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Small Orders and Zero-Hours Contracts: Symptoms of Uncertainty

One of the best pieces of anecdotal evidence for an accelerating commercial world comes from order sizes. In an uncertain world that is changing fast, companies don’t want to gamble on big orders, instead preferring smaller, more frequent deliveries from their suppliers.

This morning at the Insider ‘Made in Manchester’ event where I was speaking, two very successful but completely different manufacturing firms reported that their customers were asking for just this: faster turnaround times on smaller volumes.

Holding large amounts of stock has always been problematic for businesses. While it gives you — and perhaps your downstream customers — reassurance, it ties up capital and requires you to operate a larger warehouse yourself.

Practices like Just in Time (JIT) were designed to eliminate a lot of excess stock, freeing capital and reducing operating costs. But while they had the cash and the certainty, lots of companies continued to hold large amounts of product in their warehouses.

The alternative was more challenging: capital investment in the skills and systems to manage a leaner process. This in itself is risky: just look at how many large IT projects fail. Screw this up and you could have catastrophic customer service issues. So companies put off the investment, preferring the certainty of higher stock levels.

Until recently. Because while cash (debt) remains relatively cheap for those who can get it, certainty has been eliminated. Now companies are doing anything that they can to minimise the consequences of a misstep.

This manifests itself as smaller and more frequent orders — perhaps made possible by improved technology. But it also manifests as changes to employment practices — the increasing use of freelancers and the rise of the zero-hours contract.

If you’re sceptical about the idea of a faster-moving, more uncertain business environment, just speak to a manufacturer.

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Urgent, Important, Existential

If you’ve spent any time in business you’ve probably had to consider how you juggle your to-do list. Eisenhower’s ‘Urgent/Important’ matrix is a popular and useful tool here: map everything to one of four boxes. Deal with the ‘urgent & important’ first (out of necessity), then the ‘important but not urgent’ (your real priorities). Delegate the ‘urgent but not important’ (if it needs doing at all) and say ‘no’ to everything else.

Simples, right?

Except that the matrix is missing a column: existential. And not only is the column missing from the matrix, its contents probably aren’t on your to-do list.

Existential threats to businesses are increasingly present but so fast-moving that they are not always very visible. Just like the perfect pass that I talked about in a previous post, you don’t see them unless you take time to look up.

The last thing you want is to be dealing with existential threats when they’re also in the ‘urgent’ row. By this time it’s probably too late. So it’s important to make time frequently to step back, look up and see. Right now I’d suggest an annual review should be the minimum frequency for this exercise. Six months is close to being mandatory. Three might be best practice.

It doesn’t have to be time-consuming: that’s why we created Intersections. And unlike the ‘important’ items on the to-do list, it doesn’t have to be you that does this. At least not alone.

Sometimes the best people to spot existential threats to your business are outside the organisation. If you have an accountant, solicitor, marketing agency, management consultant or business coach that you trust, point them to Intersections and ask them to run the exercise against your business. They’ll need some of your time and input. But what they come back with might surprise you.

This is the way to populate your ‘existential’ to-do list. If it works, put a diary date in for three months time to do it again.

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The Argument for Accelerated Change

The idea of a technological singularity has more sceptics than supporters. That accelerating change might shortly drive humanity through a period of near-infinite technological progress is an accepted fact by many in the industry, and many futurists. While others reject even the grounds on which this idea is posited, arguing that there is little substance to the evidence of a consistent history of exponential progress.

I have always sat somewhere on the fence.

I do talk a lot about accelerating change and technology being the driver for this change. I believe it’s true: the speed of ideation, innovation and implementation in a software-driven, hyper-connected world is simply greater. This drives the five primary change vectors that we discuss in our work and which form the basis of our Intersections methodology: Agility, Diversity, Performance, Ubiquity and Scale (you can access ‘Five Future Trends to Make or Break Your Business’ by joining our mailing list).

But I have always been careful to bound this prediction. I don’t believe technology will always be the primary change driver. I don’t believe it is today in every place in the world. And I’m — as yet — unconvinced by the idea of a singularity.

Or more specifically unconvinced that it is imminent.

While we continue to make incredible advances in many areas of science, these advances are uneven. The idea of continuing exponential progress seems to me to be predicated on the development of a general-purpose artificial intelligence that will drive forward progress on all fronts, not just the processing power required to advance its own evolution but the energy capture and storage to fuel it, to name but two.

This level of capability still feels more science fiction than fact.

My aim when creating this business was not to look to the distant future at what might be, fun as that is. I call myself an applied futurist because I’m interested in the practical implications of what can be more accurately foreseen in the immediate future. For my clients it doesn’t matter if Moore’s law is faltering, or that the history of progress is more uneven than smoothly exponential.

What matters is that they have more competitors springing up than they have ever seen. That they are baffled daily by new routes to their customers and communication channels between them. That information moves through their organisations in weeks when they see it moving through others in moments. That new technologies are radically transforming what’s possible in their marketplace. And that they are finding their scale totally disproportionate to what’s required to compete effectively.

These challenges are new. Even if the pace of development of fundamental technologies is variable, their growing adoption has an accelerating effect.

Will there be a singularity? As an applied futurist I’m happy with the answer ‘maybe’. Because whether there is or not, there will be many challenges to face before we find out.

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Who Shows You The Future?

Great footballers are often described as having vision. The ability to look up and see the position of players at some point in the future and make a pass that allows them to capitalise on that position. Ball skills alone will rarely make you great if you always play with your head down.

In business it’s all too easy to run with your head down. It’s described in lots of ways. ‘Working in the business not on the business’ is a phrase you hear often. And we all do it. Because in business we don’t have a manager on the sidelines screaming at us or giving us the full ‘hairdryer treatment’ at half time, we lose track. Before we know it we’ve been running, head down, for years at a time.

There are people who can prompt us to look up though. And everyone in business has access to them. Coaches, mentors and management consultants, but also accountants, solicitors and marketing agencies. To follow the football analogy, people who are not in the game but stood on the sidelines, with the different perspective that brings. They’ve watched other teams, seen the stats, listened to the analysis and know what’s happening in other sports.

I have a mentor to help me look up every few months. It was through talking to him this week that I realised with greater clarity than before that the people I need to be passing to are these coaches and consultants. The tools we’ve produced have proven popular with forward-thinking business leaders. But the reality is that they spend most of their time with their heads down, not up. Their need to see the future and respond is intermittent, not constant.

Consultants though, of all varieties, spend all their time thinking about other people’s businesses. And what we’ve created is a great set of tools to help them do that. Tools that will give them something different to take to their clients and differentiate them from their competitors.

From January we’ll be launching a new membership model targeted primarily at this type of business or individual that gives them unlimited access to our tools for a single monthly fee. Between now and January we will be building the supporting materials to round out the products and make it easy to use them as a facilitator rather than inside your own business.

If you are a coach or consultant of any type — business, finance, legal, marketing, or management — and would like to be one of the first to access this service then drop me a line and we’ll keep you posted as it develops.

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Division and Unity

It’s been an interesting week for politics with both a large and a small ‘p’. Politics both national and sexual.

Jeremy Corbyn demolished his opposition in the Labour leadership race, adding huge numbers of people to the party’s support in the process. How many of these were ‘fake’ supporters, hoping only to de-stabilise the Labour Party by supporting a truly left-wing candidate, remains to be seen. But it seems unlikely they are more than a small minority. In which case, the Labour Party has regained its status as the largest collective political movement in the country — more than twice the size of the Conservative party.

Having been elected, Corbyn then proceeded to appoint precisely no women to senior posts in his shadow cabinet. This followed days of raging debate (not least on my own Facebook wall) about the actions of a barrister who posted publicly a private message she had received from another lawyer on LinkedIn, complaining of its inappropriate nature. The argument divided many who might normally find themselves on the same side of debates.

Increasingly, I find that division is more common than unity. Where in the past our choices of social, political or cultural groupings were limited, encouraging compromise inside a ‘broad church’, today we have endless choice, encouraging diversity. Even in our ‘first past the post’ electoral system, minority parties like UKIP and the Greens have grown. In the boundless wilds of the internet we can always find supporters of our view. Freed from geographical limitations, the smallest minorities can find solace and solidarity, however extreme others might find their perspective.

Where unity exists it is often transient, typically assembled as support for a single, short-lived issue rather than a long-standing campaign. There’s naturally an emotive quality to many of these issues. Facebook’s new ‘empathy’ button seems designed to give these emotions a low-friction, ‘clicktivist’ outlet.

These trends are not, per se, ‘bad’. The human mind is a complex thing. Straightjacketing it into a binary identity, whether that’s political, social or sexual, seems like a waste, limiting potential. But it does present us as a society with challenges.

If we are to unite only briefly to address single issues then we need to find a way to do so effectively. Governments creating online petition mechanisms as a response to Change.org and Avaaz etc is a good start. But they remain brittle instruments, easily shattered at the first rejection by those in power. What might reinforce them remains to be defined.

Greater diversity means greater divisions. But some sense of collective identity is what binds us together, even if it sometimes also drives us to reject the ‘other’. The smaller the tribes of shared collective identity become, the harder it may be to achieve important goals through collective action. And the harder we may have to work at breaking down barriers and accepting other perspectives.

After some very heated debate over the weekend, Jason Fried’s simple advice on Medium seemed timely. We might all do well to take five minutes when we come up against different views.

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When Two Worlds Collide, Will We Miss the Separation?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a geek. An unashamed one at that. Which is why I’m constructing a spaceship cockpit in my mancave.

This is an old project that has been resurrected recently. For various reasons it has been a pretty stressful year, and in stressful times I retreat into science fiction. Marvel Unlimited becomes a constant companion, and I tend to rediscover old computer games. Where Kevin Spacey’s character in House of Cards de-stressed in first person shooters, I like to fly spaceships around the galaxy blowing up pirates, aliens and asteroids. Doing so in a cockpit rather than sat at a desktop just enhances the experience and gives me greater distance from the stresses of the day. Plus as an enthusiastic, if not particularly skilled, maker, building it in the first place is enormously good fun.

Working on some bits last night I thought back to one of my previous posts about the collision of the physical and digital worlds and wondered: if the physical world is increasingly digitised and gamified, will we miss the separation between the two?

In the past I have already advocated an occasional ‘analogue week’, where we step back from the digital devices that have invaded (or been welcomed) into our lives over the last few years and rediscover more physical experiences. Walking, reading, eating and for some people, talking and sex, which more than one person has told me has been lost to late-night Facebooking in their relationship.

The value of this is to give us some perspective on the changes in our lives. We have done such a good job of adapting to the fast pace of technology in many areas of our lives that we don’t notice the things we may have lost along the way. Though I’m a great advocate for technology on the whole, I’m not blind to its downsides, nor immune from them. I am as prone as anyone to looking at my phone when I should be looking at my friends and family.

When the digital world and the physical are combined it’s going to be increasingly hard to step back and get this distance. As the digitally augmented hero in Charles Stross’s Accelerando (a book I quote often) finds out on losing his cyber-prosthetics, it’s like losing a part of your mind. If you’re used to a software agent predicting and answering your questions before you’ve asked them, it will feel awfully quiet when it’s disconnected. If you’re used to your vision being overlaid with enhanced information, the world will look weird without it.

Disconnecting might be even more stressful than not.

My hope, and my expectation, is that we will cope. Over time we seem to do a reasonable job of finding an equilibrium in both our personal and professional lives. Until that point though, there will be interesting issues for many of us to face.

It will be fascinating to watch, but some people will undoubtedly struggle.

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The Bar of the Future…In Space

A couple of months back an enquiry dropped into my inbox from our website. Would I be interested in contributing some thoughts about future bars in space to a marketing campaign for Ballantine’s whisky?

Normally this sort of thing would be a paid gig. But it was an interesting campaign and I was just starting out on a three hour train journey. So I figured, what they hell. Why not?

I banged out some thoughts and sent them over.

Two months later the campaign launches and it turns out what I sent didn’t make the cut. Fair play, they got some very cool other contributors, as you can see from this piece on Medium.

So, loathe to let my ramblings go to waste, I thought I’d share them here.

What would my bar of the future look like in space? Like this.

There are some obvious examples from fiction that it is hard to get away from: Mos Eisley from Star Wars, and more recently the bar on Knowhere from Guardians of the Galaxy. But thinking practically I can see two very different visions of a future bar in space.

The first is a miners’ bar. A 22nd century working men’s club, though by then I hope the gender balance is a little more even.

It’s a very realistic prospect that we will be mining asteroids before long. Serious investment is already going into companies for whom this is the business model. While much of this difficult, dangerous work is likely to be handled by machines, I think we’ll also need a fair few humans up there. Controlling, repairing and occasionally handling the delicate or complex tasks that the human form and mind is so well adapted for.

Unless there’s a very big change in culture between now and the next century I think these people are likely to want a drink when their shift is over.

If space mining is anything like oil rigs, then drugs and alcohol will be banned at the mine itself. You don’t want someone drunk in charge of a space craft or mining laser. But as the industry grows there may well be a market for a little off-site R&R.

The second bar that would make a lot of sense — at least commercially — is the spaceport lounge. Nothing passes the time between interplanetary transports like a few whisky sours. Since space travel isn’t likely to be cheap (at least in the early days), these are going to be classy places with prices to match.

As someone who travels a lot I can see myself spending time here. Trying hard to temper my drinking so as to induce witty words for my fellow travellers, and maybe a good sleep on the ‘flight’, rather than having to drunkenly flap towards my gate.

Of course, there may be gravity in this notional future: with the asteroid mines up and running there should be plenty of material to construct bigger spinning space stations. The challenge today has been lifting all those heavy construction components out of earth’s gravity. Not a problem if your materials come from space.

The bar would need a great view, obviously. Some of the recent advances in single layer materials should like graphene should enable us to have large expanses of window. Or perhaps more likely, ultra-HD video of the outside view would play through a seamless screen embedded in the walls.

Seating would be interesting. Until there is gravity, a barstool with a seatbelt might have to suffice.

The lighting would need to be dim so as not to distract from the view, and to hide the worst wrinkles of the weary space travellers. There would be a great soundtrack of space-themed tunes. It would be an eclectic mix: everything from Sun Ra to Holst’s ‘The Planets’, Air’s ‘Kelly Watch the Stars’ to Ash’s ‘Girl from Mars’.

In the middle of a technological marvel it would be good to have some old school, analogue humanity at the heart of it. A great bar tender, skilled with the mixing and ready to listen to a traveller’s tales.

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Top 5 News stories: 04/09/2015

Every day on our social media feeds (Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus) we share a variety of stories about technology and the future. These were the five stories that proved most popular with likes, retweets, shares and comments this week.

  1. Adobe Flash just took another step towards death, thanks to Google http://bit.ly/1N74AXH
  2. Googling ‘fun facts’ will quickly ruin your productivity http://engt.co/1FkZNKn
  3. Google’s New Logo http://bit.ly/1fUAaJn
  4. Polaroid’s latest instamatic doesn’t use ink to print photos http://engt.co/1UmcAbp
  5. Is the world running out of space? http://bbc.in/1hxX4r3
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Electric Transport: The Jetsons Factor

Walking the promenade in Spain last week I noticed a lot of electric vehicles. Monocycles, Segways (and clones), and electric bikes. Renault Twizzys and small electric trucks. I realised that while all the attention has been on electric cars, its quite possible we may be missing a more immediate change to our travel behaviours.

In Spain most of the devices I saw were tourist attractions and city services rather than part of people’s daily travel plans. But it’s possible to see these devices becoming much more common in dense urban areas where people often have a compound commute.

Take Manchester, for example. If you live to the south of the city, the chances are your train comes in to Piccadilly station. Manchester has a pretty compact urban centre but from there to the major business district of Spinningfields is a 22 minute walk according to Google. That’s a 1.1 mile walk so Google is assuming an average walking speed of 3mph.*

A SoloWheel electric monocycle (or a good clone thereof) can hit about 10mph. It’s unlikely to be doing that for the whole journey, but 6mph seems a reasonable guess. Given that there’s no parking time needed (you just pick a monowheel up like a briefcase), this could halve your commute saving you 22 minutes per day, or almost two hours per week.

You might be a little doughier around the middle but that is valuable time. And wouldn’t it be an incredibly Jetsons-like vision of the future: lines of commuters speeding silently across the city on their clean little electric wheels?

Of course there are lots of dependencies that would have to be met to make this happen. Though the barriers are falling. While first generation monowheels and similar cost in the thousands, cheap Chinese clones are now coming in at just a few hundred. Cities have woken up to the need for more cycle lanes and pedestrianisation and while the progress is (very) slow, it’s clear there is pressure building. Electric devices could be truly mass market in time to take advantage.

Downsides? Well we all do too little exercise as it is. You’re more likely to do yourself an injury on a monowheel than walking, and ruin that nice suit. And frankly the world could do without the carbon cost of another few million consumer devices. But you never know: in five years our cities could look a lot like a Jetsons scene. Just without the flying.

*Did you know Google Maps takes terrain into account when calculating this? Amazing!

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Why The Future of Digital is Physical

I often have the same conversations many times over. Sometimes they’re with other people, on air or answering questions at a talk. Sometimes they are entirely in my head, as part of a blog post or just a thought process. It means I’m never quite sure what I’ve said and to whom. So forgive me if this is an idea I’ve shared before, but I couldn’t find reference to it on my blog.

There’s a belief in the minds of many of the more mature that young people have given themselves over to the digital realm. That they are more interested in the screen than the sky and that this is somehow inherently damaging. And that they engage indiscriminately without thought to future consequence.

Personally, I think this is nonsense on a number of levels.

Firstly, my own observations of the young people I work with and how they use technology suggests that its primary function is to organise physical engagement — of every type. Why have services like Snapchat and Instagram become so popular? Because they encourage the sharing of your current real-world experience. Facebook is increasingly dominated by videos and photos. Tinder? Well, its success speaks for itself. These tools are being used to organise future real-world experiences and share the ones they have already had.

There is an argument about the narcissistic, show-off culture that drives us to use these tools. And one that says we would be better off enjoying the experience than constantly trying to share it from behind a screen. But to say that young people use digital tools as an alternative to the physical? I think that is increasingly wrong.

Young people’s TV consumption is falling as they consume more digital media on mobile devices and we have to see this as primarily a good thing: they are moving from a passive activity to a more active one, albeit one that carries risks.

Secondly, there is the charge that the young engage indiscriminately online, sharing personal information without a thought for risks. Again I have to say the behaviours I’ve witnessed and the success of private messaging services suggest this is not true.

There was absolutely a generation who were young when social media was an absolute novelty and who embraced it without a second thought. That generation has probably shared a lot of stuff they’d now like to retrieve.

But the generation that followed them is a lot more savvy. Hence the success of Snapchat and less public messaging services like WhatsApp and their diminished use of Facebook. They are careful about what they share, and where they share it.

So what does this say about the future?

Despite the so-far limited success of augmented reality (Google Glass etc), I believe strongly that we will increasingly see the physical and digital worlds merge as more items are connected and our interfaces to them become more natural and human. Our digital interactions will become more subtle: conversation and gestures, colours and vibrations, head up, not head down. We will become better at receiving, filtering and responding to information via multiple sensory channels. We’re capable: just look at how we deal with all of the information flying at us when driving a car at speed.

Young people aren’t lost in some cyber netherworld. They’re mapping out our increasingly physical, digital future.

Tom Cheesewright