Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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


Re-issuing a classic

November 14, 2014

Somewhere I have an edition of Nairn’s London which has been in the family since it was first published in the 1960s. Ian Nairn was an architectural critic and something of a self-created grumpy middle-aged man – among other things he was incredibly scathing about the Royal Festival hall in London. With his emphasis on wandering around and observing his approach would now probably be classified as psychogeography.

Nairn’s London has recently been reissued and I was amused by this piece from the Independent about the production process. Perhaps most telling is that no artwork, and no digital original, of the cover survived, so for the reissued version the designers at Penguin needed to seek out copies in good condition on the second-hand market.

Two 21st century workplaces

November 15, 2012

Last week I had the opportunity to visit two very different virtual workspaces, close to each other in the west end of London.  I’m contrasting them here, not to suggest that one is any better than the other, but to illustrate how two spaces with a rather similar set of requirements and starting points can nevertheless look and feel dramatically different.

180 Piccadilly is the home of the virtual office, and is part of a building that was originally the London office of French Railways, and still carries the word France in prominent capital letters along its frontage.  What makes it into a virtual office, and not just a set of serviced offices, and what also explains the apparent paradox of the name ‘virtual office’ referring to a solid concrete building, is a mail room and a small call centre within the building.  That means that businesses can create the illusion of being based in central London – right down to their mailing address and phone number – and offer meeting space in London, without their having any permanent physical presence there.
Call centre 

The call centre depends on a database which allows staff there to answer the phone in the most appropriate way for whichever of the virtual office’s clients they are representing.  So the instructions, for a particular business, may be to route a call that’s intended for a manager to a mobile number, or to a voice mailbox if the manager is in a meeting.  The building also includes short-term office space and meeting rooms.
Office space

If the virtual office in Piccadilly is a hotel for business – a description that its owners sometimes use themselves – the other virtual workspace that I visited, the Westminster Hub, is closer to a fashionable campsite, perhaps the place for the business equivalent of the curious early-21st century pastime of glamping.
Indoor greenhouse

By a strange coincidence, the hub is also in a building that was intially put up to represent a particular country – in this case New Zealand House in Haymarket.  It’s laid out as a single open space, with no conventional small offices or meeting rooms, although there is an indoor greenhouse and, interestingly, a wikihouse, within it.  Most areas of the space are almost self-consciously unconventional – even the coffee bar which sells the normal range of designer coffees, and also in a nod towards the open-source community, Ubuntu cola.

Coffee counter

Most of the occupants of the hub at the time of my visit seemed to be small, mostly high-technology, businesses using this as office space, and out to benefit from a kind of cluster effect by sharing ideas with others who used the same space.  No call centre here, as far as I could tell, but the telecoms infrastructure was all about having a fast wireless network.

As I said, two very different approaches and evidence that the nature of office space is still evolving

Via Oxford Road

September 13, 2012

Forgive my eccentricity about listed rail stations but one of the benefits of going to a conference at Manchester University is the opportunity to travel through Manchester’s Oxford Road station, which is close to the main university area.  It’s an extraordinary building,  dating from 1960 and constructed mostly from wood, and it looks magnificent (just my opinion, of course)


June 24, 2011

Three different anniversaries that I stumbled across on the BBC website this month, all with some relevance to the world of business, but not a lot else in common.

One is the death, fifty years ago, of Carl Gustav Jung.  His most immediate influence on the world of business, and particlularly on our understanding of teamwork, is through his identification of personality types and particularly through the Myers-Briggs type indicator.  Along with various derivatives, this is widely used by employers to analyse different people’s preferences at work and elsewhere.  Like many other approaches used in teamwork, the application of Myers-Briggs is most effective when based on the philosophy that an effective team depends on a variety of people with different preferences, and different strengths or weaknesses.

Extraversion or introversion is the first of four dimensions of personality type identified by Jung, and is highly significant in the workplace because it’s about individuals’ interaction with others.  I would take issue with the almost throwaway line in the BBC piece that ‘Jung spelt it extravert’.  Extrovert, as used in everyday English implies a level of tangibly outgoing and gregarious behaviour.  Extravert, in Jung’s terms. has more to do with getting ideas and inspiration from the external world – indeed the Myers Briggs foundation at cautions the reader  not to ‘confuse introversion with shyness or reclusiveness’.

Almost concurrent with Jung’s death, was the launch of the magnificent, if frivolous, Jaguar E-type sports car – there’s a picture that I’ve occasionally used as an avatar, of me aged around four, standing in one of these.  The E-type was stylish and technically brilliant, if not the most practical way to get around.  In some ways, the subsequent trajectory of Jaguar’s ownership provides a view of the changes in Britain’s manufacturing industry.  First it became part of British Motor Holdings, which a couple of years later merged into the sprawling, chaotic, British Leyland group.  In the 1970s British Leyland fell into a financial crisis, and Jaguar was subsequently sold of as a separate business.  It was then owned by Ford for twenty years, before in turn being sold to the Indian group, Tata.

Since Jaguar, along with Land Rover, was sold to Tata in 2008, Ford have not made any cars in Britain, although they employ people in Britain, they make engines in Britain, and they sell a lot of cars in Britain.  Nevertheless, yesterday I did a taster class, aimed at teenagers thinking of studying business or management, where I discussed disruptive innovation, and possible business models for electric cars.  I asked if any of them knew which company made more cars in Britain than anybody else (and whether they made an electric car) and surprisingly, somebody immediately suggested that ‘Ford’ might be the answer.

Talk of disruptive innovation brings me to IBM, which is making a lot of its 100th birthday this month.  Rory Cellan-Jones on the BBC site does focus on the positives, and perhaps understates the extent to which IBM did struggle to maintain its innovative abilities at some points in its history.  But the overall story of IBM is one of a business that has managed to reinvent itself, and to adapt to various disruptive waves of innovation, and to move from being a hardware company to a software and services company, or from a big computer company to a personal computer company.  And this sort of innovation is difficult to achieve.  It was easy enough in around 1980 to see that the market for golf-ball electric typewriters was in decline, but would have been harder to predict the importance of the personal computer to business, and harder still to predict that a little upstart firm called Microsoft would be a good business partner.  The rise and fall of IBM’s PC business remains an interesting vignette of waves of innovation – it was important for IBM to get into that business in the 1980s, but appropriate for them to leave it 20 years later by which time PCs had become commoditised.  Lenovo, who bought IBM’s PC business, still uses the name ‘ThinkPad’ inspired by IBM’s ‘Think’ slogan first used in the 1930s.

Harvard referencing pitfalls

March 22, 2011

Like many univerrsity students, the ones who I teach are asked to include referencing, so that we can see what sources have been used.  We recommend the Harvard referencing system where a reference to a particular source in the text is indicated by the surname of the author, and the year of publication, and there’s a compete list of references including titles etc at the end of the document.  Incidentally there are quite a few variations of the Harvard system around; my recommendation to students would be to stick with one variation and to be consistent.

There are a few common mistakes that many students make when using the Harvard system – so as a quick cautionary reference, here are some pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Don’t put footnotes with details of your references in them.  The Harvard approach is based around just one complete list of references, which you would put as endnotes at the end of your essay.  Putting these references in more than one place just introduces duplication of information and the risk of incostencies between the same information in different places.
  2. Don’t put authors’ initials into the citations in the text.  The citation should be marked by just the surname (or the name of the publication of website if no author’s name is available) of the author and the date.  You do put authors’ initials in the references listed at the end of the document
  3. Don’t make spelling mistakes in the names of authors who you cite.  Especially when the author is somebody who teaches you and might have a part in marking your work
  4. Don’t mix different styles of referencing within one document.  Even if you can think of perfectly legitimate reasons to use one method in your introduction, and another method in the text that follows, please don’t because it will look to a marker as though the work might have plagiarised.

Incidentally, the paper on Jazz that’s linked from my ‘cadenza learning’ post does include both footnotes and endnotes.  It’s an excellent paper but I don’t recommend any students reading it to follow its style of referencing.   In general, and especially in anything to do with the social sciences Unless you are Garrison Keillor, it’s a good idea to keep footnotes to a mimimum anyway

Of public and private

February 16, 2011

Every now and again I come across areas of confusion caused by the differences between different versions of English – particularly British and American.  A particular recurrent example, and one which I’ve seen several times in examples of student work which are otherwise excellent, concerns the terms used to describe different types of school.  Incidentally I’m here talking about school as the institution typically attended from the ages of maybe 5 to around 18; Americans are much more likely than Britons to say ‘I’m going to school’ even if they are going to a college or university.  And in British universities, including the one where I work, it’s common to refer to a sub-division of the university as a ‘school’.  This is already a linguistic minefield and I haven’t even got to my point.

There are many types of school in Britain and plenty of different ways to categorise them.  One is between primary (ages 4-11) and secondary (ages 11-18): if my knowledge of American English is correct then that’s roughly equivalent to the distinction between American elementary schools and high schools.  There are seven Harry Potter books because British children, including Harry Potter at Hogwarts, often spend seven years in secondary school.

The other important distinction is between state schools, which are state-funded, and private, or ‘independent’, schools where the parents pay tuition fees.  This is where the British/American linguistics become most confusing.  Americans typically talk about ‘public’ and ‘private’ schools, where public are the ones that are funded through (usually local) government and where parents don’t pay fees.

But in Britain, the term ‘public school’ is used to refer to some of the most expensive and exclusive private, fee-paying, schools.  These are long-standing institutions and the original argument was that they sold education to the public in the same way that Fortnum and Mason sell groceries to the public: it was available to anybody who could pay for it, and wasn’t limited to members of royal families or religious orders.  To add to the complication, the British term, State School, doesn’t work in America, because the word ‘state’ would imply that these schools were funded and organised at the level of a particular state, as distinct from the whole country or from an individual city.  Whereas in fact one thing that the very different educational systems in Britain and America have in common is that, usually, schools are organised and funded at a fairly local area.

Now the coalition government’s proposals around free schools add another dimension to the linguistic mix, since all state-funded schools are essentially free to parents.  In fact the key characteristic of the proposed free schools (and I recognise that there are a lot of contentious issues around how effectively this would work) is a level of separation between the schools and the local authorities that fund them.  In fact ‘independent school’ would be a more accurate description, but as I’ve already mentioned, that one already has a different meaning in the UK

Grumpy commuter moan

February 11, 2011

Why do people stand by the bottom of the stairs on buses when there are plenty of seats upstairs?  I can see that for a short ride you wouldn’t want to go upstairs but wouldn’t it be courtesy to keep away from the stairs?  Obviously the driver of the 134 that I was on this morning was also getting grumpy about this, as ibus system can be used to make announcements that seats are free upstairs, or to admonish passengers to move down the bus, and these were being used to some effect today.

Nokia’s crisis point

February 9, 2011 and quite a lot of other web coverage suggests that Nokia is finding the disruptive effects of smartphones even nastier than they had expected.  Interestingly, though, they seem to have acknowledged threats from other directions, notably that Symbian is rapidly falling behind other operating systems in the smarphone market, and also that low-cost manufacturers are threating the market for basic, simple phones

iPads and Advertorials

May 26, 2010

Apple’s launch of the iPad in Europe is imminent and there are prominent advertisements for Apple showing screen dumps from the Guardian.  The same images appear on Apple’s British web pages.  The original American web pages showed similar images but with screens from the New York Times.  For France the screens are from Le Monde, for Italy they are from Corriere della Sera, I guess an interesting displacement activity for somebody would be to go round Apple’s websites from different parts of the world and compile a list of which newpapers Apple had partnered with.

Which raises the same question that I raised about advertising for iPod adverts last year.  Given that this is advertising both a device (the iPad) and a content provider (the Guardian) do they both contribute to advertising costs?  Or is there some other deal around mutual promotion?  I ask partly because today’s Guardian has a piece where a number of early adopters – one of them the editor of the paper – write about their experiences of using an iPad, and several readers have commented that this reads as something of an ‘advertorial’.  To be fair, it’s paired in the paper with a not uncritical article about Steve Jobs, but I still wonder what sort of deals are behind all of this.