Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Does IP law really help creativity?

Yesterday I attended the Glasgow edition of “Business is Great Britain” - a ‘Global Business Summit on Creative Content’. The event took place in London byu I attended one of the satellite events in this case the Glasgow arm organised by the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce where we were treated to a streamed version of the London event.

As it championed all things creative in Britain I couldn't help be struck by the irony of an event that began with Sir Howard Stringer, Chairman of Sony Corp, extolling the importance and centrality of intellectual property and copyright protection to the on going success creative industries and then to sit for at least two session in the morning when the content couldn't be broadcast from London to Glasgow “for copyright reasons”.

It was harder to imagine a more striking demonstration as to how unsuited intellectual property law is to the digital age. And we see it everyday. I have yet to find anyone who can give me a cogent argument as to who benefits from the  truly ridiculous Samsung v Apple tit for tat. The only beneficiaries as far as I can see are the lawyers, the fees for whom will be truly eyewatering and simply passed on to the consumer (that’s you and me by the way) whilst the disputed features that are supposed to benefit us are withdrawn, suspended and generally messed about with to become ultimately useless.

But Sir Howard was clear in his own mind that protecting IP to preserve “long term” revenues was what it was all about. And I think it is on that point that I could not disagree more.

His argument was this ability to lock up the revenue generating potential of an invention for the long term is what underpins creativity and without it creativity simply withers and dies. To demonstrate the historical significance of this (and the UKs historical role is establishing this core principle) he pointed to the ancient formation of copyright law, and cited the example of Joshia Wedgewood as an exemplar of a creative who successfully commercialized his creative genius and in so doing generated an enduring national legacy. The later part I would agree with but this was a tale of the early industrial era, one has to ask how appropriate is it now? I was tempted to scream at the screen that the interrupted show we were watching would not be possible without that marvellously open piece of software called LINUX. The irony became deeper, although less apparent to Sir Howard, when he championed the creative genius of Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Hmm? Yes that would be the Sir Tim Berners-Lee who enriched our lives by....not protecting his invention.

In the case of LINUX and WWW we have seen billions of pounds of value created by endless creativity that would not have been unleashed had those two geniuses of Torvald and Berners-Lee not had the vision, grace and generosity  to free their creativity to be shared with the world to build on.

Another example quoted of creativity was Stephen Hawking. Now I can’t be sure but as far as I am aware he is not a multi patent owner, but I am pretty confident that his insight and wisdom are shared academic ammunition that have been built upon by others without constraint.

Now don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting no protection, but our desire for a simpler more appropriate mechanism of managing this, it seems to me, is writ large in the wide adoption of Creative Commons.

However my main point is this. In a world of extremely rapid iteration ( the “pivoting” and fast fail to which Sir Howard refered) long term locking up is surely a recipe for stagnation. For the industrial era of large corporations maybe it worked ( although I have reservations about that)  But in a highly collaborative, agile and responsive development environment shorter protection would surely be much more appropriate. In a world of creativity, where the freedom to build readily in others ideas more rapidly releasing invention to be extended and developed must win. Similarly I think  the returns would be more equitably spread and the incentive would be there to keep inventing, keep creating.

I am old enough to remember “Home Taping is Killing Music” with an accompanying Skull and Crossbones  being stamped onto the inner sleeves of just about every LP I borrowed and taped. It seems with hindsight ( and I said it at the time too) that it didn't, and I think calls to preserve the old order because it served us well in Joshia Wedgwoods day is not an argument for its unreformed retention today.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What can we learn from Wiggo?

Chapeau Wiggo! An extraordinary success, a long time coming.

I love cycling and have for many years and for many reasons. Its extreme demands, its rich unwritten rules, its cruelty and its sense of honour and fair play, its history and its characters. But as a follower it’s noticeable how the sport has moved from a solitary sport to very much more a team sport. The advent and ubiquity of team radio has accompanied the rise of coordinated team led approaches to winning major Classic stage races like Le Tour, Giro and Vuelta. Long gone, it seems, are the solitary predators like Eddie “The Cannibal” Merckx.

So as we celebrate Bradley Wiggins success we also celebrate a team success and the mastermind behind Team Sky is Dave Brailsford and what can we learn from that for our teams?

Known for his attention to detail and the “aggregation of tiny margins” Brailsford has managed to craft a team of powerful individuals each with deep reserves of self will, stubbornness and, in some cases, ego into a unit that works and in this case was unbeatable. Of course we must never over simplify or seek to commoditise how this is done. No doubt there will be some interesting revelations about rifts and conflicts that have been kept undercover for the duration of the race. 

But for all that I find the team rules set out and agreed by Team Sky to be an interesting statement of togetherness and intent, and the process of agreeing a set of boundaries and understanding of high performing teams and crews can be a lesson for us.

The rules, written on the side of the bus - or Death Star as is often referred to - are:

  • We will respect one another and watch each others backs.
  • We will be honest with one another.
  • We will be on time.
  • We will communicate openly and regularly .
  • If we want our helmets cleaned, we will leave them on the bus.
  • We will pool all prize money from races and distribute it at the end of the year.
  • Any team bonuses from the team will be split between riders on that race.
  • We will give 15% of all race bonuses and prize money to staff.
  • We will speak English if we are in a group.
  • We will debrief after every race.
  • We will always wear team kit and apparel as instructed in the team dress code.
  • We will not use our phones at dinner - if absolutely required, we will leave the table to have the conversation.
  • We will respect the bus.
  • We will respect personnel and management.
  • We will ask for any changes to be made to bikes (gearing, wheel selection etc.) the night before the race and not on race day.
  • We will follow the rules.

A fascinating mix of the cycling specific and the team, respect bonding and trust oriented.

What would be the rules you would sign up to?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Abiding Myth of the “Frontline”

In these days of soundbites and the pervasive creep of vacuous management speak into news and the media generally we have become familiar with the use of the expression “frontline services” as a way of making a distinction between those deemed important and the also rans. I have always said that this expression is a divisive falsehood and the recent débâcle at Natwest is very much testament to that.

At its heart the notion of “frontline services” seeks to draw a distinction about the relative importance and centrality of particular functions within an organisation, generally seeking to pretend that there will be no impact if we decimate the “back office”. It seeks to assign differing value to functions and to create the impressions that the individual parts of the organisation exist in isolation and can easily exist without one another. This is a foolish and simplistic notion of how organisations are constituted and operate, but is popular because, if we accept it, then it makes it both possible and acceptable to outsource, downsize and sideline components and treat organisations like machines rather than a much more complex body. As someone once remarked you cannot divide a horse in the way you can a machine – you just get a bloody mess.

The term “frontline” has a militaristic tone but in that context it simply describes where the edges of the conflict exist. Sensible generals have understood that wars cannot be won at the front line alone. It wasn't for nothing that Napoleon reputedly said an army marches on its stomach or that dig for victory has such enduring resonance.

In a business context the perpetuation of this notion of relative value has corrosive and dangerous possibilities with functions being variously described as “operational” “administrative” “non-core” and other euphemisms that permit them to be ignored, downgraded and generally de motivated.

I distinctly remember discussing with the partner of a professional services firm their head count and his casual unthinking reference to “people”, meaning fee earners and a class of “non-people” meaning everyone else.

Drawing these false distinctions is fundamentally unwise, and wholly inappropriate in a social business. A social business recognises that each element has an integral role to play, and requires a voice. Interestingly the balance and mutual dependence of elements in an organisation are embodied in frameworks like 7s, its is just sad that these are often used to divide rather than unite.

This does not mean that every section or department or division is the same. Nor does it mean that they all require the same depth of skills or that the expertise and competence required in each is the same or as easily replaced.

But it does point up that organisations are not simplistic machines easily divided or neglected without unpredictable and damaging outcomes. The experience of RBS and Natwest underline the centrality of what would often be described as “non frontline” services and how neglecting and side lining these can have catastrophic consequences.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Social media is breaking the law. Good!

Breaking the law is a good thing. I make a habit of it. Any laws  that exclude me, laws that say it cant be done, or “it must be done this way” all shout a message to me that says “Why?” Social technology can be very very useful in breaking the law.

The power of social tools is that they challenge established convention by providing mechanisms to by pass or lower the barriers or accepted or embedded behaviours that have served to create our very own “iron cage”. People can re imagine themselves into new roles, become things that seemed previously unthinkable. They can make connections and links that were once unlikely or impossible. They can collaborate across geographies and hierarchies. This means we can use them to innovate in ways we once never could, and liberate resources that can generate value that were once eternally locked up.

Of course this can be unsettling or uncomfortable but still, in my book, breaking the law is, on the whole, worth trying and a good thing.

Breaking the Law is another matter and you should be aware that social tools make this easy as well.

In the past few days we have encountered some serious breaches of the Law - notably through the use of twitter. I don't propose to debate the merits or demerits of the cases, simply to point out that it is incredibly easy to fall foul of the Law with social tools. Sometimes it is the fact that the Law has yet to catch up with changed behaviours that are now considered acceptable and mainstream. I look forward to fun that will be had with the absurd rules around the useof images on social channels from the grossly commercial Olympics.

Sometimes it is the international nature of these network that can be part of the issue, both for and against prosecution.

A lawyer recently opined that it is stupid, or unthinking or reactive tweeting that is often the cause of people falling foul of the Law. Its so easy to quickly speak ones mind and in so doing create a public record of a potentially illegal view, or breach long held confidences. Either way, when we become alarmed by the behaviour of a few individual numpties on line lets not get too carried away. As they say hard cases make bad law. We should stand firm against those that would use these examples as a justification seek to surveil and constrain the social networks and mass behaviours it enables. Social is by definition challenging the anti social conventions of the past two centuries. For me it is a positive. In the week we celebrate the anniversary of the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout lets not forget there are many noble examples where mass off line actions have challenged bad Laws for the benefit of all.

So breaking the Law has its place too.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

There No Success Like Failure in a World of Iteration

Having spent a few weeks in New Zealand I had the double pleasure of being on holiday with all the opportunity that that state brings, and in addition to be re acquainted with The Listener.

The Listener is described by wikipedia as a defunct magazine published 1929 - 1991. I remember it well and loved it, and like many (though not enough apparently) was sad when it closed its doors. In the readers defence I have to say it was cruelly dumbed down in its later years - a decline properly described in the wikipedia entry where you can also read about the fateful blocking of Richard Gotts editorship, lest we forget!

Imagine my surprise then when, a few years ago, I did a bit of a double take when what looked like a copy of that fine magazine was sat on a newsagent shelf in New Zealand. Now it can take a while for periodicals published in the UK to make it to NZ, but given that this was in this millennium it seemed unlikely that this copy had taken some 10 or 15 years to get there. So I took a closer look and discovered that this was in fact a copy of The New Zealand Listener, a magazine of similar content, branding and style to the version I was familiar with, but published in New Zealand and aimed at the good people of the Land of the Long White Cloud.

It was a great discovery and since then my father-in law will dutifully collect a few copies for me before I arrive on holiday. It keeps me quiet no doubt and goes some way to reinforce the case as to why I should relocate from the land of the long black cloud o more sunnier climes.

Having the luxury of time to read is a joy and I found a fascinating article in the September edition a fantastic article on “The Power of Failure - how it creates success” Written before the Rugby World Cup final the article includes a good deal of passing reference to the performance of the All Blacks - frankly almost all discourse in New Zealand does at some point make reference to the All Blacks! But it has a good deal of sensible insight into the importance of being able to have safe failure. Dave Snowden often describes the necessity of creating an environment where we can experience safe failure rather than trying to create a fail safe environment. He is right of course as we can generally learn so much more from our experiences of failure, to the extent that if it leads to subsequent success it is arguable that, when considered in the round, it is a failure at all. Tim Harford and his book Adapt: Why success Always Starts With Failure is referenced a good deal, and he makes the distinction between these small managed failures and those that occur complex “tightly coupled” systems. My response to that would be that generally these systems exist in complex environments but have been applying approaches that are applicable in the simple or or complicated domain making them vulnerable to tipping into the chaotic domain and bearing out the Cynefin framework’s insights. It’s also a sensible reminder for us to shout very loudly at people - notably politicians who accept that things get “too big to fail” but do nothing to amend this circumstance.

I was also interested to read about the work The Icehouse an Auckland based incubator that has a somewhat more sanguine attitude to failure, and an anecdote about the early efforts of Muhammad Yunus being less than entirely successful before he developed the micro finance principles that led to the Grameen Bank's success.

The point of all this? Well apart from the inherent wisdom of the article and the reminder to keep trying it serves to remind us that we can now operate in an environment of rapid iterations where the capacity for accelerated learning through microfailure is enhanced. With sensible reflective learning approaches the capacity to source a crowd of insight coupled with the ability to launch micro initiatives with the help of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing our capacity for innovative advance has perhaps never been better.

If only I had time to read the October editions....