Manchester – Next Generation Digital City

A packed auditorium at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on Friday 15 January 2010 was greeted by an enthusiastic launch by Insider of Manchester – Next Generation Digital City.

An initiative that aims to put Manchester at the forefront of UK business competitiveness by laying the foundations for exciting, innovative digital and technology-based businesses to flourish.  This will be achieved by leading the pack (well, a close second behind North Wales) in laying state-of-the-art fibre networks to deliver blistering broadband speed for businesses (and residential users).  To put things in perspective, the example was given by Geo, Chief Executive, Chris Smedley (the company that will lay the cables) of a residential user seeking to download a typical 4GB movie  – today this would practically take all day to download whereas this could be downloaded in just 46 seconds once the new networks are laid!

Dave Carter (Head of Manchester Digital Development Agency) in particular roused the audience with an impassioned plea for Manchester to lead the charge, citing frustration over push-backs and retorts such as:

  1. “There is no market for this otherwise the market would have invested in and built it themselves” – how about the importance of the Manchester Ship Canal to Manchester’s economic prominence in the early industrial age as a counter to this….?
  2. “This is too fast for most existing applications – why do we want this now?” – because businesses will find ways to utilise it to its full potential once it is there to be used – the burgeoning Manchester creative and film industry needs this now as explained by Dave Mousley of Red Vision
  3. “Let’s wait and see how other cities get on before we invest” – Dave Carter likened this to sitting out the next Olympics to see how other countries fared in the hope that we could steal a march next time – it just doesn’t work this way!

References to “iPhone to iManc” and the quest to follow the likes of Stockholm and Amsterdam to become Smart Cities were also crowd-pleasers.

I sensed that the excitement was mixed with a little frustration when the test-bed area was shown as a disappointingly small pocket of North Manchester – before being extended across Manchester in due course.  Equally, the innovative idea of using existing sewerage and tram line systems to lay the networks rather than causing the disruption of digging up roads etc was tinged with concern when a throw-away comment was made by Chris Smedley that they still needed to reach agreement with United Utilities plc who own the sewerage systems …. a point that was picked up by a member of the audience during the Q&A.

Brendan Dawes (Creative Director of Magnetic North) made the poigniant point that he looked forward to the day when he could move on from living in what sometimes appears to be a Victorian Age and enjoy the advancements of living in a digital 21st Century  e.g. he currently wakes up in a Victorian town to travel to work on a Victorian tramline to admire the Victorian Manchester architechture  – “if only the wireless 3G network would allow Spotify to work properly whilst sitting on the tram!”

Another discussion which sparked interest was the notion that truly opening up to the potential of the digital age could allow individuals (young and old) to make game-changing products and services.  Digital business is a leveller in providing a level playing field for both small and BIG corporate businesses.   Reference was made by Brendan to a young guy who he met at SXSW who said he was leaving Apple to set up a new business with Jack Dorsey (co-founder of Twitter).  This business turns out to be the recently launched Square – a game-changing business that is set to blow credit card providers and potentially even cash into the dark ages:

“and this was created by a kid and NOT some corporate team in suits working for one of the major banking institutions.”

A great point well made.

If you’ve yet to see the potential of Square – here’s a taster:

I had to leave the event promptly for a client meeting so I was unable to hang around to chat, however, I couldn’t help but feel that this was the right sentiment and that things are going in the right direction but we need to see the test-bed site rolled out as soon as possible before a) there is the risk of loss of momentum and / or b) the nay-sayers sense weakness and put the brakes on.  There is also a potential change in government that could derail this ambitious project given public and fiscal tightening.

Let’s hope that the first fibre networks are laid as soon as possible as I believe that what might seem like a bold move now is likely to be viewed as one of the best things that Manchester ever did in years to come (like the Manchester Ship Canal).

Please share your views.

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Forward thinking Engineering business supports future NW innovation

I enjoyed a great catch-up with the Managing Director (MD) of a (target) company of mine today.  This family owned business is a leading advanced engineering company in the North West and the MD’s insights into business and the way things are changing is always sharp and insightful.

We discussed the economic challenges of the past 12 months and, given the long life-cycle of procuring and then manufacturing their products he saw the next 6-12 months as a period of “consolidation”.  Many of their competitors had already been squeezed out, although he suspected there would be more to come – especially as businesses who survive then suffer from over-trading as the market (hopefully) returns “in around 2012” – the mantra Cash is King will remain as crucial as ever.

What was most interesting was the sense of cohesiveness mixed with a strong focus and direction that he was building within the organisation.  The tough times over the past 12-18 months have clearly made them much more focused on their core strengths and therefore more inclined to sub-contract the work that they do not believe they can do as well – this is brave but strategically right for the longer term. Likewise they are actively seeking opportunities to assist other engineering firms with their expertise and resource to help meet demands or short term resource needs.  A flexible approach that the MD could see being a key growth area in the business.

They have also continued along a path of identifying and nurturing new and emerging engineering talent within the North West – an area which is of strategic importance for them over the longer term but which is clearly already bringing success.  This commitment to supporting early stage engineering ideas and businesses is crucial to the future of the North West economy and is refreshing to see within a long established family company.

Picking up on the team cohesiveness, the MD explained how his choice of location for their new offices was largely dictated by where his team live (“we really wanted to keep them”) and how he would like to increase the commitment of the business to social responsibility by allowing staff to complete 4 week sabbaticals on hands-on roles such as building orphanages in Africa in the not too distant future – all on full-pay.  Notwithstanding such lofty goals, the MD was both surprised and warmed by the team’s response to his impromptu decision to give all staff an extra 2 days holiday over Christmas this year – “I’ve handed out pretty decent bonuses in the past and have been greeted with a “thanks (but I’ve earned it)” kind of response but was stunned by the response to this gesture!”

A great business with a great leader.  We need more like it.

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What Matters Now – Soul Business

Riffing off Seth Godin (and his collaborators’) contributions to the fantastic and recently published What Matters Now ebook, I thought I would add my one-pager (should Seth have asked me to contribute – maybe next time huh?)

What Matters Now?

Soul Business

Making meaning through business.  Solving global problems.  Engaging people in work that fulfills them. Making cool stuff. Existing for more than making a profit.  Businesses that make meaning.  Business can have soul.

Big business (used) to make the rules.  They made stuff that generates the biggest profits.  Enroll staff to work and make the stuff.  Pump millions of £s into advertising to make people want to buy the stuff that the big companies are making.  It has no enduring meaning.  Everyone knew it, there just wasn’t the ready means to challenge or change it (you needed money, and lots of it).  Business lost soul.

The internet has changed everything.  It allows mom and pop businesses to flourish from the kitchen table. It allows people who might otherwise never meet to collaborate to make cool stuff.  To put passion into business. To build businesses that make a difference to society.  To the world.  To challenge (slow, lumbering) big businesses through the delivery of new services or products, unparalled customer service and an overarching authenticity and meaning that resonates with customers. Business can use soul for competitive advantage.

The internet has also added one other killer advantage for small business: low cost.  There is now nothing stopping small ‘kitchen table’ businesses from competing side by side with major established big businesses.  Cool stuff can be made and then marketed online before being shipped to a global customer base whilst consulting services can be delivered globally via the cloud. The costs and overheads of establishing and running small businesses today are low (and are getting lower). Meanwhile big businesses have large, costly, unwieldly infrastructures built over many years to meet the demands of the old 20th century economy. Business soul is indiscriminate – it favours business of all shapes and sizes.

We are standing at the threshold of a huge opportunity.  We can now focus on building and supporting throngs of small businesses that matter.  Businesses that solve global problems and needs.  Businesses that can stay small because being big is no longer a necessary constituent of being globally successful.  Businesses that engage and enthuse their people. Businesses that make meaning ahead of profit. In a nutshell, business with soul.

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Great Business = Great People (and vice versa)

You often hear successful CEOs say: “I couldn’t have done it without my team” or “We’re a People Business and our people are our greatest asset”.  These hugely successful businesses all appear to have great people.

But is it the luck or skill of the CEO in finding these “great people” or is it that great businesses draw out the great in people?

I believe it is the latter – let me explain:

A great business has a clear and compelling vision.  It has a mission.  A mantra.  A reason for existing.  It is (or aims to be) the best in the world at whatever it does. It makes a difference.  A contribution to society.  The World.

A great business infuses a passion in those that work for it.  They can clearly see the vision in front of them.  They want to see the vision fulfilled.  To see the difference being made or the problem solved.  This is not ‘work’ in the ‘clock-in, clock-out sense’, this feels more like a ‘calling’.  Going to work brings a sense of fulfilment.  A strong team dynamic is established as people work together in line with the shared vision.

A great business draws out the great qualities of the people that work there.  People feel great.  People become great.  In turn, businesses become great.

So are you a “people business” and if so, what are you doing to build a great business that allows your great people to flourish?

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