July 14, 2009

Welcome to my blog.  I’m using this to support my work as a lecturer at Cass Business School, so you should find that the entries refer either to topics that might be of interest to my students (usually connected with managing innovation and technology), or to teaching and learning in higher education.

Apart from this entry, all the entries appear in chronological order with the most recent at the top.  You can use the list of categories, which should appear to the right of the window, to search for entries relevant to particular subjects.

Please feel free to post comments, but note that these are moderated, so they won’t appear until I’ve read them, and I reserve the right not to post a comment without giving a reason.


Cart before horse

November 4, 2018

Every year our Virtual Organisation students do a workshop on approaches to innovation with David Barry, who draws on the concept of horseless carriage thinking.  He uses as a metaphor for innovation the idea that motor vehicles only really developed once it became apparent that they could do things that horses and carriages couldn’t.  And it has been pointed out that one factor is that you no longer needed to put the horse in front of the cart.

This made me think of a particular episode in the motor industry that does provide a lesson in innovation, and it’s a story of what went wrong when a British car manufacturer put the cart before the horse.

In the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in cars made in continental Europe, it was common for small cars at least to have the horse behind the cart – that is to put the engine at the rear of the car.  The original Volkswagen Beetle was probably the most notable and must surely be the one that’s most widely recognised today.  But Renault, Fiat, Skoda, and long-forgotten continental European manufacturers such as Simca and NSU, made small rear-engined cars for many years.  The catalyst for change came in the late 1950s, when the British Motor Corporation’s famously eccentric engineer Alec Issigonis devised a very small car with the engine at the front, but turned 90° compared to what had been normal practice.  This meant that the long side of the engine ran across the car, thus saving space, and the result was the first Mini.  There are exceptions and the Smart car is a 21st century take on the idea of a small rear-engined car, and there are significant engineering differences between the original Mini and a modern car, but most small and medium-sized cars made today follow the engine layout pioneered by Issigonis sixty years ago.

Another British manufacturer, Rootes, also started developing a small car in the late 1950s, and the resultant product arrived on the market in 1963 as the Hillman Imp.  This was the first British car with the engine at the back, and while it remained in production for a respectable period of 13 years, it sold in limited numbers and didn’t catch the public’s imagination, especially compared to the success of the Mini.  Placing the cart before the horse didn’t seem to have been good for the British motor industry.

In the 1960s automotive companies were encouraged by the British government to build new factories in areas where other heavy engineering industries were declining.  Ford and Vauxhall both expanded on Merseyside, and both factories are still going (the former Ford plant at Halewood now part of Jaguar Land Rover, who somehow pulled off the trick of selling ever-increasing numbers of luxury cars in the years following the 2008 financial crisis).  Rootes built the Hillman Imp in a factory in Linwood in central Scotland, which closed, and prompted a wave of urban deprivation (which is another story) in around 1980.

Rootes, and their well-respected designer Tim Fry, took some trouble to learn from other manufacturers, and the Imp was an ingenious design which, despite using an engine layout which was soon to fall out of favour, had some technically advanced features.  Unfortunately they lacked the financial resources to develop the Imp, and the Linwood plant was beset by fraught industrial relations and poor build quality.  So it is tempting to regard the Hillman Imp as a good idea which was poorly implemented.

But the real lesson from the Hillman Imp in terms of innovation is this: when its development started, and the transverse engine at the front was a wild idea sketched out by Alec Issigonis on a paper serviette, the choice to put the engine at the back was a perfectly rational one.  With hindsight, it was a poor decision.  But when planning for the future you can never tell whether it would be wise to put the cart before the horse.

Why disruptive innovation is nothing new

December 25, 2017

During a quiet interlude at Christmas I found myself reflecting on the overlap between contemporary ideas about innovation, and the history of industrial and technological change over the centuries.  And I was prompted to dig out a wonderful quote that I remember from my childhood.  It’s from Railway Race to the North published in 1958, and about events of the 1880s and 1890s, and includes this fragment of an account by the flamboyant and ambitious entrepreneur Edward Watkin of a train journey from London to Scotland.

Watkin quote

Why would I argue that this insight into Victorian fast food is an example of what would now be called disruptive innovation?

First of all some of the rail companies and their managers felt that by the late nineteenth century technical progress was levelling off.  They had created a dense national network of lines and had rapidly made the canals obsolete.  The technology was there to transport passengers between cities at an average speed of maybe 40mph, and it wasn’t at all apparent that anybody would ever want to go faster.  There are parallels with, for example, Nokia in the early 2000s believing that mobile phone technology was not going to improve dramatically in the future.

The other is that once the rail operators accepted that their objective was to get people from the south of England to Scotland comfortably within a day, they realised that part of the service to be provided was to ensure that their passengers could eat, and that providing catering was important.  Which is why, over a century later, there are still plenty of catering outlets at transport hubs.  So next time you notice the Petit Pret at the top of the escalators at Kings Cross tube station, or the nice Vietnamese stall at Paddington, or any of the great independent outlets at stations around where I live, remember that these are examples of the disruptive innovation of 1888.

Happy Christmas

Parentpay part 2

June 23, 2016

While it’s on my mind – one other slant on the ParentPay issues from the previous post.

ParentPay themselves have been engaging with some of the discussions of their product on social media.  All credit to them for doing so, and I hope that they can use this to sort out the product (though my recommendation would be just that they go back to the previous version).  But a lot of what they’ve written so far either suggests that they expect users to accept the new system once they are used to it, or that they would have hoped that users would have been more prepared for the changes thanks to information that had been provided.  Of course, ‘you’ll like it once you are used to it’ and ‘you would be able to do it if only you had paid attention’ are two of the most irritating things that a parent can say to a child…

Unfortunately I’d take issue with both the arguments advanced by ParentPay.  Far from users getting used to the redesign, I would expect some people to get more frustrated with it as time goes on, simple because they’ll get to resent the increased number of steps required to make a payment.  And I’ve revisited the briefing and particularly the video issued before the change.  There are repeated references to my account as a single pot within which you can keep money.  Nowhere is it explained that this is in addition to your existing dinner money balance, that you need to move funds through it whether you want to or not, and that some simple transactions will be more complex than before.

So I hope that the engagement in social media does result in some worthwhile changes to the system, and hope that they happen quickly.

ParentPay problems

June 18, 2016



Here’s a thought experiment.  You are working for a major automotive company and wondering how you can improve a car that you manufacture.  Extensive focus group research has revealed that some customers would like a satellite navigation system as a standard feature.  So, with a great fanfare, you release a new version of the car with an integrated satnav.

The problem is this: the technical people who designed the satnav forgot to take into account that people might want to drive the car somewhere familiar, and just not use the satnav.  So you post on your website a PDF containing detailed instructions for the sequence of eight buttons you need to tap at the start of a journey where you don’t want to use the satnav.  A few drivers seem upset at having to go through this extra stage which they didn’t need before, but you’re sure that’s just resistance to change which will subside.  After all, how difficult can it be to follow a set of instructions?

Unfortunately there’s another snag.  After the seventh tap, drivers are getting the impression that the system should be ready to go, so there are instances of people calling the AA, and cancelling visits to their grandparents, because they have missed the eighth tap and the system won’t let them release the handbrake.  So you add another step, which is that when you first get into the car, the satnav displays a screen reminding you to do the eighth tap, which you need to dismiss before you can go any further.  But drivers are still calling the AA and missing their grandparents, because that extra step occurs as soon as you get into the car, and once you have sat down and fastened your seat belts and checked whether anybody remembered to pack a box of chocolates for the grandparents, you’ve forgotten about the need to do that final tap.

This may all sound fanciful, but it’s not much different from what’s been happening with the ParentPay platform used to pay for dinners, school trips, and so on at schools up and down the country.  ParentPay have just introduced a new feature, called ‘my account’ in response to customer research.  While I have some difficulty in reconciling their explanation, that according to their research parents want to maintain a single account with a running balance, with the fact that I now need to maintain two separate balances and move money between them, the real problem is that even if I don’t want to use the ‘my account’ feature I still need to go through a much more complicated procedure than before, because I still need to pay money into ‘my account’ and then transfer it to the school as a separate transaction.

While I found this annoying, I also thought that complaining about needing to go through extra steps to pay for school dinner is what’s regarded in Internet circles as a first world problem.  And I then read that children were going hungry because of the poor redesign of the site.

I actually liked the previous version of ParentPay.  It might have been no paragon of good human-computer interface design, but it allowed you to pay for a school trip or school dinners with two clicks and typing in the security code on the back of the credit or debit card.  I did see ParentPay’s announcements that a new feature would be added, but nowhere did I see an explanation that the simple payment process that I was used to would be removed.  From a user’s point of view, it would be simple to add one extra option in the process, so that you could choose either ‘pay by card’ which would take you to the old version or ‘pay from account’.  Ideally you should be able to set ‘pay by card’ as a preference, so you could completely ignore the ‘my account’ feature if you didn’t need to use it.

So please, ParentPay, redesign the site and at the very least ensure that it’s no more difficult to use than it was before.  And accept that, even if this was done with the best of intentions and even if it appeared to be OK in your preliminary testing, it really isn’t working in practice.

One type of 21st century workplace

January 26, 2016

Also on the BBC’s tech pages recently was this account of people’s homes being used by freelancers as workplaces.  While the premise seems to be that there is scope for renting out an empty home during the day, if you watch the video report the cases depicted seem to be examples where the occupier of the home is around while freelancers are using it.  In any case, it’s an interesting reflection on the changing barriers between work and home and on the sort of spaces in which people find it convenient to work.

Mining data for musical tastes

January 26, 2016

This exercise carried out by the BBC is an interesting indication of how data can be used.  It’s based on musical preferences, which are of course easily measurable given that downloading from the Internet has for many become the default channel for listening to recorded music.  And in this case it’s based on use of the music recognition app Shazam, and I would speculate that using data collected through Spotify or iTunes might throw up somewhat different results.  Intriguingly, London’s musical twin city is Kaiapoi in New Zealand (pop around 10,000).  It’s a pity that for London at least the BBC’s data wasn’t able to identify musical tastes associated with particular areas and to generate more specific twin cities for these.

The ultimate elevator pitch

January 26, 2016

It’s been a few months since this entertaining item was published by the Guardian over the summer, but while I’m in the mood for blog posting I thought I’d put up a link to it.  I’ve been fascinated by Paternoster lifts since using one in the now-demolished GEC Marconi building at Borehamwood many years ago.  I’m amused to read about the idea of recording a podcast within the time that it takes to complete a circuit: surely the ultimate challenge in terms of getting an idea across rapidly

An innovation network in action

January 22, 2016

News that  GAVI (the global vaccine alliance) is supporting development of an Ebola vaccine is noteworthy because GAVI consitutes an example of an innovation network.  It brings together a number of different players in the field of pharmaceuticals and public health and its partnership model is at the core of its activities, recognising that in this field there are many different organisations which make different contributions.

Retro no more

January 22, 2016

A few years ago I blogged about Friends Reunited (one of a fair number of online services past and present that I’ve personally never joined) as a ‘retro social network‘. Now it’s being closed entirely, an example of how something which was once popular can disappear completely, and an opportunity to wonder what sort of value first ITV, and then D C Thomson, gained from the network while they owned it.  The founders are still planning new social networks, but they are looking to enter a much more crowded market so I wonder how successful they will be.

Walking in the Chilterns

June 19, 2015

Since our trip around the Capital Ring in 2012 (covered in this blog) I’ve continued to do a fair amount of walking at weekends: I simply haven’t sat down and blogged about it.  So here’s an account of two pleasant walks in the Chilterns, both sections of the Ridgeway National Trail which itself covers a route that has been in use since prehistoric times.

One walk, which we did a few weeks ago while schools were on their half-term break, was from Princes Risborough to Wendover.  It’s easily accessible by public transport, because each end is served by a different arm of the Chltern Railways line out of Marylebone, and runs past Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence.  Related to this, there’s a convenient pub at which to stop for lunch – the Plough at Cadsden – a couple of miles into the walk, which makes much of its proximity to Chequers, and which briefly hit the headlines a few years ago when David Cameron’s young daughter was accidentlly left behind when the rest of the family, and their entourage, had returned to Chequers.

Lunch at the Plough was excellent and substantial, appropriately so because this is a fairly hilly walk and a touch more strenuous than might be expected of a walk of this length, 6½ miles, around London.  The walk starts with a significant climb leading to great views across Princes Risborough, and continues with a variety of scenery.

Summit approaching CadsdenBecause it’s part of a long-distance path, it’s well signposted and easy to follow.  And a bonus at the end of May is that we caught the very end of the bluebell season.  Maybe not quite the striking displays which we’d seen a few weeks earlier, but still enough bluebells to create a fine effect in the woodland stretches approaching the attractive small country town of Wendover.

About ten days later we  Bluebell wood near Lodge Hillfollowed this up with a walk starting at Wendover.  From Wendover to Tring is slightly longer than the previous walk (8 miles), though on balance entails slightly less effort, because it’s less undulating.  The easternmost point of the Ridgeway is in fact Ivinghoe Beacon, a few miles beyond Tring, and for anybody walking the Ridgeway in its entirety from west to east, the approach to Tring brings the first sight of their eventual destination.  Another memorable feature of this stretch is a fine arched bridge which takes the path over a the A41 road, which runs in a wide cutting: it’s an unusually elaborate structure for one that only carries people on foot.

This section covers a mixture of countryside and parkland – Tring Park was cultivated in the 19th century by the Rothschild family and the walk runs through the park, above the town of Tring itself.Bridge over A41 (2)  Tring rail station is a couple of miles out of the town but is on the Ridgeway path.  The local historians writing here record that in 1859 a correspondent to the Bucks Herald complained about the lack of a bookstall or catering facilities at the station.  When we were there, the small, functional, station building was closed but there appears to be a coffee stall at some times during the week, which must qualify as one piece of tangible progress in 156 years.