Paul Wallbank

Paul Wallbank is a speaker and writer charting how technology is changing society and business. Paul has four regular technology advice radio programs on ABC, a weekly column on the website and has published seven books.

Nov 252014

“My wife describes Audible as my non toxic form of midlife crisis,” says Don Katz of the company he founded in 1994 and remains CEO of today.

As Rolling Stone’s European correspondent Katz was engaged to write a book in the early 1990s about how digital technologies were changing music and what he realised was the industry was about to go through a fundamental change.

Having founded Audible in 1995, Katz was in the box seat of the first tech boom and subsequent tech wreck in 2001, seven years later he sold the business to Amazon.

In an interview with Decoding The New Economy, Katz describes a startup journey that covers all the bases.

Nov 242014

What it comes maps, trust is everything. If you’re uncertain about what a map tells you then it’s pretty close to useless.

Gizmodo has an interesting story of how tourism and residents clash underneath the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles with the resultant changes to Google Maps and Garmin GPS systems.

It’s surprising that Google, Garmin and other mapping services have agreed to create misleading maps as this devalues the trust in their services.

That’s their business choice though, although in the long term this going to deeply hurt trust in their maps.

Nov 232014
suspicious man watching for an interent scam

The debacle of Uber’s management proposing to threaten journalists drags on and is becoming a classic case of what not to do during a public relations crisis as the company and its supporters continue to make matter worse for themselves.

What’s notable about the hole Uber finds itself in is that it didn’t need to be there; a bit of maturity and commonsense, not to mention knowing when to shut up, would have helped avoid this self inflicted wound to the business.

Much of the damage done by the story could have been avoided by following a few simple steps.

Stop digging

One of life’s key rules is when you find yourself in a hole then the first step to getting out is to stop digging. When the critics are loud, shut up and take a breather. Instead of exacerbating problems, step back, have a think and, if necessary, get some professional help.

Have some perspective

The most fundamental attribute for managers and owners is not to take criticism too seriously; there are always critics and letting them consume your daily lives is counterproductive and ultimately destructive as Richard Nixon would attest.

Usually in business the critics aren’t diminishing you as a person, in most cases they are making observations about your company’s economic model or its actions in the marketplace. If you’re taking criticism too personally, it might be time for a holiday.

Just because someone is criticising you, it doesn’t mean they are in the pay of your competitors or part of the socialist-masonic-jewish-illumaniti conspiracy to get you, they may actually your best friends and even have a point.

Your business priorities

How do these criticisms affect your ambitions for your business? If Sarah Lacy thinks you’re a bunch of misogynist scumballs, does it matter? Often the critics don’t matter to your business as they are a different group to your customers, investors or staff.

Is there merit?

A key question when confronted with criticism should be ‘is there merit to this?’ Before threatening to smear or sue those pointing out your business’ shortcoming it’s good to have a look to see if the critics do have a point about what you’re doing wrong.

Fix the problem

Should it turn out the critics do have a problem, then fix it. Should it turn out your business has a toxic bro’ culture then fire a few of the toxic bros and hire some people with the backbone to fix the problem.

Be open about things

If the criticisms are legitimate, then acknowledge them and be open about how you’re going to fix them. Some critics won’t be satisfied but that’s part of life, you won’t keep everyone happy.

For those critics who will be happy, admitting you’ve made mistakes and are working on fixing the problems will win more fans and supporters. People love a bit of humility and it probably doesn’t hurt for managers to be a bit humble.

On the other hand, it might be that some of your critics do genuinely hate you, are in the pay of your competitors or part of the Illuminati conspiracy. In which case, use facts and stand your ground. In the battle for public opinion, having the facts on your side always gives you the advantage.

Personally attacking your critics though is always a mistake and, as Nixon found, smearing them turns out to be a mistake. Life is too short and time in running a growing business too scarce to be consumed by hate. Get over it and move on.

Get professional help

In Uber’s case it appears their managers have been frantically calling their buddies to help out — this hasn’t helped and has probably exacerbated an already heated environment. A good professional PR adviser or reputation management company will know how to at least ease the pressure if not completely defuse the situation.

Regardless of how good the PR adviser are though, ultimately a business’ good name comes from its management and how the company behaves. This where Uber has to take more care as it becomes a global giant.

Nov 222014

One of the key themes of this site is how  industries and workplaces are changing, one good example of this is Knightscope’s K-5 robot, a refrigerator sized device that does many of the tasks currently done by human security guards.

The K-5 comes with an impressive list of security features; live video,  facial recognition, behavioral analysis and a range of other tools to help organisations protect their premises.

With an advertised running cost of $6.25 an hour, half the US mean average wage for security guards, the robots appear an attractive proposition although one suspects the limitations of the devices, not to mention the networking infrastructure involved, won’t make them feasible for most places in the near future.

Despite its limitations, the K-5 shows the direction of robot technologies in replacing jobs that until recently were thought to be immune to automation. As the technologies inside the K-5 become smaller and lighter, future devices will become even more flexible and adaptable.

Adding to the strengths of these autonomous devices is their constant connectivity, as the promotional video shows the robot uses cloud services to run its recognition and alarm services. Coupled with various sensors and beacons within a building, and these robot security guards become formidable devices.

The applications for devices like the K-5 goes beyond patrolling shopping centres, car parks or industrial complexes; it’s not hard to see how similar devices can be deployed in applications like agriculture, mining or manufacturing for tasks where it would be expensive or dangerous to employ humans.

What the K-5 illustrates Andrew McAfee’s warning of exponential technological change being about to engulf businesses, the employment implications of that should have community leaders thinking as well.

For entrepreneurs, on the other hand, advances in robotics are another great opportunity.

Nov 212014
different technology standards like video cassettes cause problems

One of the irritations of being in Australia is the often insular and myopic view many of the nation’s business and community leaders have.

A consequence of that insularity is that business operates at a slower pace than in more competitive markets; there could be up to a five year lag between technologies being introduced in North America, Europe or East Asia and them being rolled out Down Under.

That lag creates an arbitrage opportunity for canny local investors, this post on the Investment Biker Analyst blog illustrates the thinking .

I’m not sure about the barriers to entry for potential competitors to Digivizer because part of my view as an investor since I got back to Australia is the way the markets geography has always insulated it from quick counter-punches. Think about the way the UK always seems to be the second place North American business rolls out it’s plans for sector domination. We’ve seen it over and over again. Australia on the other hand is well down the list as the market, while affluent is at 25million quite small. Also it’s a long way to come if you have to get on a plane . . . Oh, and besides that the “Aussies” can find us themselves without investing extra start-up capital.

Mike’s model is the standard for the Aussie start community; local entrepreneur looks at the hottest businesses in Silicon Valley, sets up a minimum viable copycat, pitches to investors who put money in on the hope of making a profitable exit to a dumb local player or to selling out to the market leader when they finally decide to set up an Australian operation.

Increasingly the second option isn’t working as the big player are either moving into the market quicker, which also screws the first exit option, or the locals are asking too much for their cheap knock offs.

As a consequence the local copycats are increasingly finding themselves stranded in the marketplace.

Quickflix is a good example of the local knock offs being stranded, having copied Netflix’s business model, the company has toddled along for a decade with its movie and entertainment delivery business and now faces Netflix starting an Aussie operation.

With a formidable competitor entering the marketplace, Quickflix is frantically trying to shore up its defenses, having made a $5.7 million capital raising and committing to cut costs.

One suspects though this will be nowhere near enough to build up defenses against Netflix, incumbent cable operator Foxtel, fellow steaming service Fetch TV or the bizarrely named and probably doomed Stan service setup by an uneasy coalition of fading old media companies.

In an increasingly connected world relying on the tyranny of distance to protect your business is a losing game, something that many Australian companies and investors are yet to learn.

Then again, as long as the coal trains keep running, maybe Australians don’t have to worry.

Nov 202014

At this week’s Australian Gartner Symposium ethics was one of the key issues flagged for CIOs and IT workers; as technology becomes more pervasive and instrusive, managers are going to have to deal with a myriad of questions about what is the moral course of action.

So far the news isn’t good for the tech industry with many businesses failing to deal with the masses of data they are accumulating on users, suppliers and competitors.

A failure of transparency

One case in point is that of online ride service, Uber. One of Uber’s supposed strengths is its accountability and transparancy; the service can track passengers and drivers through their journey which should, in theory, make the trip safer for everybody.

In reality the tracking doesn’t do a great job of protecting riders and drivers, mainly because Uber has Silicon Valley’s Soviet attitude to customer service. That tracking also creates an ethical issue for the company’s management and one that isn’t being dealt with well.

Compounding Uber’s ethical problem is the attitude of its managers, when a Senior Vice President suggests smearing a journalist who writes critical stories then its clear the company has a problem and the question for users has to be ‘can we trust these people with our personal data?’

With Uber we may be seeing the first company where data management and misuse results in senior management, and possibly the founder, falling on their sword.

Journalists’ ethics

Another aspect of the latest Uber story is the question of journalistic ethics; indeed the apologists for Uber counter that because some journalists are corrupt that justifies underhand tactics from companies subject to critical articles.

That argument is deeply flawed with little merit and tells us more about the people making it than any journalist’s ethical compass, however there is a discussion to be had about the behaviour of many reporters.

As someone who regularly receives corporate largess — I attended the Gartner Symposium as a guest of BlackBerry and will be going to an Acer event tomorrow night — this is something I regularly grapple with; my answer (or rationalisation) is that I disclose that largess and let the reader make up their own mind.

However one thing is clear at these events; everything is on the record unless explicitly stated by the other party. This makes Michael Wolff’s criticism of Ben Smith’s original Uber story in Buzz Feed pretty hollow and gives us many pointers on Wolff’s own moral compass as he invites other writers to ‘privileged’ dinners where the default attitude is that everything is off the record.

Playing an insider game

Ultimately we’re seeing an insider game being played, where journalists like Wolff put their own egos above their job of telling their audience what is happening; Jay Rosen highlighted this problem with political coverage but in many respects it’s worse in tech, business and startup journalism.

It’s not surprising when a game is being played by insiders that they take offense at outsiders criticizing them.

Once the customers become outsiders though, the game is drawing to an end. That’s the fate Uber, and much of the tech industry, desperately want to avoid.

Uber in particular has many powerful enemies around the world and clumsy management mis-steps only play into the hands of those who see the company as a threat to their cosy cartels. It would be a shame if Uber’s disruption of the many dysfunctional taxi markets was derailed due to the company’s paranoia and arrogance.

Eventually ethics matter. It’s something that both the insular tech industry and those who write on it should remind themselves.

Nov 192014

Technology and talent are the biggest worries for CEOs today says Peter Sondergaard, Gartner’s Senior Vice President for Global Research, however those challenges are part of a much greater shift in business.

In an interview at the Australian Gartner Symposium on Queensland’s Gold Coast, Sondergaard discussed how businesses and their senior management have limited time to adjust to a rapidly evolving marketplace.

Sondergaard believes that companies have 24 months to face the changes which academic and futurist Andrew McAfee forecasts is going to overwhelm businesses and society in the near future.

In this environment IT workers have a unique position in being responsible for implementing technologies within organisations, however according to Gartner’s research only 15% of CEOs see their tech teams as leading change within the organisation.

“The transformation that a lot of people are grappling with is ‘how do I translate this into action in leaders?'” Sondergaard suggests. “Organisations have leaders in financial backgrounds and people who understand people management, leadership and customer facing activities.”

“Businesses expect this in every senior leader hired in the organisation but somehow it’s okay to accept those people have their son or daughter do everything technology wise. In the future you can’t have that.”

“Digital leadership is at par with all other assumed skills in what is a fully rounded business leader.”

A generation change

Sondergaard sees a generational change happening in senior management as the new guard are more comfortable with technology, having had to deal with the 1990s PC boom as well as the internet during their working lives.

“The change generally happens when you switch CEO, it’s very funny to watch right now how new CEOs that come in, change the strategy completely and focus on digitalisation.”

For many companies, this is a dramatic change in business practices and one that doesn’t come without resistance within the organisation, although the marketplace may force these reforms as margins fall.

Changing focus as margins fall

A problem facing managers that Sondergaard sees is the falling margins faced by businesses as new competitors unencumbered by legacy systems enter the marketplace.

Most of these competitors bring the ‘startup ethos’ into their industries — with no fixed overheads the new entrants are far more flexible than the incumbent businesses.

Stock markets are also making the problem worse with older businesses being held to different benchmarks than the new players.

To illustrate this Sondergaard cites Amazon and IBM where are both staking their futures on cloud services that are barely profitable; for this IBM is punished by investors while Amazon continues to get stock market support.

Owning the ethical risks

Another challenge facing businesses in going digital are the ethical considerations, this is a complex and multifaceted area that is going to test managers throughout organisations as new technologies give rise to unforseen risks.

“What does your brand want to stand for in a digital world?” Sondergaard asks, “I think we will need people who articulate the brand, and what we do from a technology perspective.”

“Ethics in this is a very part of the user experience which becomes very complex very fast. If you don’t have someone who owns this from a co-ordination perspective I would say you get an element of risk that you don’t want.”

For managers across all industries the challenge is to deal with the disruption that is happening now and the greater changes that are looming, Sondergaard believes this requires a ‘bimodal’ way of doing business that balances the needs of existing markets with the demands of a much more complex fast moving developing digital marketplace.

This is a big task for managers and one that many will struggle with. Those who don’t succeed are going to struggle in a very turbulent business world.