Kindled Meme

– exploring the purpose of connection


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Twitter – the new graffiti?

This summer I headed out with the kids onto the south Oxfordshire downs and we headed to Waylands Smithy – its an old burial mound at the side of the Ridgeway – an ancient roadway that runs along the tops of the chalky downs – its been there for thousands of years – a sheep drovers way connecting rural with urban.

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At the burial mound the kids can run around the stones and in amongst the trees. They were pretty excited as I’d primed them during the 20 minute walk from the car that it was the home of Flibberty Gibbet – and talked about the giants that lived there during ancient times. Libby also found a ten pence piece inside the tomb – it was pretty exciting – she knew that Flibberty had left it there for her. I then had to hide some more money inside the stones as the boy had the hump that he hadn’t found any. I learnt that day that for around 50 pence with of 5p’s you can create magic for kids by staging a treasure hunt.

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While they played I took some pictures of the trees – specifically the way people had carved their names into them. This practice was all the rage when I was a kid – every small boy had a pocket knife and a “whitling stick”.

The Smithy is a protected ancient monument and its not right to carve the bark of the massive trees that surround it – but this had be done many years ago – often people date their graffiti and more than that the trees girth grows the letters fatten – you can see it was done years ago.

 

When we had that day out it was the same time that a guy was arrested for abusing Tom Daley on twitter (during Olympics) and a guy was arrested for threatening a terrorist attack on Robin Hood airport – both regrettable twitter events – but no doubt when the tweet was being rattled out they didn’t expect the 140 characters to have any real impact.

I dont think people or young kids have penknives in the same way these days and looking at the trees no one had gouged their name in to them for a couple of decades. I got thinking whether twitter was the new tree-graffitti – small bursts of words that capture a moment, shout out an identity and demand recognition in the world. Is there the same energy in the moment of creation?

Has the world of Victorinox Swiss Army knives been disrupted by the 140 Chars of twitter? And is a digital declaration safer than one carved out with a knife?

If you do go to south west Oxfordshire (where I live) do go to Waylands Smithy. Its a beautiful place – the downland always changes through the year – the landscape is very expansive and if you go up their on a mountain bike (without kids) you can head off deeper into the countryside – in some spots there are no roads, no pythons, no telegraph wires – it feels spookily remote. Silent, yet just north of the M4.

If you do go with your kids its a couple of mile round trip – they will be goosed on the way back. Make sure you have some treats and drinks in your backpack to bribe them to keep walking. I didn’t – it was hard work!

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Varsity Line: When worlds collide..sparks fly

On Friday I had a meeting down at Harwell Research Park south of Oxford which exists mostly to support the UK physics research community.

It’s the 3rd time I’ve been there in a couple weeks for various reasons, but on Friday I went to meet with Ian Tracey who works for the STFC Research Council. Ian is the guy involved with much of the knowledge networks run on campus and is developing the entrepreneurial community that helps spin out the value created in that research.

I wanted to speak within Ian on the back of the Will Hutton keynote speech at the recent Venturefest conference at Oxford. At the end of Wills speech, which was often humorous and provocative; Will lay down the challenge asking the question “How can Oxford become an Open Innovation ecosystem”.

“So what are you going to do, Oxford, to be a centre of Open Innovation and drive economic growth of the region and the UK?”

I’m a big fan of Will Hutton – in fact my thesis for my MBA is framed by the compelling message that he threw out at Innovate11 in London last year, where he spoke about the need to drive growth in the UK. Will and the Big Innovation Centre are active promoters of Open Innovation – building collaboration between firms, communities and universities to drive new business.

Ian and I spoke about how there seemed to be a difference between Oxford and Cambridge. We both shared a perception that Cambridge have got it right. They are so much more connected. But maybe the grass is always greener on the other side…

We talked about the Cabume website and how it shares all the news about what’s going on in the Cambridge technology sector  – about who is raising funding and on what the top talent is doing in the city of Cambridge. Anyone who follows the news on Cabume can clearly see what’s going on in the city – who are the movers and shakers and where the energy is being created.

In Oxford on the other hand we don’t have that central news service and I updated Ian on how I have been speaking with Cabume on what it would take to get them to come to Oxford and to replicate their service for our city.

Ian had given the “Oxford versus Cambridge” dilemma considerable thought. It seems to be that Cambridge is far more geographically isolated than Oxford. Where as Oxford is surrounded by other industrial centres such as Swindon, Reading and Milton Keynes – and how we sit above the whole of the M4 corridor – Cambridge by contrast is quite remote. Maybe this was the reason that Cambridge has a strong nucleus and focus and a strong sense of collective identity. Maybe it was the case that people in Oxford – when it was time for a change – could easily explore other options and work in other locations without uprooting the family and a whole lifestyle. As a result maybe talent in Oxford is more diffused and as a result it doesn’t have a single centralised and persistent knowledge community.

We chatted about clusters. There’s lots of academic research about clusters but people aren’t really sure whether innovation happens because of clusters or whether clusters form around where innovation happens. Certainly Tech City in London is getting a lot of press. Shoreditch oddly has been vibrant for many years – a rundown part of town, which even 10 years ago was the home to some of the most vibrant nightclubs, pubs and arts scene; and now the digital creatives have moved in and things are happening.

Gilbert and George: Shoreditch gentlemen

And from watching the news that Cabume shares I can see Cambridge is also buzzing.

Ian reflected upon how the railway link between Manchester and Leeds stimulates innovation between those two areas. If you have to drive the car over the top of the M62 – over the bleak moors – it can be a real drag. But having a train line from central Manchester Piccadilly straight into the heart of Leeds has built a connection that stimulates the flow of ideas and business connections.

If you reduce distance between two centres of innovation, promote proximity and enable face-to-face meetings then things start to move and happen.

It was interesting talking to Ian and  I got to hear about his Knowledge-Broking events he puts on – bringing in people from business and research to give six and three-minute pitches about what they’re up to and what they need. The brokering events are a great example of promoting collaboration between firms and research.

Maybe we should tell Will Hutton that Oxford already is an Open Innovation Hub and that through these initiatives innovation is being stimulated. Or maybe there’s more that we can do in Oxford. Its working well in Harwell but maybe they should be co-hosted between Harwell, Begbroke and the University locations in the city? After all the first stage of any sense of cooperation is to build a platform of inclusion.

I liked the story about the way Manchester and Leeds are connected via the rail link and on Saturday when I was scanning the news I saw mention of the Varsity line and how this might be reopened. This is a line that used to connect Oxford with Cambridge and like many other lines in the UK got closed down in the 60s as part of the Beeching review.

Varsity Line sitting and waiting…

If you want to get from Oxford to Cambridge today you can take the train – chugging along into Paddington, working up a sweat on the tube, crossing to King’s Cross – surely the most grimy and Dickensian part of capital – before grabbing another train and heading back north into Cambridge. It’s really not the most appealing of journeys and a long day out.

If you want to go by car this is also a real slog – hacking around Bicester, putting up with the frustrations crossing country past Buckingham and then getting dizzy around the endless roundabouts in Milton Keynes.

The two cities really are currently inconveniently far apart given the influence they have on research and knowledge in the UK. If the Varsity line reopens it appears to be a connection from Reading through Oxford via Milton Keynes and onto Cambridge. This connects 3 of the biggest knowledge cities in the UK outside of London.

It’s a fascinating proposition as it would really help build connections between two significant worlds and it would help lots of people to connect and form linkages. Great ideas get written down in papers that people publish and share, and through the Internet we get to watch conferences on video – but often the subtlety and authenticity of the persons message comes over far better in person – spreading the energy and sense of engagement.

It started me thinking about all the people I might get a chance to meet if I was able to go to Cambridge so much more easily. I see so many interesting events going on it would be fascinating proposition and it’s interesting that an old Victorian technology like the railway lines seems to be such an enabler of knowledge transfer and human connection. After all we’re getting excited about the digital age – these technologies should remove all barriers.

However we know meeting people in real life has got huge value.

If you could have an evening in Cambridge who would you go and meet? Whose work have you been following that you’d like to bump into casually at an event or in a bar in the city?


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Bedknobs and Brooms sticks? No Wizards, Stools and Pirates…

The Wizards Stool.

I’m in the middle of doing a series of research interviews at the moment -looking into how SMEs perform open innovation – how they partner with other firms to come up with new solutions that will drive the business forward.

The interviews typically take 45 min but every now and again I get a chance to speak to somebody really amazing who comes up with so many insights that the conversation moves on to be closer to an hour and a half. This is no problem to me – I’m really grateful when people are prepared to give up their time and share their insights. As well as answering my research questions I glean so much wisdom from these people. In Oxfordshire there really are some incredible companies who are doing some great innovation.

A couple weeks ago I got to meet with one such guy who’s been involved with the R&D function of local firm for just over 30 years. As you can imagine, during that time he has built up lots of experience and insights – he’s a real Innovation Wizard. During the interview he told many anecdotes all helping frame the challenges of being innovative in small companies – the art of storytelling is strong with him.

One of the gems he shared with me was how he viewed innovation as a 3 legged stool.

The Wizards Stool

One of the legs he views as the scientific basis of his firm. The roots of this company are in applying chemical processes – mostly in printing. The company has been going for over 150 years and has a strong culture of scientific discovery within the organisation that has driven the innovation that constantly reinvents that firms model.

The second leg of the stool he views as the process and how to they take that core intellectual property to be used and scaled for a commercial offering. And the 3rd leg of the stool he views as the market offering – the deep customer insights that we tap into when we position our solution on the market.

The trick with the stool analogy is in the choices for how you move each of these legs whilst you’re innovating.

This all placed a mental picture in my mind of my 5-year-old son sitting on that stool and how he drives us nuts by swinging back on the legs – rocking back and to. We know one of these day he will “come a cropper’ – but at the same time the image helped me understand what this Wizard was telling me. Its about risk and organisational stability.

Through his eyes he sees that you should only move one or two legs of that stool at any one time. If you move just one leg – innovation changes either the science, the process or the addressable market that you are intending to serve.

If you are comfortable with a little less stability, you can move two legs of the stool at one time – maybe you take a new process that can take you into a new market. Maybe you take on board some new IP and at the same time enter into a nascent market. But the deal is you can’t move all 3 legs at any one time.

It’s a good analogy because we’ve got enough common sense to know you can’t make a stool levitate – we know that we need a least some stability and some point of permanence else you struggle to keep your orientation and to justify how we are still strategically aligned with what the organisation can do today (skills, linkages, reputation and brands).

Pirates and Innovation

Near the start of the year Frank and the guys in Oxford Business First – the networking group – put on a series of events called ‘Practical innovation’.

The idea was to connect a group of people in local business community to think about being innovative and drive growth. On the first event Stuart Miller from Bybox gave his energetic talk about how innovation is at the core of his own company.

Stuart tells a great story and at the heart of it is a discussion on how at Bybox they recruit ‘Pirates’ -people who challenge the status quo and are comfortable exploring new options – stepping outside of existing structures and driving the company forward. Stuart makes people laugh when he tells them how he has the Jolly Roger flag flying outside the front of their offices in Wantage. It’s a great story very engaging and his metaphor is backed up by a recent article capturing Steve jobs walking along the same lines:

“if you’re bright, but you prefer the size and structure and traditions of the navy, go join IBM. If you’re bright and think different and are willing to go for it as part of a special, unified, and unconventional team, become a pirate.”

 

On the first Practical Innovation event Stuart was accompanied by one of his colleagues Indy, when the room asked how is it working in such a tense and highly provocative environment Indy did let slip that sometimes too many pirates can be too much and that you do need some sensibility and calm and a degree of consensus at the midst of all this exploration.

This kind of tension keeps organisations moving and keep the thinking innovative was called Creative Abrasion by Dorothy Leonard-Barton, in an article she wrote back in 1996.’ – and whilst it can be gritty to start with the resulting creativity and innovation justifies any pains.So whilst it great to have pirates on board – it’s fun and explosive – there’s also a degree of discomfort in change and moving forwards and exploring unknown territory.

I think everybody in the room really enjoyed Stuart’s story its great if you frame a journey as an adventure – but one guy in the room that evening asked the question:

“When does innovation go a step too far?”

This is a really good question and I certainly didn’t have a clear answer for this at the time. People talked about it but I don’t think there’s any simple answer.

If you’re working in a large firm maybe it’s just takes a while to get things moving. You could be an ‘Oil Tanker’ and pretty sluggish, and from the inside you know that it’s not worth pushing too much – if there are too many waves of innovation one after the other maybe none of them will stick. Maybe you’ve got to pick fights – after all innovation isn’t just about technology or ideas or new markets it’s actually about embedding change inside the organisation. Change can be hard and so maybe it’s reasonable that innovation can go too far if it is too disorienting in some organisational cultures.

In high-growth SMEs innovation is a very different kettle of fish. Firms are known to be flexible and agile – directly promoting this as their key strength. One of the people I’ve interviewed recently made a big point of this and he emphasises with his team that, whilst they have a clear strategy and a clear purpose and they never take their eye off the customer’s requirements; they can also turn on a dime and they are permitted to explore new avenues. After all why be an SME if you can’t be flexible and aggressive.

But again in this environment innovation could go to far. Too much ambition and to much drive can lead to burnout. It’s definitely the case that people in small businesses have a different ‘gene pool’ to those people that fit comfortably in larger firms – but everybody at some point will get low on energy and feel disoriented from an innovation too far

An Innovation Too Far?

When I heard about the stool story from my Innovation Wizard in Oxfordshire I got thinking how it offered 3 dimensions that might help us view when innovation is too far. Clearly the Wizard didn’t want to move all 3 legs. Change in any of these ‘legs’ brings a degree of risk that needs to be assessed – trying to get all 3 to move at the same time is just one innovation step too far.

I also think the analogy of the stool can be stretched one step further. May be the height of the stool correlates of just how ambitious you’re being. Is the stool too high for people to get on? Have you reached too high and can people still believe in what you’re trying to achieve?

Also stools can be pretty uncomfortable things. You need to take people with you on an innovation journey.Is the change too much? Do you still have the backing of everybody in the company? Are other stakeholders still on board your stool?

Either way – I like the stool – a clear mental picture in our minds and it helps us do some quick sense-making of what is planned and how it fits in with our strategic assets and resources inside the company.

What do you think? Can you make stools levitate? Have you got a neat trick that allows you to climb greater heights? And what’s the secret to making a stool comfortable enough that everybody wants to get on board – and not just smile when you inspire them – but makes them cling on during the full journey of change?

Whats your favourite Innovation and Change metaphor?


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Digital Talent Night in Oxford

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So this week I attended the @OxonDigital event because I’d seen some good content going around on Twitter about it ..and well.. anything around digital is hot right?

It was chance to see whats really going on and catch up wth some tweeps – and it was a great night because the people were friendly and open and enthusiastic. And optimistic too. Its a growing industry and everyone is hiring –  and lets face it Oxford is a pretty cool place to be doing it

As some one who has spent too many years focused on building the internet infrastructure – the backbone, access and datacentres – I’ve long been aware that the value had move to the content – its the apps that really plug into the behaviours that unlock commercial and social value. This stuff done right can make a difference.

The challenge we face

Simons of Ridgeway did a really good pitch about the changes to the climate for digital – with good humility – making fun of his own hair cuts and digital journey over the past decades – to the world of digital natives and the changes to how content will be consumed.

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He covered many of the challenges to delivering this – much echoed the thoughts I’d heard at the Guardian Media Summit. But sitting in a room full of the people that have to ride the back of this tiger, I was drawn to query where the talent was going to come from to build all this. Sure enought it seems its hard to find the right people at this point in time, with Ridgeway opening an office in London to get access to the talent needed (there is a shortage of people locally and the new grads from Brookes arnt up to the task on day 1 – there is a gap.

This is great news for those who are in demand and have the skills – but its bad news for the industry as it clogs up – it cant resource its own leading edge – and then we all get dragged down.

Finding good staff is an issue – a bottleneck and its not the biggest leap to see that the company in the room that has the biggest pools of skills will easily be the one with the highest brightest future growth. There is certainly not a shortage of business to be won – but who can execute?

When hearing this I was thinking of the challenges in the gaming industry – NESTA had talked about this when we went to visit them as a Henley “school trip” last year – there is a report they produced that captures why the UK slipped from being third in gaming to being sixth – and amongst other things talent is an major issue. (Check out a Vimeo Vid on the issues here)

Its pretty tragic that of all the courses that prepare the pipeline of skills for the gaming industry only 9 of them meet a standard that the industy requires. And the places that are getting it right arnt the places you expect – there are innovators in education and they are making a difference – but they are in isolated pockets and in unexpected places! (Check out the Skillset list here)

I wonder if its the same issue for digital content and as in the gaming industry; and I wonder whether its just a local issue – but Im thinking who is really compelling some different thinking between this industry and the work of (now expensive) universities. Have people connected to make a change? Engagement is a two way commitment after all.

The Boom

I saw the same talent crisis happening in my world 10 years ago

I came to Oxford to work in an a start-up ISP and was given a grand title and a seat with a view of a field full of cows. I got to live in Woodstock and make the most of the too many pubs the ‘town’ has.

But we couldnt get staff either then – finding someone with Cisco skills and the ability to write a BGP policy was near impossible, For me it was good times – there was a shortage of my skills and so I was paid well – all fine.

But we needed staff and we had to to grow people – and sometimes they came from unlikely sources – but we did get there in the end with some nurturing.

The NOC manager had once been the company receptionist, and before that she was a hairdresser. The customer service team were made up of ex-chefs and other hospitality types; and the new tech-ops guys had been installation engineers – trained in rigging microwave dishes on masts – but now building connections on Stratacom kit and fiddling with routers. It wasnt the rocket science stuff – but they were needed in the mix.

It wasn’t ideal at the time – if you like mastery and perfection it gives you the shits – but there was no other way. And surprisingly most of the ‘unlikely’ candidates developed to be good techies. I think it was the rock solid attitude and curiosity they had that made the difference.

Most managers are caught up recruiting people in their own image. We are always trying finding a tecnical-warrior that could cope with the ambiguity in a growth storm approaching things with some level of creativity, while also delivering reliably and fitting in with our own style. But in a boomtime we found recruiting was often a false-positive and we had more success growing from within. And unexpectedly – it wasnt that painful.(Or has my memory faded…)

It became less about managing resources but more about nurturing seeds.

Loafer Wisdom

Ive recently become a big fan of  Tony Hsieh – who build Zappo’s over 10 years and did some clever things to grow that business – often hopping from one crisis to the next – taking lessons from his past and always thinking very big.

Tony Hsieh is big on culture – his book is engaging on many levels but building a pipeline of staff is probably one of the great Zappo achievements – I really recommend it to anyone who is looking at resourcing during high growth – he has a very clear view on how to shape it. (It could be the only time Ive seen HR being visionary and delivering a strategic advantage – perhaps I just need to get out more…)

What came over from Tonys story is that talent is an issue that needs bigger thinking than just finding a resource. Zappos have a big commitment to developing from within and succession – backed by protecting their brand through right behaviours and having a culture that was homegrown and authentically theirs. So as well as shipping shoes Zappos became a killer learning and development machine. Its a compelling read.

I think if you are a technology SME this all sounds a bit tricky – all high-growth firms are very market focussed – if you invoice based on delivery – then you will focus on a project-by-project view. But at some point it grows one step too far and there is a time, maybe over a beer, when you ask: Is this all going to scale?

I got thinking about the expression “Build it and they will come” – however in the Digital space it looks like “people have come” and now we’re asking “who is going to build it”

Its a nice problem to have 🙂

James

PS – Just stumbled on this as I press publish –  someone elses view Creative Talent issues here.