Substandard strategies rule?

An article by  none other than the famed McKinsey states among other findings that  a great many companies are generating strategies that, by their own admission, are substandard. This is an interesting point and we could easily draw many correlations with recent events amply covered by the media.

PR and Marketing consultants have always advocated that key to the success of a business operation is the presence of a well thought out strategy (from an overarching business one, to the one for communicating these values).  In practice we all know that in many instances as PR professionals we are asked to come to the rescue of less than satisfactory plans.

With so much written about the necessity of good strategic thinking and on how to implement this at tactical level, plus huge amounts of money spent on consultancy  it’s therefore a mystery why such good practices aren’t the norm.

Maybe the answer to this conundrum is revealed in a study carried out by Professor Levicky and published in The Guardian over 10 years ago in which he stated that based on his own observations of advising countless business leaders, I quote,  most companies end up being run by second-rate business talents who happen to have first-rate political skills which enable them to elbow aside more accomplished rivals to capture the top jobs.  This is obviously a very contentious point, especially as he goes on talking about deference and other aspects that may contribute to propel the wrong people to the top of tree, almost explaining the reasons behind the  well known Peter Principle.

I am not in a position to draw specific correlations, particularly as just as there are ‘bad’ senior executives, there are also excellent ones, like for example the outstanding example of Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project.   But we necessarily need to ask ourselves two fundamental questions.  The first is why with so many tools at a board’s disposal some crass error of judgement are still the norm, particularly in very large corporations, public or private.  The second is that while we all need a driving licence to use our cars, as they are potentially lethal weapons, why shouldn’t senior executive (and of course politicians) be required to undergo more rigorous personal assessments, since they are more likely to wreck the lives of thousands, or even millions of people in the event of an ill thought out strategy.

Perhaps historians in a few decades hence will have an answer to this enigma… that is if we manage to get the right strategy, and vision, to tackle global warming, terrorism, pandemics, overpopulation, resources depletion,  errh, well, that’s it, I think…


Will the Internet of things change the world?

Have you heard about the Internet of Things (IoT)? If you haven’t it’s dead easy to find information on the web and even Wikipedia has a good introductory article on the topic though you’d be forgiven if you fell asleep after the first two sections, unless of course you rejoice in IT systems architecture.

The principle, however, is simplicity itself, based on the potential of connecting various pieces of equipment over the Internet to ensure they communicate with each other, as well as with users. Many examples have been cited in the past: such as the fridge that sends you an SMS to tell you that you are running out of milk; or a packaging chip embedded in the cheese wrapper that communicates with your smartphone (presumably to tell you haven’t eaten it for a while and it may as a result go off?); or even the washing machine that (scarily) checks out your fashion sense and makes appropriate suggestions based on wear and tear and latest offers available (as if your wife or partner wasn’t enough).

There are some truly fascinating diagrams on the web that illustrate how all these various pieces of machinery may integrate with each other and with humans, reflecting the fractal and complex nature of these networks. The way these resemble neural networks is something that in a slightly dystopian manner could be used to recall science fiction scenarios where ‘things’ might also go horribly wrong – but I digress.

There are many factors that have so far prevented the advent of the IoT; one of these is the availability of IP addresses for future developments. IP addresses are like phone numbers (with profuse apologies to the techies for such crass analogy). They simply allow individual machines like computers or peripherals to communicate with each other. The current IP system permitted a mere 4bn unique combinations. This may sound like a big number but it pales into insignificance when you consider the possibility of multiply linked devices such as those highlighted above, multiplied of course by the number of people on the planet.

So in June this year, and almost completely undetected by the general media, an agreement was reached for the implementation of a new IP protocol (IPv6). This allows for a staggering number of unique connections, 3.4 x 10 to the power of 38, if you really wanted to know, which is a number so humongous that our poor brains just can’t compute it (try thinking of 340 trillion trillion trillion addresses… now head for the nearest packet of Nurofen…).

However, according to Sebastian Lange, Senior Consultant and Project Co-Ordinator of the EU funded IoT Architecture Project “IPv6 is merely one of the many ingredients in the wide ranging adoption of the IoT. One of the key ingredients which is still missing is applications interoperability, although major strides have already been made in this direction. We experienced a gap in our progress between 2005 and and 2011 but things are now hotting up and we are much closer in the interaction between the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds.” Sebastian continues, “I expect that within five years we will begin to see the launch of perhaps smartphone based solutions that would enable this kind of interoperability like, for example, temperature sensors; from then on things will move very rapidly indeed.”

If all this may sound a little remote for now just think how quickly matters have moved in just a few years in relation to mobile web access and how much this has changed the way we operate.

I foresee that the Internet of Things will definitely revolutionise the way we work, or rather the way machines work and communicate with us. Many more repetitive tasks could be automated, not just at factory floor level but inside our homes (and cars!). There will be more flexibility for people to work remotely and I predict that office spaces will eventually disappear, to be superseded by shared corporate meeting points. These technological advances will affect all areas of our day to day activities, for good. So forget the way social media has revolutionised businesses in the last few years, the IoT is 3.4 x 10 to the power of 38 bigger and it will not happen a century from now, but in the next two decades or so. Are you ready for the next major technological revolution?

Addendum – 20/05/13

..and here is how fast these things can move

Data, data everywhere…

Every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data — so much that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. This statement comes from IBM and they must know a thing or two about data. But what can we do with so much stuff? Is it humanly (and commercially) possible to digest such a gargantuan level of information?

Take for example something close to the heart of many PR practitioner: web analytics. Only a few years ago we were just happy with the number of hits a page received. Then we realised that this was totally meaningless and we moved into unique visitors, then even more data became available and our company now regularly produces reports with complex correlations between traffic sources and other indices freely available from tools such as Google Analytics. Matters become even more convoluted when advertising campaigns are involved, while the advent of social media has increased the available data exponentially.

When I studied advanced statistical analysis, in between rowdy university parties and lectures, I remember that the very first thing that was hammered into us was the need to become aware of spurious correlations. With data of any kind you can easily fall into a trap of putting two and two together and literally making five. To an extent poor data analysis mirrors what may happen with poor market research. Everyone knows you can easily create an opinion poll that is structured to tell you exactly what you expect to know. If you have access to vast quantities of data you could be equally selective and simply push for the correlations that may appear to be relevant but which are in fact totally spurious. Scientists take great care to avoid this pitfall, but how many companies out there take such an equally professional approach?

I was recently reading an article from another PR colleague who berated Pizza Express for continuously sending offers out by email, but apparently not making much use of the data they have gathered about their customers. I suspect the poor boffins at Pizza Express are simply inundated with data and are probably trying way too hard to make sense of why Capricorns prefer a Veneziana (do they still make them?), as opposed to Pisceans going for a Four Season instead.

So what can we do with all this stuff? Well, the first thing to do is to select only the data we really need. The second is to start with the knowledge that ultimately data only has meaning if it gets used to transform and change something, preferably for the better. So perhaps when we are asked to produce vast quantities of data for our clients we should ask ourselves the same question: what’s it all about? Is this data really going to be used to transform and improve, or is it merely a cosmetic exercise?