10 Jul 2013

Innovation in Britain - An Evening at the RSA

Attended “Innovating For Success: How to create the next generation of British World-Beating Companies” yesterday at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce (RSA). The speakers were Trevor Bayliss, Doug Richard, Alex Schey, Rohan Silva and Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA, chaired the session.

The evening started with Trevor Bayliss explaining how he invented the wind-up radio, successfully deployed in Africa to educate people about AIDS; apparently, just about everyone turned him down and only the fact that Nelson Mandela was personally impressed got him his first break. But from there on, he launched into vocal requests, repeated throughout the session, about how IP protection really really mattered in the UK and how everyone must protect their ideas and how his foundation could help with that.

Doug Harris, a serial entrepreneur and founder of School for Startups, confessed that revenge was a driving factor when he started his second firm – he wanted to get even with the people who bought him out and chucked him out. Doug also took issue with Trevor that you don’t need an education to be an inventor/ innovator (and these terms were used quite interchangeably through the session) – innovating, he said, requires a vision that is driven by a very clear understanding of customer needs and the technical/ specialized knowledge to bring about a solution. All passion and no education was not exactly a solution, he said. He said the stereotypical pessimism of the British was a bit overrated and things are slowly changing… however, he recalls his first experience in a business panel in UK, when he thought someone who went bankrupt had great potential because he’d have learnt from his failure – apparently everyone else in the room disagreed and he told them off with a few choice expressions, which, unfortunately, he couldn’t share because there were children in the hall.

Rohan Silva meanwhile talked about how cozy government is with big business and so disconnected from start-ups and SMEs; he explained how he had to struggle, as a policy advisor to Cameron, to change rules and get government contracts to go to smaller companies – someone else pointed out that the measure wasn’t exactly a great success because it counted sub-contracting by the big firms as part of the “small company” quota. He pointed out that the government was starting a business bank to open up credit – something Doug said was pointless because the government ought to get out of the way.  Alex Schey agreed and added that the best thing government could do was to get out of the way of entrepreneurs and tend to the basics of ensuring high quality education for youth and better infrastructure.

Matthew Taylor made for an interesting chair (ignoring the general aura of cynicism that glowed around the man) as he pointed out the many intricacies of government (having been Labour’s Director of Policy) such as the necessity for press releases on new “A-ha” ideas every month and the realization that any large policy intervention would require several years to fructify by which the initiator/ initiating party would no longer be in power.

It was an interesting evening with wide audience participation and great support for the feeling that Britain is very capable of building world class companies if only… and this was the one of the main issues that I had with the forum/ discussion: no crisp and cogent suggestion emerged on what needs to be done either at a policy level or a regulatory level or at an industry level except for disparate issues and the panel’s opinions on those issues. Obviously, there is no silver bullet to such a broadly defined problem but surely there must be sectors where the UK has a clear competitive advantage, surely there must be fast growing export markets and sectors that need certain sets of language and cross-cultural skills and surely there must be innovation in sectors other than technology that require different business models, regulatory incentives, industry associations… but no, the discussion did not touch upon any of these. 

Moreover, the panel discussed innovation in 'big business' without anyone from a real-life company talking about it...  companies like Vodafone, Innocent, Dyson are good examples of British companies succeeding through innovation yet we didn't have any reps from these firms to talk about how they approach innovation. 

Agreed that it is difficult to cover so much ground in a couple of hours but somehow I left the room thinking that apart from government bashing and some interesting threads of discussion, there wasn't anything new that emerged from the forum. A pity, given that some fine minds were in the same room… well, now that we know the problems, maybe next time around we’ll get around to the solutions.

NB: The account is a recollection from notes and memory; any mistakes are entirely mine. Image used from http://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/innovating-for-success

26 Jan 2012

Apple smartphone share to decline in 2012?

I just read a Pyramid research report that outlines their "Telecom Trends for 2012". One of the points that caught my eye was a prediction about Apple’s smartphone share in 2012…

“Apple will start seeing declining market share (unit sales) in smartphones in 2012 The surging demand for inexpensive models, coupled with Apple’s commitment to high profit margins and the high-end market, will result in a market share drop of around 2 percentage points, after five successive years of expansion.”

My bet, after 5 minutes of deep and profound thinking, would be:

  • Apple will (should?) deviate from their hitherto successful “hold the median with single powerful product” strategy – they will launch a low-end iPhone (Nano) for the masses (3G connectivity, medium spec multimedia features, regular screen and LE Android like features) and a premium offering (iPhone5) that will contain their shock and awe ‘allow us to lead you into the future’ features (iCloud, Siri, 4G LTE, PTT etc).

  • This will allow them to protect their margins on their flagship offering, extend smartphone leadership in the US and Western Europe while their LE offering will accelerate their market share gains in Asia, Eastern Europe and LatAm.

  • So their market share may dip in 2012 but will recover soon with the launch of iPhone Nano and the iPhone 5.

Deep thoughts over... anyone else with any fingers in the air?

22 Oct 2010

How language shapes thought...

The Wall Street Journal has a compelling article on how the language(s) we speak influences the way we think.

“Some findings on how language can affect thinking:
  • Russian speakers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue.
  • Some indigenous tribes say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right, and as a consequence have great spatial orientation.
  • The Piraha, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities.
  • In one study, Spanish and Japanese speakers couldn’t remember the agents of accidental events as adeptly as English speakers could. Why? In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped: “The vase broke itself,” rather than “John broke the vase.”
As Namit Arora mentions here at Shunya’s Notes, this raises disturbing questions about languages that go extinct and the “collective human thought”(if I can call it that) that is lost in the process.

On the other hand, this may also imply that a multi-lingual speaker may have a wider variety of thought and perspective than someone who knows just one language.

So maybe we should all make resolutions to learn a new language in 2011?

15 Oct 2010

The Cult of Perfection

Thoroughly fascinating interview with John Sculley on the evolution of Apple and how Steve Jobs works... surprisingly humble and candid.

Talks about how Apple was 6 months away from being sold to AT&T, about home decor at Job's old flat (a bed, a chair and a Tiffany lamp), about how Jobs loved Sony and why Sony failed, about the overarching importance of design and (real!)user experiece, about why Apple is a "vertically-integrated-advertising agency".

To badly paraphrase, the arc of the tech universe is long but it bends towards perfection!


29 Sept 2010

Splashing in The Shallows...

How often have you found yourself on a website that you never intended to visit? How many times have you, in the middle of work, opened an email to follow a link to Youtube and started watching videos, forgetting what you were doing originally? How many lists and tasks have we set aside for tweets, texts and updates?

Our minds are stranded midstream in the information rapids – stuck amidst endlessly interesting content and the many technologies that drive us towards consuming them.

So what’s new about this news, you ask? Well, for the first time ever, the human mind has had to cope with so much of sensory input.

Not only do we conjure up an amazing variety of content, but we’ve also have multiplied the channels to access them (through TV/radio/e-books/ magazines/online/phone/iPlayers). Nicholas Carr in his well-researched book, “The Shallows” makes a forceful argument that this combination results in our neurons rewiring themselves into “hyperlink” mode, preferring to hop, skip, jump and skim over content and devices rather than to rest, think or reflect.

How does this affect us? Because while we gain by developing better reflexes, faster and wider access to information, we also may be losing something.

Baroness Susan Greenfield, a renowned scientist, in her book, "ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century" believes that “the strongly visual, literal world of the screen" could affect our ability to develop the imagination and form the kind of abstract concepts that have hitherto come from first hearing stories, then reading oneself. And this raises the question as to whether “continued interaction with a fast-paced, sensory-laden, multimedia environment predisposes a brain to shorter attention spans”.

Why does it matter? The deluge of input that one’s mind receives floods it and takes up so much of ‘processing space’ that the capacity to ponder, decide and produce output may be vastly diminished.

Matt Richtel of The NY Times details the story of Kord Campbell, who becomes a test-case of the super-connected human... a being almost plugged into the info-matrix. This cyber-man sleeps with his computer, has lost count of the gadgets at his home, cannot turn off his info-stream even when on holiday and has passed on his cyber-traits to his kids. There’s tweets, there’s FB updates, there’s breaking news, there’s IMs... a constant drip of heady distractions that endlessly stimulate his brain.

The Loss Of Wonder, Imagination and all that jazz. Not surprisingly, in this brave new world of links, vids, tweets and texts, the canaries of the human race, the ones who’ve felt the air lightening and their juices slipping away have been the creatives - the writers, the thinkers and the philosophers among us... consider:

  • Alain De Botton, philosopher, who suggests that some info-abstinence is in order “The need to diet, which we know so well in relation to food, and which runs so contrary to our natural impulses, should be brought to bear on what we now have to relearn in relation to knowledge, people, and ideas”
  • William Powers who draws a direct comparison to Grecian wisdom “A friend showed Socrates that putting some distance between yourself and your busy, connected life does wonders for the mind”

Even champions of Web 2.0, people who’ve actively benefited from the world of social media and internet have stopped to wonder at the side-effects...

  • Ta Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic explains how his connectedness him an easy way out, “to not face the terror of my own singular thoughts” and how losing his phone led him on a very interesting introspective journey and spurred him to consider what he had lost while he was hooked on the infostream.
  • Amit Verma, a popular Indian blogger, speaks about his cold turkey cure here and the important “point of getting away from it all”.

It is tempting to dismiss these as usual rants from the fringes of our society, but consider the near-unanimous consensus among experts here of the need to manage better, if not abstain from, the digital diet that we seem to be on. Even members of the managerial class, the usual promoters of “productivity and three things at a time & faster”, have been taken aback by the effects of the information stream. Look at Prof. Davenport calling for much needed deliberation that is required for effective decision making here.

So what do we conclude? I suspect there is no easy conclusion here... on the one hand lie the undeniable usefulness of connected technologies and the inescapable convergence of content and devices driven by market economics; on the other hand accumulates the increasing evidence that all the content and devices of the world may prompt us to keep splashing around the shallows, rather than venturing into the deep, contemplative sea of human thought.

The jury is out on this and we will learn much more in the next couple of decades but consider, as we consume our well-marketed “experiences”, this point made by Greenfield in her book: “When you play a computer game to rescue the princess, it is the experience that counts: you don’t care about the feelings or thoughts of the heroine; when you read a book, the princess’s welfare and fate is the whole point”.

As in the game, so also in life, we enjoy the sensory rush of the experiences and our neurons spark exultant, from the temporary thrill of the latest Facebook update, tweet and headline... but then again what do we remember, recall, learn and produce?

Other information sources used for this article:



Image sourced from here

PS: The irony of using multiple hyperlinks and internet references in a blog to critique all things internety doth strike a bit late, doesn't it ;-)

6 May 2010

When we understand this slide...

THE MAN, THE MESSAGE, THE MEDIUM Earlier this week, I attended a presentation by a very senior manager in my company; the man by himself was inspiring, what he had to say was interesting and his body language was down-to-earth and honest... but his Power-point slides were a different matter altogether. Somebody had created a complex structure which weaved back & forth, interspersed with slides carrying 13 double-lined sentences or bullets with sub-bullets which had further nested text – whoa, what was happening here?!

Sure enough, as we progressed through the slides, (IMHO), the presenter found it increasingly difficult to explain each and every one of those points. In many cases, he skipped over some points, while in others he laboured his way through each and every one, trying very hard to fit all of them into the context of what he was explaining. It would be easy blame this on the creator of this specific deck or on the complexities of the business we operate in or maybe even label it as a cultural artefact of a tech-co… but I believe that something else ails us all – the medium of Powerpoint.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war”
Last week Elisabeth Bumiller wrote a great article in The NYT about the pervasive infiltration of Powerpoint in the US Army; when Gen Stanley A. McChrystal was shown the image above on a slide, he exclaimed “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war”. Bumiller quotes a legendary essay “Dumb Dumb Bullets” by Col. TX Hammes in The Armed Forces Journal which explains the logic of how MS PPT is a particularly bad decision-making aid. Ye gods, you say?

Well, here’s the gist of what he says:

  • The predecessor of Powerpoint, the lowly common memo, required people to summarize complex issues into coherent arguments; but bullets aren’t sentences and they allow one to dump information on slide without bothering with prior analysis or constructing an argument.

  • If and when a complex argument is unavoidable, the creator of the PPT dumps paragraphs of text on a slide – this forces the audience to read the slide while the presenter is talking about it – neither act is done effectively.

  • Most powerpoint decks are created with an approximate time limited of 1 minute/ slide; consider the average slide with nifty animation, flow of events, waterfall diagrams and ‘a-ha’ boxes; how much time does the audience have to absorb this overload, leave alone synthesize the underlying implications and respond accordingly? If you had, 20 pieces of information per slide, that makes it 3 seconds per piece. Now you understand Col.Hammes barely suppressed urge to hammer the genius who came up with quad charts (divide a slide into 4 quadrants and fill them with info, voila!)

  • The author agrees that Powerpoint has it’s uses as an information brief; it’s an excellent training aid and presents a rich variety of text, audio and video options. However if the objective is to stimulate thinking, impart a deep understanding of a subject or lay out the complex content for making an important decision, the ordinary text-filled 1 or 2 page memo may still be the best bet.

MY PERSONAL TAKE My take on this stems from personal experience at the University of Chicago; I worked with two outstanding professors, with Sanjay Dhar as a Teaching Assistant and with Mathew Bothner as a student. These professors insisted that for every assignment, all they wanted was a 1 page submission. This not only forced us to put content over gimmicky templates/animation but also helped us cut out the chaff and prioritize the most important arguments that would lead to a convincing conclusion. Some of these cases required sophisticated financial calculations, information from interviews with stakeholders and consideration of complex regulatory issues… but at the end of it, the final decision would be summarized in the famous 1 page memo.

What do you think? How have your experiences with Powerpoint been? I would be particularly interested in hearing from people who were used to memos and now handle PPT. Let me know.

5 Mar 2010

What some Chinese wanted to ask Obama...

I came across this article: “Potus Blossoms” in Harpers Magazine, Feb’10. The article presents a selection from 3,290 questions submitted by readers to China’s state-run news agency for President Obama’s town hall visit in Shanghai. Here are some of them:
  • Tell me, how do you like Eastern Beauties?
  • The U.S. Embassy in China is about to change your Chinese name from Ao-ba-ma to Ou-ba-ma. Do you think this is necessary? The Chinese media and people have always called you Aobama. Now 1.3 billion Chinese have to change how they say it. It’s a real pain.
  • How come the United States can “secure” the whole world for the sake of “national security,” while China can only protect its own borders?
  • Have you ever thought about riding a rocket into outer space?
  • Can I discuss with you China’s purchasing Hawaii with U.S. dollars?
  • You already have two daughters. Will you try for a third child? What will you think if the next one is yet another girl?
  • If you had to choose three flowers to describe your wife and daughters, what would they be?
  • What room are you staying in tonight?

Because Harper’s is behind a pay wall, you need to subscribe to see the full article, but I would strongly recommend a subscription. The magazine is surprisingly versatile in its depth and variety of coverage as also the water cutting-stone irony.

To get a free preview, you can check it out on Twitter here.

PS: Picture from http://www.cristyli.com/