Everyone understands that the bigger a company gets, the more difficult it is to create and nurture ideas. There are a number of reasons. The sheer size of the organisation mitigates against change – it is incredibly difficult to get everyone to understand a game-changing idea and align themselves behind it. You get a fragmented approach and the whole thing can get mired down in bureaucracy and finger-pointing.
Large organisations are inherently conservative, with people not wanting to rock the boat, while there is fierce rivalry between different divisions/departments which can lead to ideas being squashed if they seem to tread on someone else’s turf. There’s also a fine line between a strong company culture and having too inward looking a focus. Even successful companies such as Facebook have been accused of a lack of perspective – because they solely use (and love) their own products they assume they everyone else believes they are equally awesome. Step outside the organisation and your obsession is just a minor part of the lives of your customers.
The good news is that the majority of organisations do understand the need for a stream of fresh ideas. After all, the world today is dominated by companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon that either didn’t exist twenty years ago, or were considerably smaller. Competition in every market is increasing and no-one wants to go the way of Nokia or Woolworths.
So how do you align your company to create the best forum to create ongoing ideas? I’m no management consultant, but I’ve seen a few attempts over the last twenty years and it boils down to three broad types:
1 Innovation silos
In many industries (such as pharmaceuticals), where innovation relies on expensive capital equipment it makes sense to create separate, concentrated, research labs. These have the intellectual muscle and resources but can suffer from their sheer size and distance from the business. They can then hit the same problems as any other big organisation, with divisional rivalry and static corporate culture. Alternatively businesses have focused innovation in standalone business units – either skunkworks operations that are locked away from the rest of the organisation, incubators that support promising ideas at arms length or even smaller companies that have been bought and are run as ideas factories. All of these can work, provided management stay true to their word not to meddle or demand fast results, but there’s still no connection with the wider business and its needs.
2 The campus
You break up your monolithic organisation into a campus style environment, with different divisions occupying their own buildings, but close together. Splitting into smaller teams is good for creativity, and you get the economies of scale of having everyone on a single, but large, site. However the ability to cross-pollenate between groups can be limited – unless you happen to bump into someone over lunch you might be completely in the dark about what other sections of the company are working on.
3 The college
What I think is really interesting about the campus model is that it deliberately mimics the university campus structure. While this makes for a good working environment, it doesn’t help spread ideas. So I think companies need to look at a more collegiate model, similar to that of universities like Cambridge. You have two allegiances/bases – your division (essentially your college) and your actual project (your faculty). So you get the chance to mix with people from other divisions and collaborate on joint projects. Some people may find it disorienting, but if projects are scheduled to last 2-3 years the goal is never that far away.
Innovation is vital in every industry, and the size and structure depends on the sector and the market each company operates in. But I think it is time for more organisations to look at the college structure if they want to nurture and develop a stream of ideas that take their business forward over the long term.
I’ve talked before about the new ways marketers are trying to engage with consumers. This ranges from QR codes to augmented reality and relies on using the one device we always have with us – the smartphone. Being able to pinpoint exactly where someone is, for example the specific aisle of a shop, means they can serve up relevant marketing material that could turn a browser into a buyer. It is no wonder that the likes of Apple and Google are investing in technology that can help make indoor mapping more granular and detailed.
The latest technology to be touted to drive engagement is the beacon. Essentially a small, low cost, Bluetooth-enabled box that can be quickly fitted inside a building, it enables companies to send messages to suitably equipped smartphones in the near vicinity. As beacon technology is built into the latest Apple products, there are already over 200 million iOS devices out there that can act as both receivers and transmitters.
The possibilities are getting marketers, particularly in the US, extremely excited. Companies can automatically send relevant offers if you are in particular areas of a shop, such as in front of their products (or, if you’re being sneaky, in front of your rivals’ products). Airports or train stations could send automatic updates on delays or gate/platforms changes. Beacons can be used to measure dwell time in specific areas and provide offers of help. William Hill is planning to use beacons to send in-app betting messages at the forthcoming Cheltenham Festival, while outdoor advertising companies are looking at how it can drive engagement with adverts. Mobile phone networks EE, O2 and Vodafone have invested to create a joint venture – Weve, to target the space, with Eat trialling their technology. The reason for the interest is that essentially beacons promise the same digital tracking possibilities as online, but in the physical world.
However there are a still a couple of elephants in the room when it comes to mass market adoption. Consumers need to switch on Bluetooth, download an app, enable location services for the app and opt-in to receive notifications. So, even though iPhones now come with Bluetooth on as standard you still need to jump through a lot of hoops to be beacon ready.
And then there’s privacy. Perhaps you don’t want marketers to know whereabouts in the shop you were loitering or what you are buying at a detailed level. As the success of social media and loyalty cards have shown, people are willing to give up some of their privacy in return for a better experience and targeted offers, but none of these are as instant and real-world as beacons zapping a message straight onto your screen in real-time. At the moment all the advantages seem to be skewed towards retailers, with very little concrete benefit for consumers that will make them want to go through the rigmarole of making their phones ‘beaconable’.
At a time when consumers are just about getting their heads round paying for things by swiping cards rather than laboriously typing their PIN, I think beacons have a big job ahead to accelerate consumer adoption. The whole process needs to be made seamless and simple, with a focus on the benefits, rather than looking like another way to invade privacy and sell you more stuff. Only then will beacons deliver the insight that marketers and businesses are looking for.
In many ways the news that Google has bought smart home company Nest Labs shouldn’t be a surprise. It has been talking to the company for some time and apparently lots of Google employees had installed the company’s sensor based thermostat in their own homes.
More to the point I think it fits in with Google’s overall objectives. As analysts have pointed out, Google isn’t a search engine company (and hasn’t been for some time), but is about data – collecting it (analysing search results, Google Glass, StreetView) and then using it to either sell you things (through adverts) or make your life better in some way.
With billions of sensors embedded in previously dumb objects that will be communicating in real-time, the Internet of Things promises to create a tidal wave of data. Each piece will be tiny, but if you can bring it together and analyse it you can get an even deeper view of the world around us, and the people in it. Nest’s products are much more than thermostats, and provide Google with the sensor/Internet of Things expertise it needs to add to its product portfolio. It already has Android-based smartphones/tablets to act as controllers, the mapping technology to show where sensors are located and the technology to analyse billions of events in real-time. And with Google Fiber rolling out in several US cities, it has a network to send the data through as well.
A simple example – your Nest thermostat notifies you that your boiler has gone wrong via your smartphone while you are at work. And suggests a registered tradesman that can fix it by trawling the web and any recommendations in your Google+ circles. Or alternatively gives you the address of the nearest clothing shop, so you can stock up on thick jumpers.
Many people (myself included) would find this a bit creepy, but it is potentially possible if you can knit all the technology together. What I think is interesting is how utilities will respond to the future entry of Google into the market. After all, as publishers and others have found, Googlification can squeeze out incumbents through sheer scale and by engaging more closely with customers. Utilities have to decide whether they want to partner with the likes of Google, risk losing the customer relationship and become commodity suppliers of gas and electricity or take a stand and build stronger engagement with customers. In current circumstances that’ll be difficult – people are at best ambivalent about their utility supplier, and in an era of rising prices and poor customer service many actively dislike them.
So there’s a big opportunity here – and something that Cambridge’s cluster of smart home/green tech companies could exploit. For example, AlertMe already has a partnership with British Gas, while Sentec is working with metering companies to make their products smarter. If energy companies don’t want to work with Google then they have two choices – do it themselves (teaming up with smaller tech companies), or partner with larger industrial tech companies, such as Siemens or Bosch. And these industrial giants will need the specialist expertise that smart home companies can provide.
The utility market doesn’t move fast, so don’t expect to see Google running your home in the next year, but the Nest acquisition should actually spur the whole sector on, attracting both interest and investment. The world just got more interested in smart homes, which is good news for relevant startups in Cambridge and beyond.
This week’s takeover of Nokia’s handset division by Microsoft is easy to see as a marriage of desperation, or as Robert Peston put it, “two drunks supporting each other at the end of the party.”
Wind the clock back 10 years and the picture was very different. Nokia was dominant in the phone market and Microsoft held a similar position in the desktop/laptop market. The first Windows-powered smartphones were being released, but they were incredibly complex (I know, I had an Orange SPV), essentially transferring the desktop Windows experience to the mobile world. There were a whole raft of other mobile handset providers that have since disappeared or lost their independence – Motorola (now owned by Google), Ericsson, and Siemens.
Two things changed all this – Apple came along and made smartphones easy to use without losing their power and in a linked move, the world embraced mobile with the growth of 3G and wifi. As the existing market titans, with enormous user bases, Microsoft and Nokia couldn’t evolve fast enough to change their business models. The same process happened in previous waves of computing as the world moved from mainframes to mini computers and then PCs; few CEOs have the guts to bin their existing cash cow and launch a radically different business.
So could either of them have done things differently? I’ve talked before about Microsoft’s disastrous attempt to innovate with Windows 8 but you can argue that it didn’t invest enough in mobile early on. If it had combined ease of use and access to compelling content with the power of the SPV (which was heavily subsidised) and made it less ugly it could have had a chance of pre-empting Apple’s rise. But it never seemed to be a priority. And Nokia again seemed to view smartphones as a niche market until very late in the day, focusing on the Communicator which was a high end business tool rather than a consumer-friendly device.
All this means the combined unit has a tough job on its hands and is going to have to focus heavily on innovation and marketing to succeed. Ironically given Apple’s perceived lack of innovation and BlackBerry’s woes there is chance to seize the challenger position and become the quirky, cool alternative to Samsung and the iPhone. This does mean being brave and creating something radical that shakes up the market. Microsoft couldn’t do it with Windows 8 – so can an injection of Finnish thinking make the difference?
Many people spend more time on the internet than they do in face to face or even telephone conversations. But despite the rise of video, we’re not really using all our senses on the internet, missing out on touch and smell. Replicating touch is a difficult one, though I’m sure the porn industry is working on technologies like electronic skin suits that help there.
Smell is (in practice) a bit easier. Everyone understands the power of scents to change our moods – from the multibillion pound perfume industry to supermarkets pumping round the smell of hot bread to get our taste buds salivating. I’m probably not alone in being disappointed that the Bank of Canada has categorically denied that its new plastic bank notes smell of maple syrup. Hundreds of Canadians wrote to the bank, claiming they could smell maple syrup on the maple leaf note – with many asking for the scent to be strengthened.
But experiments in delivering smell via the internet have all, so far, failed to catch on – in fact Google made it the basis of its last April Fool’s joke, with the Google Nose. In the same way that Smell-O-Vision flopped at the cinema, pioneers have vanished into obscurity. All shared a similar approach – a plug in device to your computer that mixed different components to deliver the right smell to match the page you were on or the situation you were in. The key issue is that while you can create any colour from the basic Red, Green, Blue combination, the palette for smell is much wider, meaning the device would have to have an enormous number of odour components inside it.
Latest internet smell technologies are trying to make things simpler. The Mint Digital Foundry launched Olly, essentially a plug in atomiser that you fill with a scent source. You can then set it to spray when a particular internet event occurs (such as receiving an email or a tweet). In Japan, the Chaku Perfume Company has created Chat Perf, an add on scent tank for your iPhone. You can then use the app to ‘send’ the scent to a friend with a tank of their own.
Smell on the internet may be in its infancy, but get it right and the benefits for marketers and internet companies are potentially huge. The scent of lavender on a page encouraging us to buy flowers, the background smell of the sea on a holiday site, the aromas of food on a cookery or restaurant page. The possibilities are endless – as they are for online gaming (smell the fear!), incorporating into mainstream TV or films or identifying your friends on social networks. So, rather than trying to build the next Facebook, entrepreneurs should be looking closer to home for the next big thing. After all, it is as plain as the nose on your face…………
Very few of us like paying tax, but there’s a fine line between legitimately reducing your tax bill and actively avoiding paying the tax that is due. And at a time of austerity where everyone is tightening their belts, there’s obviously a push by governments to close loopholes and maximise the revenues they receive.
Given their high profile and obvious success Starbucks and Amazon have both been the subject of widespread condemnation of their tax avoidance methods, and I’ve covered Starbucks inept PR response in a previous blog. Google was up before a House of Commons Select Committee last week (for the second time), backing up its claims that, despite revenue of £3 billion in the UK, all its advertising sales actually take place in the lower tax environment of Ireland. Google boss Eric Schmidt has countered that the company invests heavily in the UK with its profits, including spending £1 billion on a new HQ that he estimates will raise £80m per year in employment taxes and £50m in stamp duty.
Apple is the next company caught in the public spotlight, with CEO Tim Cook appearing before a US Senate committee that had accused it of ‘being among America’s largest tax avoiders’. Meanwhile, the loophole that sees Amazon and other big US ecommerce companies avoid paying local sales taxes is being challenged by a new law passing through Congress, with estimates of between $12 and $23 billion extra being collected.
Given the close links between Google and UK politicians (Ed Miliband is appearing at a Google event this week and Schmidt is expected to meet David Cameron on his current UK trip), the cynical view is that this is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it does create an image problem for the companies involved, particularly at a time when we’re all meant to be in it together.
Obviously the most popular thing for companies to do would be to re-organise their tax affairs so that they meet the spirit as well as the letter of the law. But that’s not likely to happen given the enormous sums at stake. Instead expect increased calls for global tax reform (so that the organisations involved don’t have to operate the way they are currently ‘forced’ to) and a slew of feel good announcements that demonstrate the level of investment and support for the UK economy by the companies concerned. Being ultra cynical perhaps the whole tax situation explains the huge support by big tech companies for Tech City – it is simply an elaborate way of diverting attention from their financial affairs…………..