AI Evolution: Survival of the Smartest

Posted on : 21-05-2018 | By : richard.gale | In : Innovation, Predictions

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Artificial intelligence is getting very good at identifying things: Let it analyse a million pictures, and it can tell with amazing accuracy which show a child crossing the road. But AI is hopeless at generating images of people or whatever by itself. If it could do that, it would be able to create visions of realistic but synthetic pictures depicting people in various settings, which a self-driving car could use to train itself without ever going out on the road.

The problem is, creating something entirely new requires imaginationand until now that has been a step to far for machine learning.

There is an emerging solution first conceived by  Ian Goodfellow during an academic argument in a bar in 2014… The approach, known as a generative adversarial network, or “GAN”, takes two neural networksthe simplified mathematical models of the human brain that underpin most modern machine learningand pits them against each other to identify flaws and gaps in the others thought model.

Both networks are trained on the same data set. One, known as the generator, is tasked with creating variations on images it’s already seenperhaps a picture of a pedestrian with an extra arm. The second, known as the discriminator, is asked to identify whether the example it sees is like the images it has been trained on or a fake produced by the generatorbasically, is that three-armed person likely to be real?

Over time, the generator can become so good at producing images that the discriminator can’t spot fakes. Essentially, the generator has been taught to recognize, and then create, realistic-looking images of pedestrians.

The technology has become one of the most promising advances in AI in the past decade, able to help machines produce results that fool even humans.

GANs have been put to use creating realistic-sounding speech and photo realistic fake imagery. In one compelling example, researchers from chipmaker Nvidia primed a GAN with celebrity photographs to create hundreds of credible faces of people who don’t exist. Another research group made not-unconvincing fake paintings that look like the works of van Gogh. Pushed further, GANs can reimagine images in different waysmaking a sunny road appear snowy, or turning horses into zebras.

The results aren’t always perfect: GANs can conjure up bicycles with two sets of handlebars, say, or faces with eyebrows in the wrong place. But because the images and sounds are often startlingly realistic, some experts believe there’s a sense in which GANs are beginning to understand the underlying structure of the world they see and hear. And that means AI may gain, along with a sense of imagination, a more independent ability to make sense of what it sees in the world. 

This approach is starting to provide programmed machines with something along the lines of imagination. This, in turn, will make them less reliant on human help to differentiate. It will also help blur the lines between what is real and what is fake… And in an age where we are already plagued with ‘fake news’ and doctored pictures are we ready for seemingly real but constructed images and voices….

A few tips to securing data in the cloud

Posted on : 30-11-2016 | By : john.vincent | In : Cloud, Cyber Security, Data, Uncategorized

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In our view, we’ve finally reached the point where the move from internally built and managed technology to cloud based applications, platforms and compute services is now the norm. There are a few die hard “remainers” but the public has chosen – the only question now is one of pace.

Cloud platform adoption brings a host of benefits, from agility in deployment, cost efficiency, improved productivity and collaboration amongst others. Of course, the question of security is at the forefront, and quite rightly so. As I write this the rolling data breach news continues, with today being that of potentially compromised accounts at the National Lottery.

We are moving to a world where the governance of cloud based services becomes increasingly complex. For years organisations have sought to find, capture or shutdown internal pockets of “shadow IT”, seeing them as a risk to efficiency and increasing risk. In todays new world however, these shadows are more fragmented, with services and data being very much moving towards the end user edge of the corporate domain.

So with more and more data moving to the cloud, how do we protect against malicious activity, breaches, fraud or general internal misuse? Indeed, regarding the last point, the Forrsights Security Survey stated:

“Authorised users inadvertently exposing sensitive information was the most common cause of data beaches in the past 12 months.”

We need to think of the challenge in terms of people, process and technology. Often, we have a tendency to jump straight to an IT solution, so let’s come to that later. Firstly, organisations need to look at few fundamental pillars of good practice;

  1. Invest in User Training and Awareness – it is important that all users throughout and organisation understand that security is a collective responsibility. The gap between front and back office operations is often too wide, but in the area of security organisations must instil a culture of shared accountability. Understanding and educating users on the risks, in a collaborative way rather than merely enforcing policy, is probably the top priority for many organisations.
  2. Don’t make security a user problem – we need to secure the cloud based data and assets of an organisation in a way that balances protection with the benefits that cloud adoption brings. Often, the tendency can be to raise the bar to a level that both constrains user adoption and productivity. We often hear that IT are leading the positioning of the barrier irrespective of the business processes or outcomes. This tends to lead to an approach of being overly risk adverse without the context of disruption to business processes. The result? Either a winding back of the original solution or users taking the path of least resistance, which often increases risks.

On the technology side, there are many approaches to securing data in the cloud.  Broadly, these solutions have been bundled in the category of Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB), which is software or a tool that sits in between the internal on-premise infrastructure and the cloud provider, be that software, platform or other kind of as-a-service. The good thing about these solutions is that they can enforce controls and policies without the need to revert to the old approach of managing shadow IT functions, effectively allowing for a more federated model.

Over recent years, vendors have come to market to address the issue through several approaches. One of the techniques is through implementing gateways that either use encryption or tokenisation to ensure secure communication of data between internal users and cloud based services. However, with these the upfront design and scalability can be a challenge given the changing scope and volume of cloud based applications.

Another solution is to use an API based approach, such as that of Cloudlock (recently purchased by Cisco). This platform uses a programmatic approach to cloud security on the key SaaS platforms such as  to address areas such as Data Loss Prevention, Compliance and Threat Protection with User and Entity Behaviour Analytics (UEBA). The last of these users machine learning to detect anomalies in cloud activities and access.

Hopefully some food for though in the challenge of protecting data in the cloud, whichever path you take.

Investment Management – what’s left to outsource

Posted on : 30-11-2016 | By : richard.gale | In : Finance

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Many Investment Management (IM) firms have outsourced significant business functions: settlement, collateral management, accounting departments have been ‘lifted out’ of a significant number of IM companies and are being run as a service by a smaller number of specialised financial services organisations.

We think the next phase for outsourcing are the middle and some of the front office functions as focus for IM firms is on ability to out-perform, reduce time to market for new products and to reduce costs. Regulation is a key driver for this as the complexities of dealing with constant regulatory change is increasing costs and constraints on  IM firms ability to move into new, more profitable, markets. New investment themes such as liability driven investing and securities such as OTC derivatives are much more widely utilised in investment firms than, say, 5 years ago. There is also the avalanche of regulation in-flight (AIFM, Dodd-Frank, MiFIR & Solvency II to name a few)  to enforce reporting and risk management. This results in operational activities such as collateral management becoming much more complex than transacting with conventional securities.

A few months back we discussed the future of middle office outsourcing with Maha Khan Phillips in Best Execution magazine and we want to expand on those thoughts here.

Another trend we see is how the Investment Banking industry is starting to look at outsourcing the non-value-add functions to reduce costs and help streamline their business areas. They are being impacted in a similar way to IM firms at the turn of the century in terms of reduction in income and focus on cost reduction.

 Outsourcing history and developments

The first phase of outsourcing often was a simple ‘lift-out’ where the back office was separated as a whole – people, systems, and processes  with a line drawn across the organisation splitting the remaining front/middle office from the outsourced back office. This was driven by a number of factors but cost reduction and the drive to better returns was core.

As an approach the lift-out worked and enabled the IM organisation to focus on its core business of investing money.  Over time as the industry matures, the limitations of this approach are becoming clear. The ability to be responsive to new business requirements can be reduced:  flexibility in the operating model to react to new changes such as business focus, new asset classes and volume variations are often slowed by split between organisations. The outsourcers will have a number of clients with differing requirements and a limited ability to change which can impact speed of delivery.

These factors have led to some operational challenges and frictions between the client and supplier the result of which has led to a reassessment of the services and relationship. The client has a number of choices available and, as the earlier contracts mature, firms are identifying this period as an opportunity to review the current state vs. alternative strategies. The choices are broadly:

  1. Insource. To undo the lift-out and bring services back in-house. Some organisations have done this with varying degrees of success but the underlying rationale for outsourcing and the business case underpinning this needs to be closely examined.
  2. Migrate to new outsourcer. This is potentially one of the more complex solutions but also a possibility to re-engineer the business. Often there are complex interactions between the client/supplier that exist because of the way the outsource was constructed historically. This ‘web’ of interfaces, processes and procedures will need to be cleaned and logically split to migrate. Also the level of complexity from moving from one (client) organisation to an outsource supplier goes to a new level when migrating suppliers.
  3. Stay with existing and work together to improve service, relationship and capabilities.
  4. A combination of the above not excluding outsourcing more functions of the client firm.

Assuming the client strategically does not which to insource the functions then one of the most important activities is to grow the client/supplier relationship into an aligned partnership. This is the time when parties need to work together to construct a roadmap to move to a more efficient, cost effective and flexible model to deliver optimised services and capacity to grow.

This trend is gathering pace as firms look to ‘smarter’ outsourcing which bundles up groups of functions and let someone else look after the day to day management whilst enjoying a consistent service and pricing. Significant middle office functions are in-scope and included in those are what are traditionally seen as front office capabilities such as deal execution and compliance monitoring.

Interestingly the Buy-side has led the way on outsourcing. Investment banks have previously been too busy ‘running’ to keep up – growing new business areas and have been wary of outsourcing as a brake on their flexibility and ability to expand. The focus has been on IT infrastructure, testing & development and creating ‘captives’ in lower cost areas for operations. Now cost and regulatory pressures are proving a heavy burden then banks are now spending more time and energy looking into outsourcing their non-propriety functions. We think this is one of the trend areas for the next few years.

This is an updated version of our article first published in 2012. The thoughts are still very relevant and we wanted share them again.

www.twitter.com/broadgateview

Agile. Is it the new name for in-sourcing?

Posted on : 30-01-2015 | By : richard.gale | In : Innovation

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Business, IT, clothing are all similar in so much that they can lead and follow fashions & trends.

Looking at IT specifically there is a trend to commoditise and outsource as much as possible to concentrate on the core ‘business’ of growing a business. As we all know this has many advantages for the bottom line and keeps the board happy as there is a certainty of service & cost, headcount is down and the CIO has something to talk about in the exec meetings.

At the coalface the story is often a different one with users growing increasingly frustrated with the SLA driven service, business initiatives start to be strangled by a cumbersome change processes and support often rests in the hands of the dwindling number of IT staff with deep experience of the applications and organisation.

So a key question is –  How to tackle both the upward looking cost/headcount/service mentality whilst keeping the ability to support and change the business in a dynamic fulfilling way?

Agile is a hot topic in most IT and business departments, it emerged from several methodologies from the 1990’s with roots back to the ‘60s and has taken hold as a way of delivering change quickly to a rapidly changing business topology.

At its core Agile relies on:

  • Individuals & interaction – over process and tools
  • Customer communication & collaboration in the creation process – over agreeing scope/deliverables up front
  • Reactive to changing demands and environment – over a blinkered adherence to a plan

The basis of Agile though relies on a highly skilled, articulate, business & technology aware project team that is close to and includes the business. This in theory is not the opposite of an outsourced, commodity driven approach but in reality the outcome often is.

When we started working on projects in investment organisations in the early ‘90s most IT departments were small, focused on a specific part of the business and the team often sat next to the trader, accountant or fund manager. Projects were formal but the day to day interaction, prototyping, ideas and information gathering could be very informal with a mutual trust and respect between the participants. The development cycle was often lengthy but any proposed changes and enhancements could be story boarded and walked through on paper to ensure the end result would be close to the requirement.

In the front office programmers would sit next to the dealer and systems, changes and tweaks would be delivered almost real time to react to a change in trading conditions or new opportunities (it is true to say this is still the case in the more esoteric trading world where the split between trader and programmer is very blurry).  This world, although unstructured, is not that far away from Agile today.

Our thinking is that businesses & IT departments are increasingly using Agile not only for its approach to delivering projects but also, unconsciously perhaps,  as a method of bypassing the constraints of the outsourced IT model – the utilisation of experienced, skilled, articulate, geographically close resources who can think through and around business problems are starting to move otherwise stalled projects forward so enabling the business to develop & grow.

The danger is – of course – that as it becomes more fashionable – Agile will be in danger of becoming mainstream (some organisations have already built offshore Agile teams) and then ‘last years model’ or obsolete. We have no doubt that a new improved ‘next big thing’ will come along to supplant it.

 

Investment Management – what’s left to outsource.

Posted on : 30-09-2014 | By : richard.gale | In : Finance

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Many Investment Management (IM) firms have outsourced significant business functions: settlement, collateral management, accounting departments have been ‘lifted out’ of a significant number of IM companies and are being run as a service by a smaller number of specialised financial services organisations.

We think the next phase for outsourcing are the middle and some of the front office functions as focus for IM firms is on ability to out-perform, reduce time to market for new products and to reduce costs. Regulation is a key driver for this as the complexities of dealing with constant regulatory change is increasing costs and constraints on  IM firms ability to move into new, more profitable, markets. New investment themes such as liability driven investing and securities such as OTC derivatives are much more widely utilised in investment firms than, say, 5 years ago. There is also the avalanche of regulation in-flight (AIFM, Dodd-Frank, MiFIR & Solvency II to name a few)  to enforce reporting and risk management. This results in operational activities such as collateral management becoming much more complex than transacting with conventional securities.

A few months back we discussed the future of middle office outsourcing with Maha Khan Phillips in Best Execution magazine and we want to expand on those thoughts here.

Another trend we see is how the Investment Banking industry is starting to look at outsourcing the non-value-add functions to reduce costs and help streamline their business areas. They are being impacted in a similar way to IM firms at the turn of the century in terms of reduction in income and focus on cost reduction.

 Outsourcing history and developments

The first phase of outsourcing often was a simple ‘lift-out’ where the back office was separated as a whole – people, systems, and processes  with a line drawn across the organisation splitting the remaining front/middle office from the outsourced back office. This was driven by a number of factors but cost reduction and the drive to better returns was core.

As an approach the lift-out worked and enabled the IM organisation to focus on its core business of investing money.  Over time as the industry matures, the limitations of this approach are becoming clear. The ability to be responsive to new business requirements can be reduced:  flexibility in the operating model to react to new changes such as business focus, new asset classes and volume variations are often slowed by split between organisations. The outsourcers will have a number of clients with differing requirements and a limited ability to change which can impact speed of delivery.

These factors have led to some operational challenges and frictions between the client and supplier the result of which has led to a reassessment of the services and relationship. The client has a number of choices available and, as the earlier contracts mature, firms are identifying this period as an opportunity to review the current state vs. alternative strategies. The choices are broadly:

  1. Insource. To undo the lift-out and bring services back in-house. Some organisations have done this with varying degrees of success but the underlying rationale for outsourcing and the business case underpinning this needs to be closely examined.
  2. Migrate to new outsourcer. This is potentially one of the more complex solutions but also a possibility to re-engineer the business. Often there are complex interactions between the client/supplier that exist because of the way the outsource was constructed historically. This ‘web’ of interfaces, processes and procedures will need to be cleaned and logically split to migrate. Also the level of complexity from moving from one (client) organisation to an outsource supplier goes to a new level when migrating suppliers.
  3. Stay with existing and work together to improve service, relationship and capabilities.
  4. A combination of the above not excluding outsourcing more functions of the client firm.

Assuming the client strategically does not which to insource the functions then one of the most important activities is to grow the client/supplier relationship into an aligned partnership. This is the time when parties need to work together to construct a roadmap to move to a more efficient, cost effective and flexible model to deliver optimised services and capacity to grow.

This trend is gathering pace as firms look to ‘smarter’ outsourcing which bundles up groups of functions and let someone else look after the day to day management whilst enjoying a consistent service and pricing. Significant middle office functions are in-scope and included in those are what are traditionally seen as front office capabilities such as deal execution and compliance monitoring.

Interestingly the Buy-side has led the way on outsourcing. Investment banks have previously been too busy ‘running’ to keep up – growing new business areas and have been wary of outsourcing as a brake on their flexibility and ability to expand. The focus has been on IT infrastructure, testing & development and creating ‘captives’ in lower cost areas for operations. Now cost and regulatory pressures are proving a heavy burden then banks are now spending more time and energy looking into outsourcing their non-propriety functions. We think this is one of the trend areas for the next few years.

This is an updated version of our article first published in 2012. The thoughts are still very relevant and we wanted share them again.

www.twitter.com/broadgateview

The aggregation of marginal gains – what can we learn from the sport of cycling?

Posted on : 30-09-2013 | By : richard.gale | In : General News

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Sir David Brailsford is the major driver behind a revolution in the fortunes of British Cycling. The UK is now one of the most successful cycling nations with two successive Tour de France winners from Team Sky, a team that was put together barely 4 years ago. Fifteen years ago British cycling was languishing in the lower divisions, now it is riding high in the world rankings.

One of the most interesting techniques Brailsford has applied to cycle coaching is the “aggregation of marginal gains” the sum of analysing & making many small changes to an environment or training plan.  Many examples have been quoted such as heating bib shorts before use to keep the muscles warm, wiping tyres down with alcohol before the start of races to clean grit off and employing a chef to provide optimised meals for the riders.

One specific example of this is the Team Sky Bus. Every competitor has a bus but, before Brailsford and his team, none had thought about in the same way. Team Sky started from scratch and built it out to provide the perfect environment to support the riders on the tours. Every part of the rider’s routine was analysed and an environment was then designed to meet their needs perfectly. Riders need lots of clean, dry kit, the need lots of nutritious interesting food, they need somewhere private to discuss the days’ events and plan for the next one. So the bus included washing machines (muffled of course), meeting rooms, kitchen & sleeping areas customised for the riders.

The attention to detail (and an almost unlimited budget) showed through when two brand new Volvo coaches were torn apart and then 9000 man hours of kitting out took place. This process involved the coaches, riders and other staff with continuous feedback which refined the result into an additional pair of team members. Initially the rival teams dismissed the buses nicknamed “Death Stars” as just another bus (abet – expensive they ended up costing around £750k each)but as Sky’s daily results on the tours jumped up the leader boards they came to learn and respect the thought processes involved.

So what lessons can we learn on the Sky approach? Well the techniques they are using have been borrowed from business ideas but it is the consistent application of them which is making them work so well.

GB cycling & the Sky team have a similar philosophy based on the following core principles:

Setting ambitious goals

From a standing start in 2010 Brailsford said Team Sky would win the Tour de France within five years. This was seen as ludicrous by the cycling establishment. He disrupted conventional thinking by applying scientific methods to the sport and, with Bradley Wiggins victory in 2012, it actually took them three years.

We think this ‘shooting for the stars’ ambition can work for business just as well. Aiming for what could be done not what is being done changes the way people think within companies and, given the right environment, support, drive and that ambition does create winning organisations.

Focus on the end result

What is important? All around there is noise, interference and distractions so keeping the ‘blinkers’ on to aim for the end-game is critical. Saying that, blindly ignoring feedback or responses around you can be fatal too so ensuring you are aiming for the right end result is also critical.

Teamwork & Ensuring the whole team has one vision

All organisations have teams. Team GB & Sky have ensured the right mix of individuals form a team with a common, shared goal. This is something which is part directed, part in built and always reinforced. Everyone understands the obligations and rewards of having the single winning vision.

Analyse everything

Data is everything and unlocking its hidden value is another key to the team’s success. Everyone in the team understands the value of capturing as much information as possible and that data is analysed and replayed in as near time as possible. The Sky team sometimes forgo the glory of the ‘hands free’ roll over the finishing line to punch in the completion message on their bike computers.

Control & Discipline

There is a poster on the entrance to the team bus with the Team rules re-emphasises the importance of the vision and goals of the team. It does not spell out the penalties for infringement but a number of people have left the team after breaching rules either during or before their stint with Sky.

Grow the person

This is the aim of most businesses but both GB and Sky aim to get inside their team members’ heads to understand their motivations, desires and ambitions. This energy is then focussed in such a way to build and improve the team whilst maximising the personal objectives of the person.

Plan and plan flexibility

Team GB & Sky management and riders spend a large amount of their time planning for every eventuality including differing weather conditions, team strengths, rivals changing strategies and  any other factors that can influence the race. They then produce the strategic plan of the race, the day, the hour or the hill. The important piece is that any changing circumstances are fed into the plan to modify or indeed create a new plan as it is required. It is strong enough to hold up and work but flexible enough change and still be a success.

 

All these attributes can be applied to most business areas and it is the ability to plan and refine every detail which has provided British cycling and Sky with their continued success. Small continuous improvements bring marginal gains to both Sport and also Business teams.

What is also critical is that the strategy or ‘big picture’ is going in the right direction. There is no point bringing the right pillow if the bus is parked in the wrong town.

 

 

Sinking in a data storm? Ideas for investment companies

Posted on : 30-06-2013 | By : richard.gale | In : Data

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All established organisations have oceans of data and only very basic ways to navigate a path through it

This data builds up over time through interaction with clients, suppliers and other organisations. It is usually stored in different ways on disconnected systems and documents

Trying to Identify what it means on a single system is a big enough challenge, trying to do this across a variety of applications is a much bigger problem with different meaning and interpretations of the fields and terms in the system

How can a company get a ‘360’ view of their client when they have different identifiers in various applications and there is no way of connecting them together. How can you measure the true value of your client when you can only see a small amount of the information you hold about them.

Many attempts have been made to join and integrate these data sets (through architected common data structures, data warehouses, messaging systems, business intelligence applications etc) but it has proved a very expensive and difficult problem to solve. These kind of projects take a long time to implement and the business has often moved on by the time they are ready. In addition early benefits are hard to find so these sorts of projects can often fall victim to termination if a round of cost cutting is required.

So what can be done? Three of the key problems are identification of value from data, duration & costs of data projects and ability to deal with a changing business landscape.

There is no silver bullet but we have been working with a number of Big Data firms and have found a key value from them is the ability to quickly load large volumes of data (both traditional database and unstructured documents, text, multi-media). This technology is relatively cheap and the hardware required is both generic and cheap and again can be easily sourced from cloud vendors.

Using a Hadoop based data store on Amazon cloud or a set of spare servers enables large amounts of data to be uploaded and made available for analysis.

So that can help with the first part, having disparate data in one place. So how to start extracting additional value from that data?

We have found a good way is to start asking questions of the data – “what is the total value of business client X does with my company?” or “what is our overall risk if this counterparty fails?” or “what is my cost of doing business with supplier A vs. supplier B?” if you start building question sets against the data and test & retest you can refine the questions, data and results and answers with higher levels of confidence start appearing. What often happens is that the answers create new questions and so answers etc.

There is nothing new about using data sets to enquire and test but the emerging Big Data technologies allow larger, more complex sets of data to be analysed and cheaper cloud ‘utility’ computing power makes the experimentation economically viable.

What is also good about this is that as the business grows and moves on – to new areas, systems or processes then loading the new data sets should be straightforward and fast. The questions can be re-run and results reappraised quickly and cheaply.

As we have discussed previously we think the most exciting areas within Big Data are the Data science and analytics – find which questions to ask and refining the results.

Visualisation of these results is another area where we see some exciting developments and we will be writing an article on this soon.

 

 

Striking a balance with home working

Posted on : 28-02-2013 | By : jo.rose | In : General News

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The announcement this week from Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, banning the practice of working from home has divided opinion. In the case of Yahoo’s employees, she is clearly worried about the staff “slacking off” and missing the interaction with colleagues at a time when the company is under huge competitive pressure to survive. She needs to reignite the “spirit of collaboration”.

Shortly after the announcement, industry figures chipped in with their contributions.

Sir Richard Branson was quick to post his opposition to the edict from Mayer, saying that to work successfully with other colleagues depends on “trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision”.

In contrast, good old Donald Trump tweeted that Mayer is right to expect Yahoo employees to come to the workplace, adding “She is doing a great job!”

One former IBM employee went to the social media airwaves stating that that the policy was silly and short-sighted for three reasons.

  1. First, unproductive staff will be unproductive anywhere
  2. Second, Yahoo now risks losing top performers, and;
  3. Third the policy speaks of control and distrust unlikely to boost morale and engagement

We tend to agree with much of this. The problem really is in the all or nothing approach that Mayer has adopted. It is about how to create an environment that fosters productivity, regardless of physical location (indeed, it was recently estimated that $1.4 trillion is lost each year in productivity, irrespective of the seating arrangements).

The priority should be on finding better ways of working collaboratively.

The last couple of decades have brought a level of flexibility in working practices which we believe have hugely benefited both employee and employer. In the mid 90’s we started to talk about “work-life balance” and, through changing practices and technological advancements, this has evolved to where we are today.

Indeed, Charles Handy, the author/philosopher specialising in organisational behaviour and management, said;

“For the first time in the human experience, we have a chance to shape our work to suit the way we live instead of our lives to fit our work. We would be mad to miss the chance.”

However, there are of course pitfalls to allowing home working. Simply offering up the option as a kind of supplement to other rewards on an individual/piecemeal basis does not help to maximise efficiency. Similar to adopting a policy of employing remote workers or offshore resource on a case-by-case basis…it doesn’t work without looking at the bigger picture on both sides.

Here are a few thoughts in terms of a more efficient home working environment;

  • Define an operating model – this isn’t just HR policies and procedures, or leaving the ability to grant approval for home working to management/supervisors. For certain roles, particularly highly standardised or task-based, the location is truly irrelevant (so long as the rest of the environment is fit for purpose). At the other end of the spectrum there are others which require a lot more thinking in terms of team collaboration or outcome driven deliverables. Providing a schedule of onsite/home working that matches the role requirements is key. All roles need to have a defined set of principles and governance within which staff can operate efficiently. Where teams are transient, such as for projects, this structure should be well known to all and discussed/agreed effectively as part of the terms of reference for a project.
  • Build an effective “home office” space – a dedicated workspace where working at home can be achieved without the distraction of everyday life is very important. Some of it depends on your own personal discipline (see below), but where an individual works is very important. It should, of course, have the requisite technology specific to a role, but also be free from television, kids, spouses brandishing “chore requests” etc… (It is crucial to remember that personal interaction is very important, so when in the home office staff should seek to balance the day with some form of human interaction to recharge through conversation.
  • Personal Discipline – the clue in “working from home” is in the term itself. If you are one of those people easily distracted then you should avoid. Employers worry (sometimes justifiably) that by being out of sight staff will spend the whole day surfing, tweeting or on social media sites (again, some of this may be sorted through remote technology provisions). Discipline wise it is also important to have structure to the working day. With nobody potentially looking over your shoulder, you need to set clear objectives to avoid wasting the day…the pressure of an office environment is impossible to completely recreate, particularly the vision of your boss marching “Alex Ferguson style” across the floor, but you should be conscious that whilst the surrounding is more informal the role is not.
  • Oversight/Monitoring – productivity is always difficult to measure. To the point raised earlier, a balance of trust needs to be struck.  Pockets of resistance will always exist – typically from managers who can’t operate unless they are breathing down the necks of their staff.One effective measure that is used in some of the more innovative and successful technology companies is to place a much greater emphasis on peer review. For example, I was speaking to a colleague at Google recently who said that staff are not necessarily managed within the traditional organisation hierarchy – they could effectively operate their own hours as long as the objectives were delivered. When it came to assessing performance it was their peers who provided the measurement of achievement and ultimately, appraisal input. It worked really well.

For flexible working to succeed, managers need to manage their staff on the basis of results, and give them the tools necessary to achieve them.  Let’s see how Yahoo get on…

 

Disruptive – an overused and abused term or one that we should use more?

Posted on : 30-11-2012 | By : richard.gale | In : Innovation

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Disrupting an existing process, organisation or idea is always an exciting concept – often used by consultants or analysts to sell into clients their new ideas. As an overarching viewpoint it is great as it forces people to think outside their normal world on how something could be executed differently. We all have been guilty of focussing on the detail of what we are trying to do and not taking a step back to review and think about the ‘bigger picture’.

We have been working with a number of clients recently in regard to improving their process efficiency and reducing waste and manual processes. This is all really good and sometimes that is what is needed to turn a cost into a profit or allow growth without incurring additional costs or risks. Sometimes however a radical re-think of a process is needed and that’s where thinking in an alternative way may help.

So how can this be achieved?

1. Challenge everything

This could be a nightmare and be disruptive without any constructive elements – but asking ‘Why?’ has been a favoured question of a consultant (and child…) but it does force a more rigorous analysis of the subject. This can yield real value and new ideas just by asking why something occurs rather than just what occurs.

2. Document everything

We document everything we do including informal, white boarding and workshop sessions. It is hard work but reviewing what has been said, consolidating and classifying really helps move the analysis forward. Most clients have many ‘day’ jobs and someone needs to help them with this valuable documentation functions otherwise it can be lost and the cost of repeating is high.

3. Re-analyse the data

Once the thoughts and data have been analysed then a re-evaluation of the situation needs to take place. What are the options and what are the risks & benefits. How do they sit with the department, how does this lie with with organisation and it’s principles and goals.

4. Act and make decisions 

The term ‘analysis paralysis’ has been coined to describe the circular discussions that teams can fall into when tackling a difficult problem. There might not be a solution to the issue or more likely there may be many solutions of similar merit or cost.

Create some rules around these more difficult discussions, if they are peripheral ignore them (and a solution will probably emerge), if it is critical then force a decision (either by hierarchy or consensus depending on the organisation). In the majority of cases making a decision is more important than making the absolute right decision. There is usually more than one solution to a problem and not making a decision saps time, cost, energy and morale.

5. Commit to the decisions

Following through on the decisions and ensuring they are executed to completion is one of the most important areas for success. If a proposal is more radical or disruptive than the norm for an organisation then resistance to it is likely to be high. Ensuring the decision is implemented will be challenging but the alternative is to dilute the solution which is more likely to fail or provide much reduced business benefits

6. Be realistic

Organisations are different and have varying risk/innovation appetites in different areas and these change with time and circumstances. Understanding the culture and situation of a company is essential to guiding how disruptive and much the status quo of an organisation can be challenged.

So – part of our role as consultants is to challenge and disrupt to help our clients improve their organisations. As always understanding the client, their culture, their goals and their organisation is critical to help us help them.

 

 

New skills for Project Managers: What is required in today’s environment?

Posted on : 27-06-2012 | By : richard.gale | In : General News

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Do project managers now need different skills to succeed?

In the last few years the skill-sets required of project managers have changed. The traditional hard-bitten, deliverable focused and sometimes blinkered project manager is still required (otherwise many projects would not get delivered at all) but there are new skills needed to match the faster changing business and technology environment. Agility, flexibility, creativity and all importantly the ability to collaborate are becoming critical parts of the project manager’s toolkit.

Traditional Project Structure

The traditional role of the project manager was to solve a specific problem by completing a project, to specification, on time and on budget. These were his success criteria generally within the framework of a set methodology such as Prince II.

After a few projects and a bit of training the execution of a project was relatively straightforward and also pretty much fixed in scope, time and cost. The traditional lifecycle was as follows:

  • Starting up a Project
  • Initiating a Project
  • Directing a Project
  • Controlling a Stage
  • Managing Stage Boundaries and Scope
  • Managing Product Delivery
  • Closing a Project

As projects progressed then requirements could change with a change request process with estimates of impact on time and cost and a change board or steering committee would help guide the project to success. Generally, though, projects finish as they start with the same objectives and goals, those that don’t generally don’t finish (successfully anyway)

Successful Project Manager Skills

So what makes a good project manager? Asking around several of our consultants and clients there are a few core characteristics that generally exist in successful PMs

  • Organisational ability
  • Discipline
  • Focus & Drive
  • People Skills
  • Communication
  • Openness
  • Pragmatism
  • Thick skin
  • Sense of humour…

In addition business knowledge of the delivery area is essential – not the detailed skills of the BA’s and technical teams but enough to be able to understand and talk coherently around the subjects.

Emerging Project Structures

The business world is changing and becoming more uncertain. Timeframes are being compressed, internal and external events are having bigger impacts on the running of organisations. This coupled with the social expectations and skillsets of the next generation of users means that that project managers require a new set of tools in their toolbox. Often a clear remit or scope on a project is not available or changes with events and time.

New Skills Required For Project Managers

To cope with these challenges additional skills are needed to be successful with a project:

Collaboration – the command, control and direct aspects of delivery are still critical but PM’s require the buy-in, co-operation and knowledge of a broad team (often not under the direct management of the PM) then collaboration and empathy/emotional intelligence become more and more important.

Agility – organisations and their environments are changing at a faster pace so the ability to take stock and the strength to change direction mid-flight is now a required skill. Blindly completing a project and marking it as a ‘success’ as the original (now defunct) deliverables have been completed on time, on budget are now not acceptable.

Creativity – is becoming more important as solutions and the desired outcome changes often. Creativity has sometimes previously been seen as a disadvantage in a project manager. It could be ‘distracting’ and mean the goals are not met. Identifying and executing creative solutions to tricky problems encountered on the path of a project some of most valued skills a PM could possess.

We have a team of project managers that, along with their battle scars and medals from successful previous projects and programmes also have the people and creative skills to deliver projects in the current and future environment. Please contact Jo and we can see how we might help.