This week’s blog will again be in diary form as it has been a week packed with what you might call content.
Monday 1st February. I was invited to the inaugural Lecture for Laurie in honour of the late, great Laurie Young. I had known Laurie for some time but got to know him well through the Marketors. I was with him on the day he died in September 2013. (See my blog In Memoriam Laurie Young 28th September 2013) He left such a mark that numerous people wanted to establish some permanent memorial. That has crystallised as an Annual Lecture in his honour. This was organised by the Thought Leader Bureau, founded and run by Richard Chaplin, and hosted by Allen and Overy LLP on whose Advisory Board Laurie had been a valuable member.
Richard told us that the group assembled was the largest ever representation of professional service firms in the UK and so it was apposite that the subject of the lecture was The Future of the Professions. It was delivered by Richard Susskind and his son Daniel. They said that there were two types of possible future: one in which the status quo was largely preserved but technology was used to streamline processes; the second was one where increasingly capable machines actively displace workers.
Professions exist because noone can know everything. So specialists are sought out to solve or advise on specific issues. Such practical expertise thrives in a print based society but now we’re in a technology based, internet society such models are increasingly challenged and disrupted. In just one year Harvard University signed up more students to study online than it had taught in its whole history. The Susskinds gave many other examples of such rapid disruption. The Vatican has even approved an App to prepare for confession, though not yet to undertake it online.
Professions will evolve from being crafts through standardisation, then systemisation, and are thus susceptible to commoditisation, with some expert knowledge freely available online. The progress of Moore’s Law has been inexorable for over fifty years and shows no sign of slowing down. Artificial Intelligence is no longer just the stuff of Science Fiction, but growing nearer as reality. There are many ways of being smart, not just the human way.
The Susskinds predicate six alternative models:
- The networked experts model
- The para-professional
- Knowledge engineering
- Communities of experience
- Embedded knowledge
- Machine generated.
There are moral considerations. What tasks ought not to be performed by machines? And who should own and control tomorrow’s practical expertise?
The Susskinds brought on James Luke who had been part of the IBM team that developed the supercomputer Watson that defeated Kasparov at chess. He told us that after Kasparov won the first round IBM executives decided that they had to win the second. Therefore they threw brute processing force at it. They programmed Watson to examine every alternative move 14 moves ahead. No human could compete with that.
Finally a group of senior people representing the different professions gave their reaction and while no precise conclusions were agreed it was clear that the Susskinds had seriously challenged many of their assumptions. Laurie would have loved it.
Wednesday 3rd February. I chaired the monthly meeting of the Master & Wardens Committee for the first time. Policy decisions are made by the Court at its quarterly meeting but the Master and Wardens have delegated authority to run the Company between meetings. As a Warden I have attended every meeting over the past three years and so think I am well-prepared for this responsibility. But it also helps that I have a fine team of Wardens with me as has been commented on by a number of Past Masters. It is not appropriate to go into detail here but we discussed Strategic issues including updating the Four Year Plan; Membership issues noting the progress made last year in recruitment; Administrative issues including the plans for the Memorial Service to Past Master John Flynn on 15th February; and details of other events planned for the next three months.
Thursday 4th February. This marked the first business event of the year. In planning the year I had noted a number of anniversaries. Last year was marked by exceptionally significant anniversaries like the 200th for Waterloo, 600th for Agincourt and 800th for Magna Carta. Nothing like that will be coming up in 2016 but I was intrigued by the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Aeronautical Society. It seems remarkable that the far-sighted Victorians could found such a Society in 1866, 37 years before the Wright Brothers made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight in 1903. I worked with a senior director at British Airways a few years ago and she showed me round the remarkable facilities at their Waterside HQ, near Heathrow, including a wonderful museum. Knowing Liveryman Peter Short was ex-BA and a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society I asked him if he would organise a visit.
He went much further than my relatively narrow idea. We were limited to 30 members and guests and the lucky ones thoroughly enjoyed the tour of the museum which has such treasures as the telegram from the Queen Mother to her daughter on becoming Queen as she had flown to Kenya with BOAC and the only George Cross medal to have been awarded in peace time to a woman, the posthumous award to Jane Harrison in 1969. Miss Harrison was a stewardess who died in a fire trying to save the lives of some passengers after an accident at Heathrow.
We also had four fine talks. The Curator Jim Davies gave a splendid and witty presentation running through the history of BA and its predecessor airlines. His boss, a former Company Secretary, Paul Jarvis told us of the value of having a museum in which the heritage could be preserved and presented to both staff and the public. Chris Brown, a senior brand manager, told us how the brand has been turned round after the difficult days of the Gate Gourmet strike in 2005, the opening of Terminal Five in 2008, the volcanic eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in 2010 and other PR gaffes. Following a concerted campaign both internally and externally focussing on the traditional values of Britishness, flying knowhow and great service, summarised in the long term slogan “fly to serve”, BA has topped the Superbrands table for the past two years.
Finally, Senior Captain Tim Byatt, who had driven specially on a rest day from his home in Shrewsbury, described his career of 24 years and 19,000 flying hours. Probably many of us had wanted to grow up to be airline pilots. Here was a man who had lived the dream.
In the evening I was a guest of Liveryman David Haigh who was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the founding of his company Brand Finance. He organised a dinner in Mansion House and though I thought I was familiar with that lovely building, ‘the best council house in London’, we dined in the beautiful Ball Room which was new to me. David had chosen the theme of Leadership for the year and to illustrate that he had two guest speakers, General the Lord Dannatt GCB CBE MC DL and, in complete contrast, Denis Irwin, former Manchester United and Ireland fullback.
Whenever I get to meet senior military figures I am impressed by the thoroughness they take in developing leaders. The stakes ae so high in the situations they face that they go to great lengths to develop people who will keep calm and still give sensible orders even when all hell is breaking loose. But the story I will remember a long time was of the time when General Dannatt was in Bosnia after the Dayton agreement to keep the peace. Most institutions were under UN control but still the objectives of the peace accord to which all parties had signed up were not being met. Dannatt called his people together to analyse this and they concluded that the problem was the money supply was being controlled by opposition forces. They further found that this was centred in one bank in Mostar. Dannatt ordered his troops to “do the bank”. They took it at night blowing a hole in the vault walls, opening the safes taking all cash, computer equipment, hard drives etc. Afterwards Dannatt asked a couple of squaddies from the East End how it had been. “Well” they said”, “We did a bank and it was legit”.
Denis Irwin was an articulate speaker, as the Irish often are, speaking without notes. He took as his examples of leadership the great Sir Alex Ferguson, under whom he had played for twelve years at Manchester United, and Jack Charlton who managed Ireland, while Denis won some 56 caps and was a member of the side that reached the second round of the 1994 World Cup. I am a long term admirer of Sir Alex as an unabashed fan of Manchester United for well over fifty years. I have recently read his book Leading written with Sir Michael Moritz, the technology investor. And it tells you more than most of the business books I have read on the subject. And as a fan I got Denis to sign my menu.
Friday 5th February As the second half of his 20th anniversary celebration David Haigh’s annual Global Forum, also at Mansion House, addressed the theme of “Understanding the value of leadership.” But for me the real theme was Trust. The Aldermanic Sheriff Charles Bowman emphasized his commitment to the distinctive nature of the City; it depended on the Rule of Law and Trust in the commercial institutions. That had been tarnished by the banking crisis. He was reminded of the Dutch proverb “Trust arrives walking, but leaves on a galloping horse”. For him Trust is the lifeline of any organisation. It is underpinned by Leadership and Personal Responsibility.
Experienced speakers such as Patrick Barwise and Rita Clifton, who have both spoken at WCM events, gave their strong and familiar messages on brands. It was clear that everything is transparent now. Boards have to understand that the effectiveness of any brand depends on Trust. For Rita, and for me too, there needs to be a new settlement on Corporate Trust.