Innovative Complacency or the Wisdom of the Deceived?

 

This is where I see a real problem for developed Asia: a complacency and disinterest in the role of technology and innovation. Or is it the clarity of vision from too much innovation?

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Source: Avaya, THE PROMISE OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION (DX) IN ASIA PACIFIC’S LEADING INSTITUTIONS

In a survey conducted by IDC on behalf of Avaya (no link available, you need to sign up to get a copy), key IT decision makers from developed Asian countries (leaving aside Australia for now) were much more likely to downplay the role of innovation in driving business. Singapore came lowest with 14% of respondents believing the statement “innovation is extremely important to drive business.” Compare that to around 40% in India, Thailand and the Philippines.

(Avaya, in case you’re wondering, “is a leading provider of solutions that enable customer and team engagement across multiple channels and devices for better customer experience, increased productivity and enhanced financial performance.” That could probably be simplified.)

In short (excluding Taiwan for which there is no World Bank data, and Australia, for now) the Asian economies with the highest GDP per capita — Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong – are those that value innovation the least. South Korea is only slightly behind there in terms of valuing innovation.

The same holds true when measured by Internet penetration: the more internet there is, the less valued is innovation.

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Source: Avaya survey (col 1), World Bank (cols 2-3)

 

At the other end, it’s also generally true. The lower the GDP, the more likely a country is to value innovation.

The sad truism is that once you reach a certain level of development — and you don’t experience serious recession or other economic upheaval — you tend to see innovation as an unwelcome disruption. In other words, you identify with the established industries, the established way of doing things, probably because that’s where you work and get your living from.

Looking at it the other way, the less developed a country is, the more people — and we’re talking ‘key IT decision makers’ here, not the rank and file folk — see innovation as a way of improving things.

Of course, there’s another possibility too: that those ‘key IT decision makers’ have seen innovation and they realise it isn’t as great as everyone makes it out to be. Indeed, I have some sympathy with that view. The more ‘disruptive’ a technology is, the more disruption it causes — meaning not just that big slow behemoths are put to the sword, but the people who work for them, the companies that supply to them, or make a little here and there in the supply chain.

A truly disruptive business/technology will not only chop off the head of an industry, it will cut off the entrails and lay to waste the body. That can be painful, and not necessarily good for consumers, or anyone standing in the way.

The other question raised in the survey was whether traditional traditional companies in the Asia Pacific would be able to take control against ‘Uber-like’ competitors. Nearly half said it was difficult to compete against such disruptors, and only 3% said they planned to be disruptors themselves. And while 43% felt they were on a par with their peers in terms of being able to fight back, only 6% felt they were “best in class”. Asian modesty, or a serious crisis of confidence?

Australia and China are worth a separate look here. Australia scored highest on the innovation/importance question, with more than 46% of respondents reckoning it was important. That’s good, but it’s probably part cultural. Why would you not at least pay lip service to the Innovation God?

And China skewed the other way. You would kind of expect China to be up there given what is going on in technology. But it’s low — 21/5% — less than South Korea, suggesting that either they were asking the wrong folk, or, maybe the disruption in China is already giving ‘key IT decision makers’ pause. China is by far the furthest down the track in terms of disruption in Asia, so maybe there is some truth in the alternative explanation of this (admittedly scant) data: As economies become more disrupted, so the key ‘IT decision makers’ in them become more pessimistic about how useful innovation is to the economy.

Moleskines Redux

Moleskin ® redux

Of course, I claim a lot of the credit for this decade-long trend Why Startups Love Moleskines: 

“The notion that non-digital goods and ideas have become more valuable would seem to cut against the narrative of disruption-worshipping techno-utopianism coming out of Silicon Valley and other startup hubs, but, in fact, it simply shows that technological evolution isn’t linear. We may eagerly adopt new solutions, but, in the long run, these endure only if they truly provide us with a better experience—if they can compete with digital technology on a cold, rational level.”

I have returned to Moleskines recently, partly because I realised I have a cupboard full of them, and partly because of exactly this problem: there’s no digital equivalent experience. 

  • easier to conceptualise on paper
  • you can doodle when the speaker is waffling; those doodles embellish, even turn it into Mike Rohde’s sketchnotes
  • you can whip it out in places where an electronic device would be weird, or rude, or impractical;
  • there’s a natural timeline to your thoughts
  • there’s something sensual about having a pen in your hands and holding a notebook
  • pen and moleskine focus your thoughts and attention
  • the cost of the book acts as a brake on mindless note taking (writing stuff down without really thinking why) 
  • no mindmap software has ever really improved the mindmapping experience. 
There’s probably more to it. But maybe the point is that this isn’t a fad. People have been using these in the geeky community for more than a decade, suggesting that they have established themselves as a viable tool. Being able to easily digitise them — for saving, or processing, as I did this morning with a chart I sketched out which my graphics colleague wanted to poach from — is a bonus, and saves us from the fear of losing our work. 

(Via.Newley Purnell)

Afghanistan’s TV Phone Users Offer a Lesson

By Jeremy Wagstaff

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There’s something I notice amid all the dust, drudgery and danger of Kabul life: the cellphone TVs.

No guard booth—and there are lots of them—is complete without a little cellphone sitting on its side, pumping out some surprisingly clear picture of a TV show.

This evening at one hostelry the guard, AK-47 absent-mindedly askew on the bench, had plugged his into a TV. I don’t know why. Maybe the phone gave better reception.

All I know is that guys who a couple of years ago had no means of communication now have a computer in their hand. Not only that, it’s a television, itself a desirable device. (There are 740 TVs per 1,000 people in the U.S. In Afghanistan there are 3.)

But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve long harped on about how cellphones are the developing world population’s first computer and first Internet device. Indeed, the poorer the country, the more revolutionary the cellphone is. But in places like Afghanistan you see how crucial the cellphone is as well.

Electricity is unreliable. There’s no Internet except in a few cafes, hotels and offices willing to pay thousands of dollars a month. But you can get a sort of 3G service over your phone. The phone is an invisible umbilical cord in a world where nothing seems to be tied down.

Folk like Jan Chipchase, a former researcher at Nokia, are researching how mobile banking is beginning to take hold in Afghanistan. I topped up my cellphone in Kabul via PayPal and a service based in Massachusetts. This in a place where you don’t bat an eyelid to see a donkey in a side street next to a shiny SUV, and a guy in a smart suit brushing shoulders with a crumpled old man riding a bike selling a rainbow of balloons.

Of course this set me thinking. For one thing, this place is totally unwired. There are no drains, no power infrastructure, no fiber optic cables. The cellphone is perfectly suited to this environment that flirts with chaos.

But there’s something else. The cellphone is a computer, and it’s on the cusp of being so much more than what it is. Our phones contain all the necessary tools to turn them into ways to measure our health—the iStethoscope, for example, which enables doctors to check their patients’ heartbeats, or the iStroke, an iPhone application developed in Singapore to give brain surgeons a portable atlas of the inside of someone’s skull.

But it’s obvious it doesn’t have to stop there. iPhone users are wont to say “There’s an app for that” and this will soon be the refrain, not of nerdy narcissists, but of real people with real problems.

When we can use our cellphone to monitor air pollution levels, test water before we drink it, point it at food to see whether it’s gone bad or contains meat, or use them as metal detectors or passports or as wallets or air purifiers, then I’ll feel like we’re beginning to exploit their potential.

In short, the cellphone will become, has become, a sort of Swiss Army penknife for our lives. In Afghanistan that means a degree of connectivity no other medium can provide. Not just to family and friends, but to the possibility of a better life via the web, or at least to the escapism of television.

For the rest of us in the pampered West, we use it as a productivity device and a distraction, but we should be viewing it as a doorway onto a vastly different future.

When crime committed is not just saved on film—from Rodney King to the catwoman of Coventry—but beamed live thro to services that scan activity for signs of danger, the individual may be protected in a way they are presently not.

We may need less medical training if, during the golden hour after an accident, we can use a portable device to measure and transmit vital signs and receive instruction. Point the camera at the wound and an overlay points out the problem and what needs to be done. Point and click triage, anyone?

Small steps. But I can’t help wondering why I’m more inspired by the imaginative and enterprising use of cellphones in places like Afghanistan, and why I’m less than impressed by the vapid self-absorption of the average smart phone user in our First World.

Now I’m heading back to the guard hut to watch the late soap.

Into the Light

Part of my job is explaining the world of new/social media to old media veterans. It’s not easy, either because they’re very resistant to change, or because they tend to see the changes  being wrought on their industry as somehow different to the much bigger changes taking place.

It’s not a bunch of separate revolutions—it’s one revolution. For want of a better description, it’s not unlike the transition from the Dark Ages to the High Middle Ages. That’s perhaps overstating it, but compare, if you will, this small vignette.

I was chatting with a friend on Skype just now; he had returned to Canada to be with his ailing dad. I enquired more, and he told me his father had been at the Battle of Ortona, and still suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I know something of PTSD, but I was ignorant of Ortona, so I looked it up while we chatted. There’s a great Wikipedia page on it, so I quickly got a sense of what his father had been through, back in 1943.

Then my friend sent me links—to a book written about it, which I could thumb through on Amazon and search for his name.

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I was able to quickly learn a bit about the battle, about my friend’s father, and about his wounds, both external and internal. Then my friend sent me another link, this time to a YouTube page that showcased a movie about the battle.

Within a few clicks I was much, much more knowledgeable about what this man had gone through, made more personal by my friend’s messages that dropped through Skype:

All of the officers he trained with were killed. He was the only one left.

He has one pal left who is still alive from those days.

It’s easy to dismiss this all as just bite-sized knowledge, without depth or perspective. But nevertheless what we have at our finger tips is so much more than was possible a few years ago—so much so that it’s no exaggeration to say that the Internet offers wisdom over darkness to those who came before it.

And for the media? Well, it’s not really about news anymore. It’s about wisdom. Information grabbed when needed to assemble an insight. The dividing line now is not between those who have access to information—everyone, more or less, has access—but between those who have the skill and interest to be able to know what they’re looking for and to find it. And then, of course, digest it.

That has huge implications for media because it transforms the market for information. It doesn’t remove it—it transforms it. We haven’t figured out how.

But we have already reached, without really making a big fuss about it, a great point of leveling, where we all can claw our way out of ignorance, topic by topic, surprisingly quickly. Whether we want to is something else entirely.

Image from SDCinematografica.it

My Technology-free Lunch

At lunch today, it took me some time to realise what was different. It wasn’t just that my four lunch partners were all quite a bit older than me–15 years, at least, and I’m not as young as you think I am. It was, I realised, that in more than two hours of eating not one of us had answered a phone–or even received a phone call, or text message, or furtively checked our email. I’m not sure any of us were packing a BlackBerry. Maybe my companions weren’t even carrying cellphones. It was extraordinary.

I was going to ask, but I didn’t want to ruin the moment. Here were five men sitting around a table talking about stuff for about 120 minutes, and not one single interruption by technology or modern communications. They weren’t even in sight: Not one of us had put a phone on the table in the usual custom of staking out one’s corner of the table. It felt like a flashback to the early 1990s. And it was great.

A recent survey in the UK highlights how mad we’ve become:

Our liking for modern technology may be disrupting our sleep – and even our relationships, claims a UK survey.

The poll, by The Sleep Council, found that many people admitted checking texts, surfing the internet, or playing games in bed.

It suggests one in four people now regularly sleeps in a different bed from their partner, and many often go to bed at different times.

God I miss the old days.

(And no, it wasn’t a boozy lunch. No alcohol in sight.)

BBC NEWS | Health | Gadgets may cause lonely bedtimes

Dark Age Messengers

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Maybe I’m missing something, of I’ve been taken in by those TV ads of guys walking across stepping stones made out of frogmens’ skulls, but I expect the big couriers to be somewhat snappier and higher-tech these days. Not based on today’s experience:

  • Call their hotline to get a guy in either Mexico or the Philippines (based on accent, and he wasn’t saying) who scolded me for giving the second line of the address first, and then refused to accept the package as documents when I told him it was a book (it’s actually a pile of edited pages, so I guess it could be either.) Stoopid that I am, I didn’t realise the huge difference (commercial invoice in triplicate and duties for one, nothing for the other) and should have said “documents” when he asked me. So that session was a bust.
  • My colleague, the recipient and courier account holder tried the other end, and we got somewhere, though both of us still had to give the details twice, including something called a “control number” (I’ve just been watching Terry Gilliams’s Brazil so I’m on the lookout for things like this) to “smoothen things out”.
  • Of course when the guy came there were no documents, no smoothing things out, so we had to do everything by hand. All nine sections. Good luck to whoever has to decipher my atrocious handwriting. We’ll be lucky if the package makes it before Christmas.

So, questions:

What happened to those handheld computers that couriers were using a few years ago to do all this? Wouldn’t it be easier? Just type out the details or input them from Central Service — the guy with the van already has my address, presumably, unless he just drove around knocking on everyone’s doors, and as the recipient is the one being billed, presumably all they need is his account number for all those details to pop into the appropriate fields.

And then don’t get me started on the whole “give-me-your-details-over-the-phone-and-can-you-spell-your-name-again-is-it-German-no-it’s-not-it’s-English-like-Shakespeare” (not that I have anything against German names) thing. Why can’t we do this any better?

Off the top of my head, type “Fedex” or “UPS” into Skype and you’re instantly connected to customer service where you can type your details in so they won’t be misheard, and you don’t have to sit on the line listening to “Rhinestone Cowboy” on a loop (actually it was worse; I think it was “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro).

I’d be up for a USB dongle that the guy carries, and the customer slips into their computer (who doesn’t have one sitting around these days?) and a little courier program pops up so the user can fill in the details from their laptop or desktop. He just plugs it into his handheld device and the data zips across and self-checks. Courier guys could carry round free branded ones and hand them out as promotional items and so customers can fill out the fields in advance.

Or if that’s too complicated, going to the website and opening up a chat box with a customer representative. (I’ve just checked Fedex’s customer support page and it involves filling out 14 different fields. And don’t try to sidestep any:

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Yeah, I’m going to fill all those in.

Maybe these courier firms are smarter in other parts of the world, but I didn’t come away feeling impressed. I’m sure their package tracking systems are second to none — i.e. once the atoms are in the system. But it seems that the burden is still being passed to the customer, when it could be so much less painful for both parties if it was electronic.

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Heathrow’s Old Windows

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Snapped this on my way to Gate 1 at Heathrow’s Terminal 3. I know the London hub has its problems, but I didn’t realise one of them was that its passenger information system — or at least part of it — was running on Windows 95, a 12-year old operating system that has not been supported by Microsoft since 2001.

Does it matter that flight information is being run on a system that Microsoft not only no longer sells, but it no longer supports?

I guess not, in some ways. Who cares, if it’s still working? (Well, in the case above, where one screen is in permanent ‘shutdown’ mode, and the other seems to be in permanent ‘boot’ mode, leaving me waiting patiently in the hope of getting some flight information, I guess I do.)

But how about security? If a software manufacturer no longer supports a product, it doesn’t just mean their helpdesk is no longer taking calls from baffled customers. It also means they’re not pushing out updates to the software that solve problems like the one above, or security patches to cover holes bad guys have found in the software.

This bit is more worrying. If a bad guy knows that Heathrow is using Windows 95 for some of its operations (and I guess he does now) it should be pretty easy to find a way in. While not many people use the software anymore (I couldn’t find any surveys on this, but anecdotally there don’t seem to be many folk out there using it), new vulnerabilities are appearing that affect both newer and older versions of Windows. So while XP users might get a patch, Windows 95, 98 and Me users won’t.

Anyway, I caught my flight OK. So maybe there’s nothing to worry about. Apart from realising that an airport I entrust my life to a few times a year is relying on software that, when first launched, didn’t even support Internet access.

“It Says Take a Left Up This Impassable Mountain Track”

 
photo from Reuters

Apparently technology is making us so dumb we need signs to jolt us back to common sense. Reuters reports that Britain has started trials of special road signs warning “drivers about the dangers of trusting their satellite navigation devices (satnavs)”:

Some have reported that software glitches have sent drivers down one-way streets or up impassable mountain tracks.

One ambulance driver with a faulty satnav drove hundreds of miles in the wrong direction while transferring a patient from one hospital in Ilford east of London to another just eight miles away.

At what point, I wonder, did the ambulance driver think that perhaps he wasn’t taking the fastest route? The original story, according to The Times, involved the driver and his colleague driving

for eight hours before finally delivering the patient. After the equipment sent them north, they covered 215 miles in about four hours. The way back was only slightly shorter and took more than 3½ hours.

The device was reprogrammed, as were the two drivers. The Times comes up with a couple more examples:

Last month a woman dodged oncoming traffic for 14 miles after misreading her sat-nav system and driving the wrong way up a dual carriageway.Police said it was a miracle that no one was injured after the young woman joined the A3M, which links Portsmouth to London, on the southbound side — only to head north.

In September a taxi driver took two teenage girls 85 miles in the opposite direction after keying the wrong place name into his sat-nav. The girls asked to go to Lymington in the New Forest, Hampshire, but the driver tapped in Limington, Somerset.

I hear Somerset is very nice in September.

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What a CEO Would Really Write in His Blog

My fellow BBC World Service commentator, Lucy Kellaway, lays into Reuters CEO Tom Glocer as the worst case of vapid CEO blogging (via the BBC’s Richard Sambrook). Harsh, because Glocer seems to be a cut above the rest of the old media but she has a point: Blogs are about being honest and authentic, and I’ve seen few CEOs manage to do this. Although the results would be entertaining, if they for once did try not to please but to vent (which is the real distinction between a faux blog and a real one). Here’s an early draft of what a CEO like Mr. Glocer might have written if he could:

Had to fire half the news department today. Would have fired the other half too, had they actually been in the office. They weren’t; as it was 3.30 in the afternoon they were mostly unwell in The Ink Stained Spike so I had to get Mrs. Marpool, the Chief Hot Refreshing Beverage Delivery Officer (formerly the tea lady), to pass on the news to them. Doubtless the old fools will be telling each other war stories and mocking my blogging style. The savvier ones will be pulling up my MySpace page on their 3.5G enabled, beer-splattered laptops and making rude remarks about my dog. Bottom feeders. They’ve probably never heard of Debussy. Pffft.

God I hate journalists. The ones who were in the office sat staring at their Grecian 2000 editing terminals as I broke the news to them, either patheticlaly hoping I’d notice their dedication and spare them, or else because they couldn’t bear to look anywhere else. They’ve brought it on themselves. Ten years ago they could have bought a copy of Microsoft for Dummies from Dillons. But no. They thought they were all still safe, sacred cows in the face of the digital sandstorm (gosh, that’s good that. Might save that for the final version.) Journalists. They’re either gung ho foreign correspondents who can’t stop filing stories no one will read, or burned out subs with faces like a rhino’s armpit (gosh, that is good!) who take most of the afternoon to sub a palm oil report.

Anyway, good riddance to the lot of them. Nothing they could do that a floor full of eager Bangaloreans (Bangalorans? Bangalorii? Bangaloris? Bangalorish? Please check this before you post it on the blog, Edna) couldn’t do at a tenth the price.

Anyway, unlikely to see a CEO rabbiting on like that, so we should stop dreaming. Anyway, I’m still upset with Lucy for suggesting in the same piece that signing off an email with ‘best’ is somehow unacceptable. I do it all the time, although I fear it’s a throwback to my own hackish past, when we wrote our Reuters service messages (open wire emails, as it were, visible to all) in telegraphese, as if there was still a premium on word count. Hence “best regards” either became “brgds” or just good old “best”. I still do it, and will continue to do so until Lucy tells me not to.

Best, Jeremy

Crying Out for Clarity

Interesting post and thread at Signal vs Noise on the overuse of buzzwords, particularly on job applications. One thing caught my eye, though: the assumption that shorter, briefer is better. One commenter wrote: “I’ve always noticed that the shortest emails come from those with the most power in the organization.” That’s probably because they’re using a BlackBerry. Shorter isn’t necessarily better, although it might be. Clarity is better. Not always the same thing. (Having just read through a dozen award applications I see a crying need for clarity.)

Anyway some horrible buzzwords that crop up in the comments or my head:

  • anything with 2.0 in it
  • ‘space’ meaning market
  • ‘interface’ as a verb
  • stakeholder
  • grow as a transitive verb
  • more buzzwords here.