31 March 2010

Looking for our corporate values

As part of our recent rebranding, we were all sent this word search as the wallpaper for our PCs. It contains our new corporate values, can you find them?

You should have found "committed", "innovative" and "open", but did you also find "revenge"?

Obviously nobody involved in the production of the puzzle did (apart from the embittered employee in the agency who was, I presume, responsible for the prank) and this was rolled out to staff before it was spotted and quickly, and embarrassingly, replaced.

It just goes to show that even with something as simple as a little quiz it pays to do some checking.

29 March 2010

LIKE 12 - No more consultants

LIKE leaped purposefully and confidently in to its second year with a talk facilitated by Chris Collison that took a gallop through some of the main points in his latest book, No more consultants.

My hopefully not too simplistic summary of his argument is that organisations too often turn to external consultants when they already have the required skills and knowledge within the company.

Of course, knowing that you have these skills and knowledge is one thing but finding them and exploiting them is another.

Chris covered this in as much detail as his 45 slot allowed and we had an instructive run through maturity models (decide what is important to you and ways to measure how good you are at it), the river model (which summarises each team's self assessment against the model) and some tips for getting those with the skills and knowledge to share with those who need it the most.

Chris' talk was rich in content, well paced and delivered with creditability (it was practice not theory) and it set the evening up nicely.

What followed was some food, more drink and lots of conversations. And I mean a lot of conversations.

The semi-official end of the meeting was 8pm but only a few left then and the debate was still going strong at 9pm.

And it was still going pretty well when I finally left around 10pm!

If you can judge the success of an individual LIKE meeting by the time that it ends then you can judge the success of the whole venture by the number of people left on the waiting list for the meetings and LIKE is now looking for a larger venue. Success indeed.

27 March 2010

Lots of laughs in London Assurance

I tend to get my theatre fix from the Orange Tree locally but an offer through work tempted me to go and see London Assurance at the National Theatre on the mere premise that it is a comedy and had Richard Briers in it.

It has been a long three years since I last went to the NT (for Coram Boy) but I found it refreshingly familiar with its interesting and unusual spaces created between brutal but beautiful blocks of concrete and its many terraces offering views across South London and the Thames.

However, I had forgotten the layout of the Olivier Theatre where the steeply raked seats meant that the person in front's head was about the same level as my knees. No worries about being able to see here!

London Assurance is a simple comedy that revolves around late middle-aged Sir Harcourt Courtly who is engaged to the eighteen year old Grace Harkaway for purely commercial reasons.

The first complication comes from Sir Harcourt's son, Charles, who also falls for Grace and the second comes from the larger than life fox hunting demon Lady Gay Spanker who catches Sir Harcourt's eye.

Farcical elements are introduced through Charles adopting a (very faint) disguise and from a local lawyer who keeps stirring things up in the hope of earning a fee.

The play dates from 1841 and so a lot of the comedy arises from the familiar platforms of class and the contrasts between town and country. This still works well despite the lack of resonance with today's world. I wonder how long this will last before we have a generation who simply do not understand the world that is being portrayed.

The humour, and there is lots of it, comes both from script and the acting which deliberately verges on melodrama. I especially enjoyed Grace (Michelle Terry) playing hard to get so that we the audience all knew what was going on but poor Charles was left bemused.

London Assurance is a solid comedy that is well presented by the NT and while it is never spectacular it is never weak either and the combination of play and venue made it a thoroughly enjoyable night out.

23 March 2010

Business Analysis: Theory and Practice

It had been quite a few years since I went to a British Computer Society meeting (my techie days are long behind me) but I was tempted to go to one on business transformation in local government.

It was a meeting in two halves and my reaction to these was quite different.

First up we had Debbie Paul giving us Business Analysis 101. This was a bit basic but was obviously useful to the techies, i.e. most people there, who are more used to dealing with boxes and code than business processes and people.

I had no real complaints over this part, as demonstrated by the lack of the usual derogatory comments in my notebook. I would argue that some of what was described crept from Business Analysis in to Business Consulting (this is where I think Business Change sits) but there is no point in arguing over imprecise terms so I was happy to let this ride.

In the second half of the talk James Archer gave a detailed explanation of a current project where some Business Analysis techniques were used.

There were some good parts to the story but it brought back too many bad memories from Lambeth of how bad local government is.

In particular, the project was not that ambitious, it was little more than a new web site, but it had still taken almost a year to get to the initial, and not yet working, release.

And secondly, the approach seemed to be well behind the latest thinking. For example, they had made the step of realising that they should describe their care homes in as much detail as their hostels but had completely missed that the current expectation is to include user feedback too. Sites like Amazon and Trip Advisor have done this for years and, frankly, this should be a minimum requirement these days.

The speaker was sincere, enthusiastic and knowledgeable but I felt that he was trapped in a small cage without seeing the bars.

The evening ended well with some networking over unexpected wine and nibbles which probably did just about enough to tempt me back to another BCS event if they ever stray into Business Consulting territory again.

21 March 2010

Couch politics

I've not been on any marches or attended any political meetings recently but I quick tram through my in-box this weekend reminded me of just how many campaigns I am currently engaged in from the comfort of my IKEA Poang chair.

All of these campaigns exploit web2.0 technologies to reach people and enable them to join in my, for example, signing petitions and email their MPs.

The Libel Reform Campaign is defending free speech that are under serious threat from our draconian libel laws. These are being used well beyond their original intent to silence critics who do not have the financial mussel to stand up to the large corporations.

Simon Singh's fracas with the British Chiropractic Association is the public face of the issue currently but his is only a symptom of a much larger problem that now has international cases seeking to bring libel claims in the UK because the chances of winning and the benefits of doing so are so much greater.

Similarly, the Open Rights Group campaigns to defend freedom of expression, privacy, innovation, consumer rights and creativity on the internet.

One of their current campaigns is against the Digital Economy Bill that is currently going through Parliament.

As it stands now, the Bill, if passed into law, will allow disconnection, web blocking and could well see the death of open wifi.

The internet is such a great resource because of it's openness, this bill would try to reduce some of this and make us all poorer as a result.

The Robin Hood Tax is trying to do what it says on the tin - take money from the rich to give it to the poor.

In this case the rich are the banks who started the recession and required bailouts from the Government just to survive but, just a year later, are making vast sums of money and paying a lot of it to themselves in the form of bonuses.

The proposed tax on financial transactions would only be 0.05% but could raise 100bn a year to spend on the poor, here and abroad, and to develop solutions to climate change etc.

It's a simple idea and one whose time has come with the (justified) unpopularity of bankers and the need to address global issues like poverty.

The Conservatives are warm to the idea so this is one campaign that has a real chance of winning.

Vote for a Change is looking to make our politicians more accountable by changing the way that we vote for them.

Currently the majority of MPs have little or no real opposition, only a few seats are marginal, and they have abused this position as clearly demonstrated by the expenses scandal.

There are lots of arguments on precisely which form of voting system we should move to but any change has surely got to be a change for the better.

Greener upon Thames is a local environmental campaign on one simple issue - stop the use of disposable plastic shopping bags.

I am amazed at how many of these useless bags are given out in my local shops without either the retailers or customers paying them much attention or any regard for what they are doing to the environment.

Reusable bags are easy to get (I have lots!) but are nothing like as popular here as they are, say, Germany or Denmark.

This is an easy problem to solve, we just need to motivate politicians, retailers and the general public to do so.

20 March 2010

Satyagraha back at the ENO (it was great!)

Either somebody has been playing around with my blog postings or it really is three years since I last saw Philip Glass' Satyagraha at the ENO.

I said then that a Philip Glass opera was unmissable and it still is and so I didn't!

The production was the same, and not much has happened to the theatre either, I also suspect that I sat in the Dress Circle last time too, but a second visit did offer more than the first.

The ENO itself impressed more than the first time (perhaps I was in a better seat after all) and I had little to complain about regarding the facilities. Finding Czech beer was good.

This was followed by finding a Czech couple who I know from the BCSA who provided some intellectual conversation prior to the performance.

The seating was better than I reported last time, the view was excellent and the audience where not the rowdy crowd that blighted Aida at ENO a little while ago. Good omens then.

The programme describes Satyagraha as a meditation upon Mahatma Gandhi’s early years in South Africa and it presents a series of images and scenes rather than a story. A musical tableau if you like.

With no story to detract you (and therefore no sur titles either) you can concentrate on the musical and visual feast played out before you.

As before, some of the scenes made little sense (not that this mattered and sense may not have been the intention either) and I still have no idea what the cellophane was all about!

The feast was served in three courses, each comprising a few dishes chosen to complement each other. These were linked by some common themes, notably newspaper, and by the hypnotic music. All these delights were spread out over a leisurely and luxurious three hours.

Some of my favourite treats were the ensemble singing with coats floating in the air at the end of the first course, the opening of the second course with the gentlemen having the shoes shined while singing some familiar Glass non-words, and the haunting close with just the soloists.

It was a juicy, bouncy, creamy evening with plenty to enjoy and absolutely nothing to detract from the pleasure. I just hope that it is not another three year wait before the next Philip Glass opera.

19 March 2010

Discovering hidden London

Even after all these years I still get great pleasure from simply walking around London. The usual excuse for the walk is the commute to/from the office and the lunchtime stroll to get a sarnie.

I vary my routes so that I explore new places and I delight in find new treasures and in rediscovering old one. I could fill a large album with the things I've enjoyed this year alone but let's just focus on a couple.

The former Daimler garage in Herbrand Street, hidden just off Russell Square, is a wonderful example of the clean lines tinged with Egyptian influence that make art deco buildings so special.

This building is approaching its eightieth birthday but its class shines through to make it stand out proudly, or even arrogantly, against its lesser neighbours.

The next choice is some street art, something that is quite hard to find in most parts of London. Brixton is a notable exception and is worth going to just for its murals.

This is a close-up of a mural in Edward Square in Copenhagen Street painted on the side of a house. It's just around the corner from my office in Kings Place but it still took me a year to find!

The painting commemorates a march in the nearby Copenhagen Fields in 1834 in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

All the characters were based on local people, an excellent idea for fostering community interest and pride.

Turning the daily commute and the chore of getting lunch in to journeys of exploration add interest, excitement and learning to the day. I thoroughly recommend it!

18 March 2010

Managing flooding in Kingston

The Kingston upon Thames Society continues to serve up a tempting feast of meetings each month.

This month's meeting examined what is being done to reduce the risk of, and impact of, flooding in the area which is a hot topic for various reasons, not just climate change.

The talk was given by Graham Piper Project Manager, Lower Thames Strategy, Environment Agency who, as you would hope from his job title, knows a lot about the subject.

His presentation covered a lot of ground in welcome detail and while the dark implications of a major flooding event hung over the meeting there was certainly some optimism too.

The planning has moved on in recent years from just showing which areas will be flooded to showing the order in which roads will flood.

This simple bit of extra information helps plan evacuation routes etc. and so will help to reduce the impact of the floods when they come.

There are also some major works planned to reduce (not remove) the risk of flooding which essentially come down to allowing the water get to the sea faster by cutting diversion channels and increasing the capacity of the river, particularly as the weirs.

The only black spot in the evening was when we were told that a 1 in 20 year event has a 5% chance of happening each other. While it might seem that 1/20 in the same as 5% it is not. In fact if something has a 5% chance of happening a year then it is more likely than not to happen in 14 years (0.95**14 = 0.49). I did ask if they meant 5% or 1/20 but they did not understand the question so I did not get an answer.

At least the evening ended on a high point when I made contact with some other people there who had also joined the recently formed Friends of Ham Lands. And the ending note got even higher when they mentioned a great web site with lots of photos of Ham and I had to admit that it was mine!

16 March 2010

An early visit to Ham House

I normally only go to Ham House once or twice a year on special occasions, i.e. when it is free to enter! I'm not particularly mean (honest) but it is on the small side for a stately home and so there is not that much to see in the gardens to justify the entrance fee.

But now the good news.

I have been a member of the Arts Fund for several years and now that gets me free entry to some National Trust properties, including Ham House. I took advantage of this today making a flying visit (less than an hour away from home from start to finish) by bike to enjoy the gardens in the early spring sun.

The gardens are my favourite art of Ham House and they are nicely laid out in different sections providing a range of colours, shapes, smells, and experiences. And my favourite favourite place is the former Cherry Garden on the east side of the house which is now resplendent in lavender, box and yew.

The best thing about going this early in the year is that there were few people there (and most of these were clustered around the cafe) which meant that I was free to take lots of photos without having to worry about bright red coats ruining the shot.

14 March 2010

Another fun BCSA social

The monthly BCSA socials are another regular fixture on my social calendar :-)

They are held at the Czechoslovak National House in West Hampstead on the second Wednesday of each month and attract a mix of regulars and newcomers who just want an evening in convivial surroundings with the boost of Czech/Slovak food and drink.

In this regard I am a creature of habit choosing to drink draught Pilsner Urquell and to eat smazeny syr (fried cheese), shown here mid-course mainly because I forgot to take a photo earlier!

The conversations were many, easy and relaxed. They were also mostly held in English which helped me!

People tend to assume that I speak Czech/Slovak (not unreasonably given the circumstances and location) and I always feel a little embarrassed to admit that my only language is English and I would not claim any great proficiency in that either.

These socials are on an open-house basis, i.e. people can come and go at any time during the evening, and it is always gratifying to see how many of us find ourselves hurrying at closing time to catch the last train home. It's a fair bet that I'll be doing this again next month!

13 March 2010

Open Mike night at the Grey Horse

The open mike nights at the Grey Horse have become a regular feature in my busy social schedule because a friend of mine plays there, other friends like to hear the music too and it's a good pub in which to while a way an evening.

This was my third night there in the last couple of months and the mix of musicians has been different every time.

This time most of the artists were soloists who were joined by one duo and a proper band (pictured) with five members.

As before, the songs were a mix of covers familiar and unknown plus a few written by the performers. It was good to hear some songs made famous by Simon and Garfunkle and some other sing-along favourites, including a French version of Mad World (Monde Fou).

Of course it was not all good, this is an amateur open mike night so you expect a bit of the bland and the awful but nothing was bad enough for long enough to upset the pleasant flow of the evening or to deter me from going again next month.

12 March 2010

The Promise at the Orange Tree

The Promise is the least impressive play that I can recall seeing at the Orange Tree, but it is sold out so what do I know?

The promise in question is that given by the British Government to the Jews in the form of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The play gives us a glimpse in to the players, motives and actions that led towards the eventual creation of Israel and, arguably, the mess that the Middle East is in now.

And that's about it.

The play is tense and well acted but it is little more than a patchy history lesson with a love interest thrown in that may, or may not, have been true.

Perhaps it was a metaphor that I missed or a famous scandal that I did not know about but, either way, it just confused the play and the only theatrical device it seemed to deploy was to get some eye candy on the stage.

I was not sure how much history I was meant, or needed, to know either.

It took me a while to work out who the Prime Minister was and there were passing references to things like "Churchill" and "Gallipoli" which were not fully explained.

I found most of the characterisation slight too. The reason for zeal of the Zionist who was the driving force behind the declaration was clear but it was not at all obvious why Balfour supported it, why a Jewish member of the Cabinet was so against it, how Asquith ever became PM or why the floozie got involved with the men she did.

If this all sounds negative, it is only because I am comparing The Promise to everything else that I have seen and loved at the Orange Tree. The Promise is a well sustained drama that informs and entertains but, in the end, it fails to inspire or delight.

9 March 2010

Safeguarding2.0 - making children safer

I'd like to tell you about one of the best meetings that I have ever been to; and it was for a good cause too.

Safeguarding2.0 is an initiative, seeded by FutureGov, that is looking to see how/if web2.0 technologies can be used to help make children safer. Playing chess on Facebook is great fun but can we do something really useful with the same technologies?!

I got involved in the initial scoping workshop, thanks to a Twitter friend (a twend?!), back in August and last week we returned to the LGiU to get an update on the project and to suggest some future directions.

Around the table we had an impressive mix of people involved in different aspects of safeguarding and/or web2.0 and it was this mix that made the meeting so good. I judge the success of a meeting by how much I say (am I engaged and contributing?) and how many notes I take (am I learning?) and this scored heavily on both points. One of the purposes of writing this article is to try and crystallize some of those learnings.

Scoping the problem

As a consultant, my natural instinct is to draw diagrams and preferably a 2x2 matrix but so far I've not managed to get below 3x3 when describing the key factors.

1) The child's needs are clearly central to the debate and here I suggested that we should invert the familiar needs triangle that shows the neediest children at the top where the triangle is thinnest. If we invert it then the thick end mirrors the physical case file and shows that the needs (and risks) are greater and more agencies are involved with more interventions.

2) The age of the child is important as that drives things like the balance of input from the child and the family and the agencies involved, e.g. schools.

3) There are a range of stakeholders involved that goes something like Child > Family > Peers > Professionals > Community (not convinced that's a linear progression though) and each of these plays different roles and so could be helped in different ways. For example, professionals could benefit from better ways of sharing information and the community could benefit from being able to raise concerns.


A number of light bulbs flashed for me during the meeting, this is just some of them.

Story telling is what matters. and face to face communication is needed in order to tell the full story about the more complex cases, notes in a case file won't do it.

Most, if not all, of our processes and technologies are based on our bureaucratic view of the world which often does not match the client's. For example, we insist on formal meetings at set times whereas they prefer to communicate by text message when the mood is right for them.

Spreadsheets and reports from IT systems present a flat view of the world (unlike the bulging case file). There is a need to use some clever data visualization to better encapsulate a case.

If we can do FixMyStreet, why can't we do FixMyCommunity?

We need to find a way to include positive messages in any improved communications. If we just report concerns and bad observations then we'll get swamped in negativity. If a child at risk comes to school beaming and saying what a great weekend they had then we need to capture this too.

Networks are more efficient that hierarchies in dealing with complex situations but you need some sort of hierarchy to get accountability.

Social Workers have made the choice of working with people, not computers, and we should understand and respect this.

Some possible solutions

A few specific ideas came to mind in the discussion but these are just scratching at the surface of what could be done. Some of these are quick and easy whereas others are much more difficult and would probably require Government support.

An iPhone app for social workers could keep track of their contacts for each case and their appointments etc. while out of the office.

A Twitter-live application (there had to be one!) to enable low-level conversations between professionals so that they can share the sort of gossip they would have if they shared a workplace, possibly with some sort of read-only-once technology to address data protection concerns.

A self-help website for older children along the lines of PatientsLikeMe (this TEDtalk shows how it works).

A FixMyCommunity website that allows the general public to notify authorities of concerns they have for vulnerable people, young or old. Obviously there are lots of ways that this could be abused so it's not an easy option but the benefits could be great.

Virtual meetings (chat, video, text, etc.) to enable children to engage with professionals in a way and at a time that suits them.

Story analysis (this may be what SenseMaker does) to determine patterns from stories and so improve risk analysis.

End note

I think that this project has a good chance of delivering real and important benefits and I am very pleased and a little proud to be associated with it.

8 March 2010

be brilliant together

Our new branding was launched today.

It's more than images, it's the way we behave and the way we work with our clients; it's awesome, fun, challenging, risky and positive.

7 March 2010

Kew orchids

It's great when plans work out well!

A tweet on Friday reminded me that today (Sunday 7 March) was the last day of the Tropical Extravaganza at Kew Gardens and somebody I met on Ham Parade on Saturday morning recommended the event so the decision was made to go on Sunday morning.

Kew Gardens opens at 9:30 every day so a prompt start was possible and the sunny (if cold) morning made it welcome so the alarm was set, a quick breakfast was had and the briefest run was enough to catch the 65 bus that goes directly to Kew.

Kew Gardens is a large rambling garden with many places of interest but the orchids were the reason for going this time so the place to be was the Princess of Wales Conservatory with a stunning display of colours welcomed the brave visitors.

The Conservatory has many sections over spread over several levels and connected by confusing paths; it's an explorer's delight. At the heart is a water feature (with an aggressive looking cat fish patrolling to keep the children alert) with plenty of space above for the exotic plants to grow into. Here the orchids were the most numerous, the most colourful and the most impressive.

I last wrote about Kew Gardens eight months ago and complained then that I had not been for nine months and I vowed to go more frequently. I could claim that going there a mere eight months later is an improvement but I am now considering getting annual membership to force me to go more often. We'll see how that one works out!

4 March 2010

Why projects are unimportant

I have been working in a project based environment for all of my working life (and I've got formal qualifications in project management) so it was bit of a surprise when, during a conversation with a colleague this afternoon, the revelation came that projects are pretty unimportant.

A project is just that little bit of work that sits between the long past when things were broken and the long future when they are fixed. It's a thin layer in a thick sandwich so has little impact overall.

A holiday metaphor may help to explain this.

We work for months on end getting tired, bored, frustrated and taken for granted. The solution is a good holiday, say two weeks on a sunny beach in the Caribbean. The project is the journey that takes us away from our home and to our holiday.

Of course it is important that the journey gets us to the holiday but within that broad definition of success there is much that can go wrong that, in the end does not really matter. The journey is going to be painful anyway, nobody likes spending time in airports, and it is not a material difference if the flight is delayed for a few hours or even if we end up in a different hotel from the one we booked.

The trial and tribulations of the journey are soon forgotten and we set about enjoying the holiday that we planned. By the end of the holiday the poor journey there is immaterial and our talk is of the fantastic days spent hugging the beach bar, paragliding or snorkeling with colourful fish.

And it's the same with projects. They are a necessary evil to get you to where you want to go but you do not need to be too precise about how or when you get there, or even on where there is.

The focus should always be on making the most of being there, not on getting there.

1 March 2010

LIKE 11 - Taxonomies in an open world

The London Information and Knowledge Exchange (LIKE) meetings are my favourite KM meetings at the moment because they are stimulating, convivial, well organised and held regularly.

The last event, LIKE11, celebrated a year of these events and it is a testament to how quickly they have established themselves as part of the KM scene that it seems as though they have been going much longer than this.

The various KM groups have some subtle differences in their make-up, though many people like myself belong to several groups, and LIKE has a slight leaning towards librarianship which was reflected in the topic under discussion, taxonomies.

I have a growing, if slightly grudging, respect for taxonomies so jumped quickly to book one of the limited places available (these meetings are always fully booked).

We were given a thorough tour of the relevance of, and issues with, taxonomies (and folksonomies) by the erudite and knowledgeable Fran Alexander who has the wonderful title of Taxonomy Manager at the BBC.

Fran peppered her talk with examples of how BBC researchers rely on taxonomies to find information that could not be found through a Google search.

The main point is that a Google search works well only if you know what it is you are looking for, and research is not like that. A taxonomy lets you approach a topic top-down and to gradually drill in to the detail of what you are looking for.

And in doing this it lets you explore topics that are closely related to the one that you are interested in. For example, if doing research on Porsche cars it is useful to know that the racing model 935 is based on the road model 911.

The interesting point was made that encyclopedias, and dictionaries, enabled serendipitous discovery by having unrelated (other than by alphabet) articles on the same page. This learning possibility is lost if you are presented with thousands of articles all on the same subject.

As with the TFPL meeting just two days previously, I was left with the thought that there is still much value in traditional Information Management skills, tools and techniques.

LIKE has had a fantastic first year and I look forward to more excellent meetings like this one in the second year and beyond.