Skip to main content


Review: Fifty things that made the modern economy

I've long been a fan of journalist and broadcaster Tim Harford (aka. The Undercover Economist). Harford's skill is making economics and related topics understandable/readable/listenable for you and me.  His latest book is Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy, published by Abacus and based on the excellent BBC series of the same name.

As the title implies, Harford tells the reader something of the often-quirky history of 50 important inventions which have had a profound impact on the world today.  These are not "The Top 50" - more like a curated selection among many important developments. Some are obvious, such as the plough and its impact on food production.  Others perhaps less so; for example, copyright and the limited liability company.  And Harford makes no bones about leaving out some of the more obvious, such as the computer, while extolling the significance of Grace Hopper's computer language compiler, and the wonders unleashed by computer software.

Recent posts

Logging off from REANNZ

Yesterday, after 6 years, was my final day as chair of REANNZ (Research & Education Advanced Network New Zealand Limited).  REANNZ has been a fantastic business to be part of.  It is a highly specialised national and international telecommunications company with a very particular technological advantage.  In layman's terms, REANNZ moves heaps and heaps of data very, very fast.  We're talking truly huge data flows - astronomically large files (literally).  Normal telcos are optimised to move lots of small packets of data. REANNZ (like its partner R&E networks around the world) moves data in a different way. A normal network might need to re-transmit 1 out of every 100 or 1000 data packets.  REANNZ has a packet loss rate of 1 in hundreds of millions. That has huge performance implications for large discrete data flows over long distances. What REANNZ moves in an hour can take days or even months on a conventional network.  That means researchers can run experiments much …

Alligators and swamps: 10 rules for change

“When you're up to your arse in alligators, it's sometimes hard to remember that you're here to drain the swamp.”

I’ve had many conversations about making change happen within organisations. There’s so much noise going on (especially if it’s a problematic customer-facing process) that you spend all your time trying to put failures right and don’t have time to fix the root cause (product design, business process, skills, whatever). Likewise you’re pretty much guaranteed a failure if you put people onto the change project who aren’t ultimately responsible for the new process, who aren’t skilled and talented, who can’t make decisions on design and implementation, and who are tied up in doing their day jobs.

Assuming you are addressing the right opportunity/problem (and that's a whole subject on its own), here are 10 rules learned from running or helping several organisations to effect change in difficult circumstances:
The best person to lead a change project is the person…

Understanding the Chatham House Rule

A common phrase often used at large meetings is that they're being held "under Chatham House Rules", which some people seem to think is an agreement of complete confidentiality. This isn't so.

As Michael Gregg once politely reminded me, there is only one Rule. Quoting from Chatham House itself:
“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”. Whenever I chair a meeting or conference under the Chatham House Rule, I tell everyone precisely what I mean.
"After this meeting, you are free to talk about the ideas you have heard here, but without reference to people or organisations." The Chatham House Rule is  usually invoked by the chairman, the speaker or via the invitation.  Normally it is only a gentlemen's agreement.  If you need more certainty, either get people t…

2018 Year of Engineering

To mark The Year of Engineering, here's  Sydney Padua's envisioning of my personal engineering hero, the one and only Isambard Kingdom Brunel:

If you haven't already read it, check out Sydney Padua's comic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, featuring the founders of computing and other Victorian engineering heroes in all kinds of bonkers derring-do. (T-shirts, coffee mugs, etc. are available from Zazzle).

The UK Government has designated 2018 as The Year of Engineering, and launched a campaign to promote engineering in all its forms as a career.  I still think of myself as a systems engineer; the skills I learnt have been invaluable and widely applicable throughout my career as an executive and director.

In which I talk about life, the universe and everything

Access Granted, the online podcast channel, focuses on NZ tech sector and related themes. They interviewed me recently. We discussed change, tech, research & education, construction, and directorship. We covered a lot of ground. If you've got a spare hour, here's the link:

Is innovation sufficient?

Governments, business theorists and business media are obsessed with innovation. Vast sums of money are expended on government-sponsored research. Something’s bound to pay off with a ground-breaking new technology that will increase jobs, wealth and foreign-exchange earnings, won’t it? However, innovation is only the start of the process. We’ve got plenty of innovation, and we aren’t short of new businesses either. The problem is creating better, larger businesses that can foot it internationally (with full overseas operations, not just exporting).

The Economist explored the same issue, reporting on those who question the fear of US companies being overwhelmed by technological innovation coming out of India and China.
So does the relative decline of America as a technology powerhouse really amount to a threat to its prosperity? Nonsense, insists Amar Bhidé of Columbia Business School. In “The Venturesome Economy” ... he explains why he thinks this gloomy thesis misunderstands innovation…

The move from manager to executive

Many young technology companies do very little to build the leadership skills of their people, relying on recruiting or being acquired to solve their future leadership needs; and where’s the payback if a fast business sale is the aim? More established businesses and public sector organisations send their people on courses to acquire entry-level technical, commercial and team leadership skills. Some governments actively encourage this by subsidizing industry training programmes. But what about developing senior management?

Promising managers are often sent to various executive education programmes, although less so in mid-size organisations, despite increasingly valuable and relevant programmes targeted at them. But even in the most committed organisations, if there is no supportive context for the manager to move up to the next level, he or she may struggle to make the shift, and fail. Professor Doug Ready of MIT's Sloan Business School has published several papers on making the mo…

Bank on your back? Act like a receiver

I’ve had this conversation often, including with myself on a couple of occasions. Most businesses go through a major financial crisis at some point. You just don’t hear about most of them unless they prove fatal. The banks are very tough on anyone in breach of their bank covenants (key financial targets which have to be met or the bank can call in its loan).

Assuming your business is salvageable, the best way to keep the bank from sending in the receivers is to be tougher than they would be. By that I mean that you should think like a receiver - drastically chopping expenditure, cutting staff, closing branches, taking a large axe to management, killing off non-profitable products and services, and so on. Not half-hearted measures, but really tough-minded ones. If you’ve got a plan that the bank can easily see is tougher than what they’d do, you’ve got a chance of staying in control - providing you actually do what you said you’d do. And you’ve got a better chance of preserving some …

Don’t assume technology is the answer

IT guy Mike Riversdale makes some common sense points on his website:
... the chatter about “collaboration” one tends to hear now-a-days (and boy, isn’t there a lot) all centres around “on-line collaboration” … the use of the computer as the ultimate collaboration tool. What a load of plop.I sat with a fellow “on-line collaboration / community wrangler” a while ago and we both used pen and paper as our collaboration tools of choice.… when I talk with organisations about collaboration I always ask if they use whiteboards, meeting spaces or Scrum-type meetings to collaborate as they can be the most cost effective, most efficient and, let’s be honest, the easiest way to collaborate. Mike ran an collaboration and information project for me. Most of his success came not from the technology deployed, but by good old fashioned simplicity and clarity in project management and communication. Mike’s comments reminded me of Toyota’s production management systems - coloured lights, white boards…