrick give short talks about the subject. A particularly novel feature of the meeting was that at least 10 of us in the audience were tweeting. Mike started off with a primer on the subject and introduced the learned audience to the provenance of the word “nom” (see - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMWi7CLoZ2Q not for the original, but a scary greatest hits compilation!). He then lapsed into a muse on how he didn't understand young people which got a little weird. Next up, Julian (recently “outed” by Mark Henderson as the only qualified scientist in the House of Commons) talked about using social media in politics and nailed some of the more bizarre aspects. This all set Kathryn up to deconstruct the area and offer some underpinning theories which may have shown more of her own politics than she was comfortable with. They were then joined on the panel by Candace Kuss from Hill and Knowlton and the first question session began, ably chaired by Lord Selborne. As is normal the questions were a mixture of basic and insightful, perhaps the only odd one asked by a christlike figure from Demos who was too obviously showing off. After a quick drink, we went down to dinner. Since we had sponsored, MW and I got seats on the “high table”. She was between Doug Kell and Nigel Shadbolt and opposite Rick Rylance and I was opposite Mike Lynch and Julian Huppert and next to Nick Jones (the Digital Comms guy from Number 10). The second question session (lubricated by drink) is always better, although there are some standard figures who always ask the same question no matter what the subject it! My overall take is that no-one really knows what the long term impact of social media will be, whether the current behemoths will survive or whether we are into a fast changing world where communications confuses those not involved, but doesn't kill them (it therefore makes them stronger). Because of the threat of hotel overbooking in the run up to the Olympics, I was in a hotel some way out and the taxi fare (it was raining and I was carrying my bag) offended me - God knows what it will do to Cyrus!).
The next morning it was down to Tracy Island, but the traffic was awful so I was late for the first teleconference - on Gateway to Research. It appears that the Research Councils have a similar aim (and possibly imperative) to us to make the results of the work they support publicly available. The difference seems to be that they got extra money and the mentorship of Jimmy Wales to do it. They have been working on it since last November but we only just seem to have noticed. Interestingly, Wales advice seems to be the same I got a few months back from Dave Stone - make the data clean, stick some simple APIs across the top and let the market do the rest. In true civil service style this has been transmuted into a 2 year introspective programme! They either didn't know about (or chose to ignore) the work of LinkedGov in cleaning data, they never thought that this would be an excellent SBRI programme to support both data cleaners and application developers, but then we can’t seem to follow through on these connections either, so perhaps it’s not surprising. Quite a depressing experience.
Happily, the next time-slot - and interview for a potential new Biosciences person under Technology Woman - was much more fun and I hope we can get this one in. Definitely our sort of person.
Then I had a quick lunch/PDR/catch-up with Healthcare Man before catching a train back to Swindon. Normally I avoid RCUK meetings like the plague because they are mostly badly targeted talking shops, and involve a lot of arse-covering, but this was the last one in a series, so I thought watching the death throes might be interesting. The confusion and lack of continuity between this and the last meeting was awe-inspiring and most of the discussion was about making sure the Research Councils didn't get hit in the next spending review by presenting evidence that they had achieved “impact” both through and without us.
It was nice to escape back to North Star House for a Funders Panel - Part 2. This one was on IDP7 - which is Low Carbon Vehicle (LCV) code for the seventh competition in the Integrated Delivery Programme. This one had £6m from us and £19m from OLEV, although we started the meeting with OLEV offering an extra £2m on the basis of the quality of the proposals. As we went through the proposals, discussing the goals and consortium members, the quality did become apparent, and Operations Woman and I realised that we ought to have someone from Communications in these meetings. There was one worry though. One project, a large one on composites, did not have the composites part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult in the mix - although it did have other bits of the Catapult. Apparently they weren't sure how to fill in the forms! This prompted Operations Woman to disclose that this was becoming the norm, with us seeing them apply to be parts of consortia either as universities (getting 80% of FEC costs) or through their commercial arms (therefore getting 50% of costs but having to put up the collateral from their own assets). What we weren’t really seeing is a joined-up Catapult approach - but then we haven’t been that clear about the funding rules.
By now it was raining, so I borrowed the company umbrella and hoofed it out of the room and caught a train back to London, and walked the short(ish) distance from Paddington to Marble Arch under the said umbrella, talking to Manufacturing Man about both the events of the Funders Panel and some bizarre intelligence he has uncovered about the governments desire to use the HVM Catapult to bring graphene faster to market (they don't know which market but seem to want to make that nice Chancellor happy by following through on his agreement to make graphene the economic saviour of the UK!).
As seems the norm this week, I had a distraction - a dinner with Healthcare Man and the CEO of the Cell Therapy Catapult. We talked about the various pressures (political pressure from London politicians, “encouragement” from some SMEs to tackle some regulatory hurdles (quote from the chair of this august body http://www.dh.gov.uk/ab/GTAC/index.htm “getting to market a few months late never hurt anyone”) and the realisation that we didn't have a very good idea of all the minutiae needed to set up an organisation the scale of a Catapult, so they are scrabbling around trying to get IT support, accountancy support, legal support and so on. But most of all we talked about one of the best curries in London! It was still raining, so I dropped Healthcare Man off at Paddington before dragging out to the hotel.
Friday saw an early scoot to Paddington and the train back to Swindon again. I had a quick word with Connected Digital Economy Catapult Man, encouraging him to swap notes with those in the other Catapults about problems. A particular instance is that the GLA seems to be making a play to swamp Tech City with a new centre built over the Old Street roundabout. This is obviously confusing punters over where our centre will be - and has similarities with the attempt by the same organisation to make us select the Royal Albert Docks as the location for the Cell Therapy Catapult - where they would have ended up going to work across a scene from a dystopian science fiction movie, dodging the tumbleweed.
Then it was a telephone catch-up with David Way - with a focus on making the Catapults go faster, sorting out the ORE one and so on...
Next up was a meeting FL had stitched me for and I had worried about when I saw the address was Celtic Manor. I was wrong. Mo Stevens of Cassidian (see - http://www.cassidian.com/en_GB/) is new in the job and realises that the technology platforms developed for the defence industry are capable of adding value to society, but is struggling to make connections and change minds within his own organisation. We spent a great 90 minutes swapping ideas and planning a “doing a Cisco” event for later in the year.
Then it was a Funders Panel for the Stratified Medicine Innovation Platform - this one on improving patient outcomes. Basically we were looking for projects that demonstrated the value of adopting a stratified approach. Graham had set a pretty high standard explaining the projects in earlier panels but Alistair has added even more insight and a fine line in stand-up comedy to the mix. Media Woman (we had acted on the idea from yesterday, how happening are we?) appreciated the insight into what we were supporting and can now think through the best way to publicise the projects as well as the programme.
Next was a free lunch combined with a briefing session with the BIS Triennial Review team. Passing over the fact that our quinquenial review has turned into a triennial one, it seems that it has become a government habit to pull up plants every now and again to see if the roots are growing, and it’s our turn. We discussed the terms of the review, the protocols and the timescales. We made points about what we thought was important and the leader (the first secretary of the Technology Strategy Board) and his sidekick (ex-SEEDA and an old friend of the Technology Strategy Board) both seemed happy.
The final meeting of a busy week was a long catch-up/PDR with FL. We had an interesting debate about how far he can make me responsible for financial control when we are only just getting any meaningful financial management information and considering the timescales of the impact of decisions, but although I am going to pass that all on to the Heads in Innovation Programmes, I thought I ought to make a mild stand!