News & Comment

2017 March 1 - Joined Up Business Announce Ideation Toolkit

Ideation is one of the most difficult processes to manage.   Creativity does not come on tap; entire projects may be shelved because of an apparently intractable problem.   History shows that some of these intractable problems actually had simple solutions.   Joined Up Business' Ideation Toolkit provides a number of techniques and concepts that can help break through 'insoluble' problems.   The toolkit will initially be available to staff and customers; it is expected to be published in our book on Design Thinking due out next year.

2015 December 10 - NetRexx celebrates its 20th anniversary

NetRexx, arguably the world's best programming language is 20 today.   The NetRexx programming language is the most intuitive language for building cross platform programs that run on the Java environment.

The original language Rexx, now known as Classic Rexx, was born in the mainframe world in the late 1970s and quickly amassed a core of devotees who wanted to program in a non bureaucratic language that is easy to master.   It was often called "IBMs biggest secret", not because IBM wanted only its own developers to benefit from it, but because it was never a marketing priority.   Rexx was gradually ported to other big blue platforms, and clones appeared on a variety of operating systems, but its achilles heel was lack of portability.

The Java cross-platform environment provided the ideal solution to this problem.   NetRexx was created to take advantage of this opportunity and to provide the language with the benefits of object orientation.   Although IBM allowed free download of NetRexx, it was not given the promotion it deserved and its user's tended to be former Rexx programmers who had seen the light, than folks from the Java or unix worlds.

After years of negotiations, on the 8th June 2011, IBM handed NetRexx over to the Rexx Language Association (RexxLA) to promote as Open Source under the ICU License.   The RexxLA, which promotes other versions of Rexx, will soon be offering NetRexx version 3 at a dedicated site www.netrexx.org.

[Rexx languages are preferred technology at Joined Up Business.]


2015 April 26 - World Intellectual Property Day

National patenting agencies use the day to promote themselves, often under the umbrella of promoting innovation. What they don’t advertise is their huge backlogs of unexamined patent applications, or the ridiculous requirement to file duplicate patents, at great expense, in each separate country. What you’ll not find on their websites is the admission that novel businesses are risky; with uncertain earnings many, if not most inventors, find that the difficulties presented by the patenting regime are too high and their innovation is stopped dead.

If we really want our inventors to be able to earn a living from their work, if we really want more innovative companies, if we really want the economy to grow from innovative companies, we need to change the patent regime. Some politicians have tried, but without sufficient support from their colleagues progress has been slow or non-existent.


2011 October 6 - Steve Jobs died Wednesday

Steve Jobs, inspiration behind Apple, died yesterday after a long fight with cancer. Steve took his company from his garage on a journey of innovation to become the world's largest and most respected corporation.

Steve Jobs, the Design Thinker, Steve Wazniak, the technical wizard, and Ronald Wayne (later replaced by Mike Markkula), the financier, founded Apple on Fools day, 1976. Each of the founders provided an essential ingredient for the fledgling business.

'Professional management' was brought in to strengthen Apple. When Apple's fortunes went into decline in the 1980's it was not the Apple Lisa, backed by the board that saved the day, but a product produced by the renegade Steve Jobs; the Macintosh.

In 1985 Jobs was ousted from Apple in a turf war, and founded NeXT Computer to create an operating system with the next generation of GUI interface and object orientation as the underlying technology. I'm pleased that I played my small part in helping to make NeXT's user interface arguably the best in the world. Although it was an outstanding technical success, it was ahead of its time, not achieving the sales that the slick and capable machines deserved.

During the 1990's Apple's operating system had become dated, lacking fundamental features such as multitasking. Consequently, Apple's fortunes slid. In 1997 Apple purchased NeXT to acquire Job's software technology, with Jobs becoming Apple's CEO. NeXT's operating system was reincarnated as Apple's new operating system OSX. Jobs restructured Apple's product line, and created new channels to market (Apple Stores, App Store, iTunes), delivering continued growth and ground braking product after product.

Steve Jobs demonstrated the ability of Design Thinkers; he was interested in both detail AND the bigger picture. His passion for getting details right can be illustrated by a phone call to Vic Gundotra (Mr Google+). Jobs saw that the color gradient on the second 'o' in Google's logo didn't look right on the iPhone; Jobs offered the expertise of one of his staff and instigated an immediate fix; sorting out the logo of another company so that it looks right when viewed on your products is one hell of a detail. There is no doubt that Jobs was also abundantly clear about the bigger picture, not just for Apple, but the industry. Having your company transform its industry is a Design Thinking hallmark.

Design Thinkers notice what others don't, including flaws. Jony Ive is the British born Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple. When his team laid out a number of prototypes for Steve to view, one had a small flaw, perhaps not easily noticeable to most. It was the flaw that immediately drew Steve's attention. This is a skill not limited to appearances; the ability to spot anomalies, whether in a marketing plan or a user interface saves costly mistakes and improves product quality.

Instead of doing the usual corporate thing, backing a safe strategy, perhaps put together by 'management consultants', to provide the short-term returns loved by financial analysts, Design Thinkers favor long-term, design led innovations that produce disruptive products, ie products that rapidly change the market. That is exactly what Steve Jobs has done throughout his career.

Design Thinkers make quick and decisive decisions based on their ability to see what others don't, ie using intuition rather than research, and relying on personal vision instead of consensus thinking (which tends to be conservative). They do use research and development to develop new technologies and methods, but R&D is always directed by their insight.

Design Thinkers are inventive, and Jobs was no exception with 230 registered patents, not just for IT devices and user interfaces, but also staircases, clasps, sleeves and lanyards.

Design Thinkers look for perfection in everything the business does. As Jobs himself said "Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren't used to an environment where excellence is expected" "..we're always trying to do better".

There is no doubt in my mind that Jobs was a Design Thinker. Apple's brand is the most highly valued brand in the world without Apple having done much to promote it, and arguably paved the way for similar brands such as Apricot (computers), Egg (online bank), and Tomato (chinese bank, british design company, Croatian mobile phone operator). The Apple brand was Job's idea and confirms his (perhaps unwitting) foresight in using a simple and memorable brand name and logo. Coupled with a distinctive corporate culture and product portfolio, the brand is an enduring success. Perhaps one of Apple's own slogans sums it up, and nails Job's Design Thinking credentials to the mast, "Think Different".

C Birch

2011 August 15 - UK Broadband rollout misses an oportunity

Today the UK Government allocated funding to local authorities to deliver superfast broadband to rural areas by 2015. A worthy aim, but this is already delayed from an earlier government commitment to deliver universal courage by 2012. Are councils, who only seem efficient when compared to other tax funded institutions, the right organisations to make this happen?

The real problem is the 'last mile', the subscriber lines from the telephone exchanges to customers. In rural locations subscriber lines may be up to ten miles in length; slow broadband can only be transmitted four miles over standard copper telephone lines. To provide genuine superfast broadband we need to replace copper with fibre optic cable, a huge task, but essential if the UK is to become Europe's digital leader.

All the rapid improvements in the nations infrastructure were delivered, not by the public sector, but by private enterprise; canals, railways, and mobile phone networks were all originally built by private companies. Proper 'superfast' Broadband could be rolled out in a couple of years if the power of free enterprise were unleashed.

There are many companies in the UK who either have the competence to lay fibre optic now, or could quickly gain that capability. A mile from where I am sitting is a company that make control panels for industrial equipment, including pipelines. They run cables as required to pumps and sensors that may be many miles apart. They, and many companies like them, could be part of the solution, generating employment in the process.

Private companies are prevented from providing fibre subscriber lines, partly by a lack of access to telephone exchanges to connect into the national infrastructure, partly by a lack of connection standards, and partly by the economics of competing with the ready built copper lines.

The incumbent owner of Britian's telephone exchanges guarded its effective monopoly jealously. Despite legislation designed to open up exchanges, BT was seen to protect its monopoly. Overcoming the dominance and lethargy of the incumbent supplier is still a major challenge.

Freeing enterprise to deliver the next generation of telecom infrastructure will require, not legislation to 'unbundle' subscriber lines, which did little to replace copper, but to create a market where it is in every company's interest to cooperate with companies in different telecom segments. Competent companies of all sorts would then find it profitable to go out there and install 'the last mile'.

This could be achieved by segmenting the existing market. To prevent a dominant company in one segment from using its position to block competitors in another segment, no company would be allowed to compete in more than one segment. Segments might include Subscriber Lines, Exchanges, Wholesale Lines running between exchanges, and Telecom Services (voice and data services).

Exchange operators would make their money by supplying services to line wholesalers and subscriber line operators (cable companies); they would have a vested interest in offering an excellent, accessible, and cost effective service. Wholesalers would make their money by charging telecom and other service providers for transmitted content. Under the changes, BT would probably opt to operate as a telecoms company (supplying branded telecoms services to end customers) rather than operating physical infrastructure.

We need a digital transmission standard that allows all services to be conducted over fibre. We've been here before. At the beginning of the 1980's, British homes had to rent their telephone equipment from a state owned monopoly, and the service was poor (customers had to wait months for new connections). Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher freed up the telecoms market by splitting up the state provider and standardising on a new telephone socket that allowed end users to buy their own telephone equipment and just plug it in.

What we need now is a similar liberalisation, this time digital. We need a new socket into which customers can plug their own equipment and use without the hassle of configuration that we have today. This time the socket should be purely digital, and allow the connection of computers, televisions, digital telephones, radios, and more. Adapters that convert between digital data and analogue signals would allow existing analogue devices to be used until they are replaced by the user with today's digital technology.

There should be another type of standardised 'socket' at telephone exchanges. Private cabling companies would then be able to easily plug their 'last mile' of cable into the exchange, either as a single line (eg for a business customer), or a fibre containing a 'bundle' of interleaved traffic for many customers. The cable companies would be able to charge a rental for their subscriber lines, and service providers would charge for their content or through-connection.

The existing copper 'last mile' should be separated off into a legacy company with the mission of maximising the value of assets and running down obsolete connections in an orderly fashion. Where the last mile is underground, the conduits could be auctioned off to the new cable companies. Existing telegraph poles and lines could be sold off to communications companies where they are able to use them, eg for linking up transmitters used by taxi companies and emergency services. Copper subscriber lines would be run down, and removed for recycling when redundant.

To overcome the economic short-term hurdle of competing with existing infrastructure, it would make sense for Government to improve the economics for installing fibre. For instance, VAT on fibre rental could be zero rated until the cut over is complete.

However, we are where we are, and councils with government grants are talking about using part of the already cluttered radio spectrum to provide the 'last mile'. Although this is the cheapest method of covering ground, bandwidth limitations will prevent it being 'super fast'. Yet again, there is a difference between government rhetoric 'superfast' and what may be delivered a 'minimum of 2MB'.

The question is, which councils will try and deliver an improvement by contracting companies to deliver centrally planned services, and which will use the money to enable the provision of genuine super fast broadband by improving the local subscriber line market?

[Joined Up Business have supplied management services to the telecoms sector, including for local loop unbundling.]

2011 July 6 - McLaren to make a fortune by Design Thinking

The McLaren MP4 12C is McLaren Automotive's 200mph carbon fibre sports car powered by a 3.8 litre V8 engine, and retails for £168,500.   Even though the car was only launched days ago, the first year's production has already been sold.

It is not just the car that has been well designed.   McLaren have used Design Thinking to design the business operation.   Ron Dennis, Executive Chairman of the Group describes the company as "a winning machine", "The driving force is to be the best in the world".

McLaren have designed a world beating product based on Formula One racing technology such as the carbon fibre monocell chassis and 'brake steer' where the inside rear wheel is braked during fast cornering to reduce understeer.   Even with its racing credentials the vehicle is fuel efficient with low CO2 emissions.

Design Thinking approaches were used to ensure excellent customer service.   McLaren have not just found dealers with an exemplary record; "we began planning our distribution strategy at the earliest point in the whole project" recalls Antony Sheriff, Managing Director.   In choosing dealers we "met their service technicians, watched how they treated their customers...".   "This was not just a plan to be run from the centre," explained Greg Levine, Sales and Marketing Director, "Our desire was to fully understand each market by being there; touching and feeling the environment, talking to dealers and customers.   The aim was to physically understand what we needed in terms of a design for each dealership".

A McLaren innovation is that EVERY part for the new car is held in stock by EVERY dealership, in what McLaren calls the 'pitstop' service concept.   If a product or service problem can not be fixed locally, a regional after sales manager is available 24 hours a day to travel to the dealership.   If that does not fix the problem, 'flying doctors' based at Woking will fly anywhere in the world to resolve the issue.   If a car can not be fixed locally, McLaren is committed to returning the car to the factory.

McLaren's Production Centre and Technology Centre are located in Woking, Britian, and, are again, the result of careful design.   They look more like science fiction film sets than today's work place.   The training of dealership staff will all take place in Woking, where they will physically participate in the production process to help imbibe the ethos of the brand.

People are an integral part of the "winning team".   As people arrive they walk down long white corridors "..we clean peoples feet as they come in by going down different surface finishes but we don't only do it with regards people's feet, we try and do it with their minds as well." says Ron emphasising the need for a mentally hygienic attitude.   "Why would you expect to make a perfect product in an imperfect environment?" he asks.

Typically, excellent quality and service levels for high value products trickle down to the broader market.   It remains to be seen which mainstream manufacturers duplicate this approach.

2011 June 8 - The best programming language in the world

IBM has finally open sourced the best programming language in the world.   The NetRexx programming language is the most intuitive language for building cross platform programs that run on the Java environment.

The original language Rexx, now known as Classic Rexx, was born in the mainframe world in the late 1970s and quickly amassed a core of devotees who wanted to program in a non bureaucratic language that is easy to master.   It was often called "IBMs biggest secret", not because IBM wanted only its own developers to benefit from it, but because it was never a marketing priority.   Rexx was gradually ported to other big blue platforms, and clones appeared on a variety of operating systems, but its achilles heel was lack of portability.

The Java cross-platform environment provided the ideal solution to this problem.   NetRexx was created to take advantage of this opportunity and to provide the language with the benefits of object orientation.   Although IBM allowed free download of NetRexx, it was not given the promotion it deserved and its user's tended to be former Rexx programmers who had seen the light, than folks from the Java or unix worlds.

After years of negotiations, on the 8th June, IBM handed NetRexx over to the Rexx Language Association (RexxLA) to promote as Open Source under the ICU License.   The RexxLA, which promotes other versions of Rexx, will soon be offering NetRexx version 3 at a dedicated site www.netrexx.org.

[Rexx languages are preferred technology at Joined Up Business.]