Steve Livingston

Author Archives: Steve Livingston

Is our Education system ready for a New World of Work?

Technology is evolving fast.  It is changing everything – from home to the workplace. Although many businesses are wrestling with these changes, others are already seeing the benefits of collaborative working, knowledge sharing and real-time communication that technology advancements can bring. From my perspective, barely a month goes by without another game-changing possibility being introduced e.g. a new productivity, marketing, communication or some other channel or tool.

We are entering a New World of Work.

It is crazy to think that when I was at Uni (‘only in’ 1993-1996), we had to

  • queue to use the telephone kiosk to phone home (mobile phones were not readily available),
  • hand-write all course-work, assignments etc (some students typed them on ‘wordprocessors’ but they were the ‘v early adopters’) and
  • email was at its v beginnings of becoming mainstream (“what? you can send a message for……FREE???!!!”).

When I started my professional training-contract at KPMG in 1997 I recall firing up my laptop with trepidation…. Microsoft Office was a new world that was set to become a staple part of my working day.

At home today, I am continually amazed by how naturally my 6 year old interacts with technology. It is an everyday norm for him. He is a Digital Kid. He can log into Club Penguin and other (protected) online gaming platforms without assistance. He uses the mouse tracker pad with ease and can find his way around the keyboard to interact with the gaming experience without fuss. He loves it and, here’s the interesting bit, it has without doubt accelerated his reading, questioning and strategic thinking abilities.

Although we keep tabs on the time he spends on the Mac Book playing online children’s games, Nintendo DS and Wii, I am relaxed about him getting to grips with technology at this early age as – let’s face it – an advanced competence in technology is going to be a key life skill for his generation (hey, this requirement is already pretty much here).  Plus he enjoys it and learns in the process. A win-win. (the fact that it gives me a chance to indulge my old ZX Spectrum gaming skills has nothing to do with it!).

But what happens in our schools today to reflect these changes? Not enough from my perspective so far. Although the blackboard has now become a whiteboard with overhead projector and there’s access to a computer room, the rest seems pretty archaic. Lining up to go in, sat on a mat being read to, practising joined up writing for hours on end etc. Meanwhile, there’s a national curriculum that appears to have been designed in the dark ages.

If our UK children are to excel in the 21st century New World of Work we need to seem some changes – and fast.

We need children who are encouraged to:

  • think differently
  • question (everything)
  • find their passions and follow them
  • be au fait with latest technology and use it to interact and collaborate
  • be creative and inquisitive
  • pull together in different teams to work together and share their experiences
  • think and do – not sit and listen
  • be individuals who understand their talents and innate gifts.

The future of UK (/global) enterprise and the world of work needs Innovators. Leaders. Entrepreneurs.

Our education system needs to reflect this. It is impossible to know what job(s) my 6 year old son will carry out over his lifetime (most roles probably do not as yet exist), however, it is important that we equip our kids with an inquisitive, curious and questioning mind; confidence in utilising latest technology and an overriding focus on thinking skills and developing new, creative ideas and work (rather than an education system based on regurgitating known facts as has been the norm over the 20th Century- all pretty useless in a Google and Wikipedia New World of Work).

And then there’s my 3 year old…

Postscript: I was at VentureFest 2010 in Yorkshire today and was pleased to see what appeared to be a great deal of involvement of local high schools in tech projects, exhibitions and competitions which is promising…

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Differentiate or die!

Monday Focus:

  1. Aim for “Gravity Marketing” – this involves pulling prospects toward you rather than pushing on (closed) doors
  2. Have regular events planned throughout the year – this helps reinforce the perception in the marketplace that you are active and busy doing (ideally cool!) stuff
  3. Differentiate or die!

Being the Best in the World (in the right sector and at the right time)

I was deeply saddened by the news that an ex-client of mine was placed into administration this week. A large multinational manufacturing business with over 200 UK employees based in Ellesmere Port. What makes this news particularly saddening is that the company was the best in the world at what it did –  but there was a (known) problem…

It was part of a global group who were the world leaders in manufacturing newspaper print. It served a severely declining sector. What turned out to be the wrong sector.

I have another client who is the best in the world at providing sound equipment for film and music studios. They have a growing pipeline of orders as cinemas continue to evolve and grow their offerings, such as the recent 3D Avatar movie (for which they incidentally supplied the audio equipment). They had been through some tough times over the past 5-10 years when the movie industry was in the doldrums but now they are in the right sector at the right time (again).

All industry sectors have their peaks and troughs. Look at the dot.com boom and bust. Who would have thought the banks could have got themselves in such a state? We have neither the time nor the ability to gaze into crystall balls but we can:

  • Strive to become the best in the world in our chosen niche
  •  Look out for changing trends in customer behaviour or practise
  • Avoid deluding ourselves if we spot that external factors (e.g. competitors, trends, government policies etc) are moving against us -then take action
  • Stay nimble and flexible so that we can change direction, reinvent etc as necessary
  • Watch cash – you never know when you might need that buffer
  • Never feel comfortable. Never bury your head in the sand
  • Listen to your customers and team
  • Continually reinvest in that next killer idea for a service or product

There are disproportionate rewards for those businesses that can become best in the world in their sector. The trick is to remember that things never stay the same and that you must continually invest in seeking that next best in the world product or service. Reinvention. Always.

Meeting up with Virtual Clients

I am looking forward to finally meeting up with a long-standing client of mine this evening – a virtual client.  Although we have worked together for almost 4 years, we have never met in the flesh as he is based in Los Angeles, US. 

Yet technology has allowed us to work closely over the years despite the significant distance between the UK and US and its getting easier and easier. We rely heavily on email and telephone on a day-to-day basis but screensharing, shared online workspaces and Google Wave-type continual contact are on the horizon. He works largely from home and I try to work from home on regular occasions yet this doesn’t impede our flow of communication due to improving broadband speeds.

Virtual / Global / Cloud consulting – whatever you wish to call it – is becoming an exciting reality.

But how powerful and long-lasting can virtual relationships be? Lisa Tse discussed the importance of bridging the gap to turn virtual communities into real-life flesh and blood communities – via TweetUps for her Twitter followers and friends in her case. This has been immensely powerful for her business in building sustainable and long lasting relationships. Geography can be a significant stumbling block but meeting for real can really cement a relationship – I hope the same will be true of tonight’s real-life meeting! 

The only issue is how I will find him at the restaurant in Manchester this evening – having never previously met in the flesh, it’s slightly concerning that we won’t initially recognise each other! Until we speak and I hear his (familiar telephone) voice.

Show 002 – The F-Word, Twitter and Sweet Mandarin with Lisa Tse

I am delighted to introduce Manchester-based entrepreneur, Lisa Tse of The Sweet Mandarin, as an inspirational guest for this week’s BusinessN2K podcast.

Lisa is famed more recently for her appearance on Gordon Ramsey‘s The F-Word, in which her family-run restaurant Sweet Mandarin won the prestigious Best Local Chinese Restaurant in the UK. Aside from the wonderful cooking, Lisa and her sisters have broken new ground in mixing new marketing techniques to help build a traditional yet thriving business. Her forward thinking approach to business and creativity has led to her role as an alumni of Manchester Metropolitan University Business School and she is in high demand to speak at business conferences throughout the North West and beyond.

I first ‘met’ Lisa on Twitter after being bowled over by how much she ‘gets’ social mediaTweetUps and all! Her business has continued to thrive as they have steadily built their community of enthusiastic customers. Lisa has a refreshing outlook on business, having worked as a financier in London (a ‘corporate job’) and made the leap to running her own entrepreneurial business. She is focused on making every experience the best for her customers in order to build the restaurant and leave a legacy – rather than focusing on building a chain of restaurants which could result in growth for growth’s sake.

In this conversation we cover:

  • What inspired Lisa to make the leap from the safety of a corporate job to running her own business with her sisters
  • How she has embraced social media such as Twitter to help build her business
  • The importance of staying close to your roots and understanding what contributes to your success
  • Being open to new ideas and suggestions from customers to create new services
  • The value of looking after your customers and how they can turn into some of your best marketeers
  • Innovative ways of taking customer orders!
  • Staying focused on what you are good at and not getting distracted by new trends etc
  • Finding new ways to connect with your customers
  • (unfortunately we ran out of time to discuss their Sweet Mandarin book !)

The Sweet Mandarin represents a new breed of entrepreneurial business that is closely intertwined with its customers. Lisa and her sisters are the ‘face’ of the business and they actively engage with their customers and the wider Manchester business community. They manage to mix more traditional and established business (restaurateurs) with new (social media, community engaged, transparent, forward thinking).

I firmly believe that we can all learn as businesses from Lisa, her sisters and Sweet Mandarin.

How you can listen to BusinessN2K:

  1. Subscribe by clicking on the Subscribe to Podcast icon in the side bar or subscribe via iTunes. This is the best way to listen as it will ensure that all future episodes are delivered directly to you as new episodes are released, or
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Blubrry player!

Please leave your comments, feedback and suggestions for future shows in the comments section below.

Credits: Thanks to Lisa Tse for this week’s show + music used in the BusinessN2K podcast is by Viba – In the Orchard lies a Secret – available as a free download and is released under a Creative Commons Licence

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Tax holiday for business start-ups in Ireland

Welcome news if you’re a start-up business in Ireland is that a tax holiday is now granted for the first 3 years of trading.

This tax exemption is only available for start-ups that commenced trading on or after 1 January 2009. The only restriction is that the tax liability otherwise due for each year must not exceed €40,000 – hardly troubling for most start-up companies given that the current prevailing corporation tax rate in Ireland is only 12.5%!

Let’s hope that the UK government are keeping a watching brief…

Why being a middle of the road business is a BIG mistake

It seems reasonable to assume that targeting your business at the middle is a safe bet.  After all, the middle comprises the majority of customers. Right?

Perhaps – but there is a nasty sting in the tail for the unwary…

The middle is big.  Very BIG. The middle provides the most choice for customers. The middle is the most competitive. The middle is the noisiest. The middle makes it harder for you to appear bespoke – you are trying to serve too many in the middle.  The middle is where the high street and big internet brands hunt (and they have deeper pockets than you).  The middle ignores the genius of the 80/20 rule.

Those in the middle normally struggle. The middle is tough. The middle is the hardest work. The middle needs a lot of marketing (and therefore cash).  Those in the middle have to struggle in good times and bad.

Many business owners spot this and set off on the right path i.e top or bottom but a little farther down the line they can’t seem to help themselves from gravitating towards the middle. They lose their nerve. Particularly in especially good or bad economic times (like now).  But why?

Despite the recent recession, many prestige businesses continue to do well. This is because the world is still full of very wealthy individuals who can ride this dip out quite comfortably – and want somewhere to shop or service their needs in the meantime.  My local Selfridges in Manchester still looked pretty packed over the recent Christmas rush, particularly around the new Tiffany concession store.

Meanwhile, businesses that had raised their sights during the recent good times will be wishing they had stayed as bargain-basement £1 shops. But it may be too late. Those that held their nerve have first-mover-advantage and will deservedly reap the rewards – our local 50p shop is busier than ever (for obvious reasons) but it didn’t start being a 50p shop in the last 12 months.  It stayed as a 50p shop when there was plenty of cash credit swishing around over the past 10 years.  It never lost its focus.  It never lost its nerve.  It never became middle.  It deserves to win.

Being middle is a mistake.  Aim high or aim low.  Either way, hold your nerve and never ever be middle.

Picture credit: Paul Watson

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3

Future of Work – No jobs by 2030?

Thomas Power makes the assertion that there will be no jobs by 2030 in the excellent Smarta ebook Smartest Brains 2010 and beyond!

Meanwhile Seth Godin pleads with us to become indispensable in his latest book Linchpin arguing that the Industrial Age model of work is over – therefore if your current job involves tasks that can be broken down into process-driven bits then you can kiss this job goodbye in the not too distant future due to a combination of globalisation and automation.

Are they right? Dan Pink argued along similar lines a few years back in A Whole New Mind and there’s little doubt that our concept of work has to change in today’s Knowledge Economy.  We are now paid to think rather than do.

I suspect that by 2030 manual jobs will still exist at the lower end but perhaps the real risk lies in store for middle-managers and professionals with process driven roles. We have already seen this emerging in the latest recession with the introduction of the 4 day work week and mass redundancies. Highly educated professionals, particularly those in their late 40s-50s who have followed the accepted path, have been left feeling disillusioned – and unsure where to turn next…

Has the Industrial Age managed to turn us all, including educated professionals, into dependants? If so, we now need to rediscover our latent entrepreneurial talents and tolerance for change and instability (not something that most of us are naturally predisposed towards).

I believe we will see 2 primary worker-types emerge over the next 10-20 years:

  1. Highly networked freelance workers
  2. Portfolio workers

The highly networked worker represents an entrepreneurial type.  Someone who runs one or more businesses, probably mostly outsourced.  This would also encompass certain professionals who are deep specialists in their area of expertise and are called into teams to work on specific assignments on a project-by-project basis. These people are the more entrepreneurial types and may well have left the corporate world to do their own thing at some stage in the future anyway.

The biggest change would be for the newly labelled portfolio worker. These are the people who would have quite happily worked for the same company for life – or at least for many years, perhaps choosing only to move on to another steady job if things changed for the worse or there was an opportunity for promotion and progression elsewhere. Rather than have one job – they might end up with 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 day-jobs per week? A day here and a day there.

The latter model may initially sound unappealing, however, as I discussed with Ian Sanders, adopting a portfolio or plurality approach to work opens up new and exciting opportunities. Imagine if your average week went from working 9-5 for the same company to say:

  • Monday – fulfilling orders, marketing and general running of online home business.
  • Tuesday – work for Company A as a part-time financial director (FD)
  • Wednesday – charitiable activities e.g. tending to trustee responsibilities and planning events
  • Thursday – mixed day. Update books for online home business am. Complete freelance financial consulting work pm.
  • Friday – back to Company A for the day as FD

Think how much Company A would benefit from a fresh, revitalised worker plus the insights gained from the plurality of work. Likewise, from the portfolio worker’s perspective, think about the variety enjoyed in a working week by adopting a portfolio or freeformer approach.

It is easy to paint a gloomy picture of the future of work. We need to remind ourselves that the Industrial Age has only been in existence for 100+ years and we were self-sufficient for 1000’s of years before this Age of Dependency.

By preparing ourselves now both mentally and practically, the future of work looks exciting and I suspect that in years to come people will look back and think that the concept of a Job for Life was a missed opportunity rather than the panacea that we all grasp after today.

Look forward to your comments and thoughts.

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Design Thinking for Business – Lessons from Apple’s ipad

We are tentatively emerging from a painful recession yet the masses (myself included!) are salivating over Apple‘s latest creation – the Apple ipad.

It’s a snip at just $499 but we seem to forget that most people already have perfectly decent laptops or PCs at home. Yet you can bet your bottom dollar that millions of these things will fly off the shelf once released later this year – but why? What is it that Apple have become so masterful at that they can create a roaring demand for something that people don’t (truly) need?

For me, there are 3 key traits of the ipod – iphone -ipad:

  1. Design
  2. Experience
  3. Simplicity

Underpinning all 3 is the willingness to strip commonly accepted everyday items down to their bare bones and to start again – true innovation thinking.  They did this with the mp3 player, the mobile phone and now the laptop / netbook.

So what lessons can we learn from Apple’s approach to business?

  1. Design thinking = fantastic user experience = Salivating customers / owners = Mad raving fans. How cool is the stuff you make or the experiences your services provide? Are your prospects salivating…?
  2. Build the fire and the heat will come People will always pay for or reinvest in beautifully designed stuff and experiences (we’re not rational beings! we even purchase or change service providers when we already have something that functionally achieves the same objectives). In a crowded and fast moving market, Apple just shifted the goal-posts…again
  3. KISSKeep It Simple Stupid. Apple constantly re-engineers products to reduce complexity and get back to basics
  4. Mix old with new to help transition customers from what they’re used to – see how the ibooks are made to look like normal paged books as you thumb through the pages to help transition traditional book reading purists. Experience is everything (for everyone)
  5. Keep adapting and driving forward. It would have been easy for Apple to sit back and keep tweaking their iphone. Instead they took the riskier option. Today it’s more risky to play safe.

What’s your take on the launch of the ipad and ensuing media frenzy? Why has it captured everyone’s attention? As entrepreneurs, business owners and ambitious employees, what lessons can we learn from this?

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