Those who do not understand the need for change will be first against the wall when the revolution comes
21 July 2022 by David Bott
Another Monday and another missed “start the week” meeting. Perhaps they will have improved so much by the time I get to go to one that I will no longer unconsciously seek to avoid them?
Any train journey is an excuse to catch up on the internet and my first point of call is always Twitter. What I discovered on Monday was that NESTA had published the Innovation Index (see - Innovation Index 2012 - Nesta) and used it as an excuse to put forward their idea of what to do about the fall in innovation they were reporting (see - http://www.nesta.org.uk/home1/assets/features/nesta_report_shows_24bn_collapse_in_innovation_investment_and_a_more_deeprooted_crisis). Leaving aside my surprise that we were not more involved in such an important announcement in innovation-land (as we are committed to joining up the innovation landscape) I retweeted the announcement. Imagine my surprise when I got an almost immediate response that said “yes, and it is not helped by the pretenders in various agencies e.g. TSB. Show me some real innovation”. I responded and hooked a large number of people who think that we don't support risky proposals and are mainly there to fund “our friends”. Since I knew the original respondent, I talked to him on the synchronous voice network and established that, as an academic, he was frustrated that we wouldn't fund him taking his ideas out of the laboratory. As we talked, I realised that he hadn’t actually applied to anything and knew nothing about our relevant programmes, our networking activities or our wider support mechanisms. He is an articulate and influential person (see - http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jul/21/chemputer-that-prints-out-drugs as an example) and is working in an area that crosses several of our themes and yet all he knew about us was that we were an old-fashioned government funding agency - but not for him.
Eventually, I made my way down to Oxford for a Board meeting of one of my other jobs - Oxford Advanced Surfaces. We have been negotiating the difficult task of translating really wonderful technologies that people ought to buy into products that companies will actually part with money for. We now have a couple of development agreements that larger companies down the supply chain are actually paying for and the share price leapt (a tiny bit) on the news. We are also trying to find a new CEO and discovering that adding talent to an existing organisation often blows the pay policy out of the water, Now where have I seen that before?
I took a couple of calls from people about Catapults before going on to London and rendezvousing with Transport Man for a dinner with a couple of seniors from the Rail Safety and Standards Board (see - http://www.rssb.co.uk/Pages/Main.aspx) It was a fascinating evening. They had contributed money to our first rail competition and I got the feeling that they were seeing if we would make good long-term partners to help drive innovation in the rail industry. They told us of the challenges of integrating track, rolling stock and timetables, their confusion with what the Department for Transport were trying to do and much more.
The next morning I had a less congenial meal - breakfast with Chris Crockford. Chris is always confrontational but this meeting started with him describing what sounded like a neat piece of technology - a mouse pad that sits on a GPs desk and enables him/her to probe the health of the patients heart by monitoring the electrical activity of the heart (by measuring the resistance across the chest through the arms) - that had a link to the major IT provider to the nations GPs, They were trying to add a spectroscopic probe to determine blood pressure and pulse using a small laser and had submitted the idea to the Biomedical Catalyst Feasibility Awards - and not been selected for funding!! Later that day Chris sent the backing letter to FL. I have looked at Chris’s proposals before, and they are not bad. He is clear on goals and snappy on the commercial analysis. However, he is one of a number of moderately successful entrepreneurs who seem to be unable to explain themselves in terms that our assessors can assimilate. Many years ago, I was taught that the goal of a job interview is to trick the interviewee into demonstrating how good they are, not to concentrate on what is wrong with them. I fear we don’t use the same principle in our assessment procedures and are stuck in the philosophy than most who apply to us are attempting to cheat the taxpayer rather than contribute to economic growth. Almost in passing, he ranted again about the mechanics of our submission process, with what he (and to be fair many other I meet) feel is outdated and clunky IT that legislates against those on Macs or using Linux).
I made my way on the Circle Line to Tracy Island and settled down for a meeting of the Heads of Innovation Programmes. Our main topic was FL’s desire that we took more control of the budgets for our programmes. I had trailed this already and they came at me quickly (getting their retaliation in first as they are wont to do). We set off on this path a year ago, but were stymied by the lack of meaningful management accounts. When we looked, we found competitions wrongly allocated, frankly bizarre comings and goings and - in the end - the mess over accruals that took us from a £25m overspend to a £50m underspend in less than a month made the whole exercise academic. We are now beginning to get more meaningful information, but when - 2 months into the year - two areas can still be in profit, we are a little suspicious. They agreed to work with Maria to work through the details if I agreed to ensure that their performance related pay was not dependent on this as a metric - because relying on others doesn’t seem to work in our organisation! We also discussed Catapults, where we are becoming aware of dissent and resulting confusion in the rest of the organisation about the hygiene factors - what sort of legal entity they are, who gets to vote and where, who determines HR policies (basic), accounting practices (basic), IT support (basic) and so on. There is a danger that we will end up starting 7 entirely different organisations and make a mockery of that nice Mr Cameron's dream of “an elite network of technology and innovation centres”.
Next was lunch with Grumpy Man - where we planned our meeting at the Home Office (2 days ahead of the meeting!), discussed the triennial review, and generally worried that the strategy was not driving our day-to-day behaviours!
After lunch we had an interesting meeting with the glitterati of the Chemistry Innovation KTN. Their chair mildly abuses his role as an ex-Governing Board member to get time with FL and I, but since he is invariably well briefed and thinks strategically, it is never a waste of time. This meeting, although part of a series, was prompted by the whole networking strategy, will they/won’t they cut KTN funding debate.
Then it was a PDR with Transport Man, which we combined with a reflection of the RSSB meeting the previous evening.
Next I met with an interesting young woman from John Beddington’s office. She was a microbiologist on secondment from DSTL and the project she is working on was to find a means of detecting biologically active moieties in the air - remotely. She thought that our Detection and Identification of Infectious Agents work might give some clues but we quickly realised the “remote” bit of the need ruled out the sorts of projects we had funded. Instead we discussed some of the environmental monitoring systems in use and I pointed her at NERC - but only after pointing out the roles we had on the recruitment website!
The final task of the day was to dress up as a penguin and attend the Royal Society of Chemistry Summer Party at the Royal Academy of Arts (next door to the RSC!). There was a small problem in that the obvious direct walking route was blocked by Olympic preparations, so I went the long way around! The event itself was its usual chemistry celebrity filled wonderfulness and I caught up with loads of old friends and colleagues and espoused the values of the Technology Strategy Board at all who interacted with me. Because of the alleged cost of hotels when this was set up, I got a car home (pesky trains finish too early) so didn’t get to bed until after midnight.
Next morning, it was up early to be at Intel in Swindon to meet their High Performance Computing folks, who were over from Oregon. This is yet another fall-out from membership of the e-Leadership Council, but another chance to talk to opinion formers in a large corporate. What I discovered was that, as always, our internal interactions are better than most global corporates, so I ended up telling these guys what we have already told 3 separate sets of Intel people. Nevertheless, when they got to their idea of establishing a nation-wide network of HPC centres, the conversation at the e-Leadership Councils came in handy and I got to explain Catapults - and KTPs, because they are interested in how they get companies who don’t know they could benefit from high performance computing to not just understand but implement that logic - now we have a strategic intent for KTPs its much easier to sell them than before when they were just regarded as a cosy club stuck in the past.
Back to North Star House, we had a Funders Panel for the first stage of the Future Cities Demonstrator. Although we had allocated £1m for the design phase, the quality of proposals combined with the need to address our alleged underspend this year meant we could “go large” and fund 30 rather than 20 cities - gaining more friends and better national coverage.
My next meeting was with Mat Hunter of the Design Council, who was making his first visit to Swindon. As well as us talking about the range of our interactions, it was a good chance for him to meet our Stratified Medicine stand-up and new convert to the Design Option and discuss some of healthcare's greatest design mistakes (see http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2007-10-18/pfizers-exubera-flopbusinessweek-business-news-stock-market-and-financial-advice) and Cyber Boy to discuss the m-commerce project we are collaborating on under the auspices of the Forum for Innovation in Crime Prevention.
Then it was the second meeting of the Interim Advisory Group for the Connected Digital Economy Catapult. It says something for the importance that is getting attached to Catapults that the group of important and busy people came to Swindon for this meeting. One of the probes with these meetings is to decide the priority of activities - is it more important to sort out the hygiene factors or the programmes? How exactly do we need to define programmes before we advertise for a CEO? Do we need to decide the location before we write the job description of the CEO?
Next came a PDR with Finger Man that inevitably included a review of the previous meeting!
Although it was normal going home time, FL had called a meeting of the EMT to discuss the future of the web site. It is one of the most commented on aspects of our external presence with lots of “hide in plain sight” and “what do your really do?” jokes in the wider world and - as I found out last year in the External Strategic Communications Work Group - inside the organisation. Although a lot of the basic problems could have been addressed last year as the result of our work (and to be honest long before if anyone had been actually listening to the external world) we had finally got some bright external people together to ask the right questions and tonight was the much delayed feedback. Or so we thought. At the point where they started showing us proposed new web site designs, we knew something had gone badly wrong with specification and expectation management and the last hour was spend repeating the mantra that we wanted a working website before we wanted a pretty one. Given that we had given up over 2 hours of our evening, most of the EMT left matching Grumpy Man’s mood.
Next day, I made my way down to London and the joys of Tracy Island. The first meeting was a concerted feedback session from the Governing Board with David Way, Sustainability Man, his young apprentice and I trying to capture the same messages we had got the week before and make sure they were translated into actions. The main points were about clarity of vision, a simple, clearly articulated plan for the first couple of years, and simple, measurable, deliverables - there was a clear message I heard that “less is more”.
After the meeting, I met up with Grumpy Man and went around to the Home Office (actually he walked separately because he had to excise himself from another meeting FL had dumped him with). The meeting, with Alan Pratt, was the 4th in a series - but Alan had missed the second and third because he had to have back surgery - which gave me an intro to get some customer feedback in an area we rarely get the opportunity! We then talked about the various co-programmes - SBRI, SBRI, SBRI and some other things. Alan was both gloriously indiscrete and joyfully pragmatic about the political battles around him and their impact on programmes - often well-evidenced and measurable plans losing out to those of his Minister! Alan is a good connection into an area with many potential joint activities and we need to keep him on side.
By then I had to catch a taxi across London to meet Media Woman and Richard Gray, the Science Correspondent of the Telegraph (see - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/richard-gray/). It is all part of her plan to build links with key journalists and so get our name, activities and the names of those we support out there! Richard is a biochemist by training, so we started with our healthcare activities but branched off into anything he sounded interested in - including Media Woman's time in Edinburgh!
There were lots of follow-up actions, so assume it was a success. As we left the restaurant, I spotted Transport Man behind some aspidistras so joined him to interview a potential person to join the Transport Catapult team (it was planned!). We then caught the train to Warwick Parkway together, picked up my car and drove to Coventry Railway station to pick up Finger Man - but not before I had done another interview. This time it was with Miriam Frankel of Research Fortnight and focused on the Triennial Review (another of FL’s cast-offs!). Given that RF is mainly concerned with university stuff, we expected the thrust of the questions - “might you be merged with the research councils?”, “might you get more money, and where from?”, “why aren’t you better known?”. For the record the answers I gave were “we are legally a research council already, but our target community is very different so I expect us to remain separate and act differently”, “of course, we might get more money, but 5 years of experience has taught us to wait until the cheque arrives before we celebrate”, “ we are trying to be better known - we have talked to you twice in a week - but we use our resources carefully and try to focus on those things that help the economy grow. That said, the thing that most worries us is companies not knowing we exist and therefore being unable to seek out our help”. I am still awaiting the Media Scorecard on my performance. :-)
Transport Man, Finger Man and I then set off to dump our stuff at a hotel next to the M1, meet up with Sustainability Man and visit the DHL Express Centre at East Midlands Airport. It has to be pointed out at this stage that Finger Man had been moaning a lot about this trip - probably because it was a bit too “physical world” for him. After a quick pub dinner with the DHL Corporate Affairs person and the Managing Director of Hubs and Gateways UK & Ireland, we watched a flashy video (not this one, but it’s good anyway - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6W5i08oVNk) and talked a lot about the timeline for the evening. We were at a “hub” where packages were sorted through what amounts to a physical internet - with bar codes acting in lieu of TCP. The first planes and trucks come in at around 9 o'clock, packages are sorted and re-routed and the planes and trucks leave by 11. Another round happens about 2-3 in the morning (we weren’t staying around for that one) and a final round between 4 and 5. We saw the sorting, which is surprisingly manual - we were told that they are famous for handling “ugly freight” and the trick was to price it right. Having seen what people send, I am now committed to using proper boxes and labelling them better in future! Each round is precisely timed and no deadlines are missed. At one point, when we were on a cargo plane (an old “analogue” Airbus, they seem to prefer Boeings!) we were told that unless we got off in 2 minutes, we would go to Leipzig. Packages are tracked with bar codes and if any pallet or package isn’t in the right place 5 minutes after its deadline, it is flagged up to the Quality Control department as amber. Unless it is found within the next 10 minutes it goes red. They don't stop the plane or truck because the interdependency of their schedules means that a lost 5 minutes at any hub propagates throughout their network and many more people are upset, but they do use the network to get it there as fast as possible. By now Finger Man had worked out that DHL is a digital company that imposes its data plan on the physical world and was getting happier - or maybe it was because it was midnight and he was waking up?
Next morning, we drove into a logistics park in Coventry to see another side of the industry. This uses trucks and warehouse more than planes because the timescales and the need to hold consignment stock required another business model. This site was a bonded warehouse for Diageo (you would not believe how much booze they had in the warehouse!) but also served as the headquarters for the fleet of temperature controlled trucks - I think they said 7500 - that move things between factories and retails outlets all over the UK. Their control tower had a screen showing the nodes and trucks across so that they could adjust in real time. By now Finger Man was insufferable, and it took the combined intellectual powers of Transport Man and Sustainability Man (wearing his Future Cities uniform) to balance out the discussions with the people from DHL who were beginning to “get it” big time. By the time we left, we had all become converts to the power of the logistics industry and its need for constant innovation and they had become our biggest fans, so I expect to see them figure in future activities, leading the charge for an unconsidered supply chain!