Feb 282015
 
v8-supercars-launceston-communications-satellite

It’s tough being in export markets, particularly high tech ones were government supported industries are competing with each other with taxpayer funded and subsidies and guarantees.

A great example of this is the story of Australia’s Newsat, a company formed to launch the country’s first privately owned satellite.

The satellite business is tough industry with high costs, substantial risks and a number of state backed organisations competing for work.

So Newsat found willing partners – dare one call them distressed investors – who were prepared to put taxpayers’ money on the line to get a slice of the project. In Newsat’s case the US Exim bank and France’s Compagnie Française d’Assurance pour le Commerce Extérieur (COFACE).

Together the French and US agencies tipped in just short of four hundred million US Dollars, with Exim tipping in $280 million as a direct loan to support the company’s choice of American contractor Lockheed Martin to build the satellites.

Exim bank has featured on this website before in the discussion about the perverse result that US airlines get subsidies from European export agencies to buy Airbuses while European Airlines get support to buy Boeings. The result is a zero sum game where the big loser is the taxpayer.

Newsat shows again the flaws in this export model; despite early optimism, particularly around the provision of lucrative communications services to remote mines in regional Australia, the company has never really looked like delivering on its promise with the stock price bouncing around 15 Australian cents and valuing the entire company at just under a hundred million Aussie dollars.

While the big losers in this scheme appear to be Australian shareholders along with the US and French taxpayers – the Australian government had no interest in the project and Newsat was flatly rejected as the satellite provider by the country’s National Broadband Project – it turns out the executives will do quite well from the project.

Fairfax Media’s Business Day reports the Newsat project is mired in various legal and management problems not helped by the chief executive Adrian Ballintine and investor relations manager Kahina Koucha travelling the world in first class.

Koucha accompanied Ballantine and a handful of other NewSat executives on their 2013 and 2014 global sales missions. There is no doubt the NewSat team worked very hard drumming up support for Jabiru-1. But it also appears that Ballintine and his team used company funds to travel in opulent style.

Koucha’s Instagram snapshots of the NewSat trips to New York, Washington, Paris, Dubai and London look like the setting for a clichéd, blinged-out hip hop music video. There are the first class airline cabins, luxury hotels, French champagne, a Rolex watch and lavish dinners. The NewSat crew from Melbourne were clearly the coolest in the satellite sphere.

In the past two financial years, NewSat has spent almost $1 million on travel, according to its published accounts. As Koucha wrote on one of her Instagram posts of herself relaxing in an airline’s first class cabin while on a NewSat trip: “We travel in stylllleeee (sic)”.

When the US and French taxpayers are picking up the tabs, why not live like a gangsta?

Despite the hard work of Ballantine, Koucha and the rest Newstar’s executive team, the company continues to struggle in the search for customers for it’s already launched Jabiru-2 and the Jabiru-1 project is now in jeopardy due to missed payment deadlines.

At least somebody had some first class travel and good meals out of the venture and no doubt in the scheme of things, Newsat is small beer compared to many of the export projects being funded by the US and French taxpayers.

Feb 222015
 
how are we using data in our business

“To my knowledge we have had no data breaches,” stated Tim Morris at the Tech Leaders conference in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney on Sunday.

Morris, the Australian Federal Police force’s Assistant Commissioner for High Tech Crime Operations, was explaining the controversial data retention bill currently before the nation’s Parliament which will require telecommunications companies to keep customers’  connection details – considered to be ‘metadata’ – for two years.

The bill is fiercely opposed by Australia’s tech community, including this writer, as it’s an expensive   and unnecessary invasion of privacy that will do little to protect the community but expose ordinary citizens to a wide range of risks.

One of those risks is that of the data stores being hacked, a threat that Morris downplayed with some qualifications.

As we’re seeing in the Snowden revelations, there are few organisations that are secure against determined criminals and the Australian Federal Police are no exception.

For all organisations, not just government agencies, the question about data should be ‘do we need this?’

In a time of ‘Big Data’ where it’s possible to collect and store massive amounts of information, it’s tempting to become a data hoarder which exposes managers to various risks, not the least that of it being stolen my hackers. It may well be that reducing those risks simply means collecting less data.

Certainly in Australia, the data retention act will only create more headaches and risks while doing little to help public safety agencies to do their job. Just because you can collect data doesn’t mean you should.

Jan 282015
 
old farm equipment

Last week’s events in Canberra shows business can’t wait for the government to lead industry change. If you want to keep up with technology, you’re going to have to do it yourself.

In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis many of my business clients were in trouble as banks tightened their lines of credit and consumers slammed their wallets shut. After a decade of running businesses, it was time to get a job.

The job I found was with the small business division of the New South Wales Government’s then Department of State and Regional Development where I quickly discovered how many companies and ‘entrepreneurs’ came looking to the government for money and leadership.

While there were some state government support programs available for exporting, high-tech and biotech businesses almost all of those approaching the Department were hopelessly unqualified for the assistance that was at best only involved marginal amounts of money.

The toughest part of my job was gently turning those people away without upsetting them too much. Often I failed and part of the reason for that was that many of those believed the government would take leadership in a changing digital world and fund ideas that would help the state’s and nation’s competitiveness.

I was reminded of my brief period as a public servant and the futile attempt for  with last week’s disasters for the Australian tech sector; the Prime Minister’s claim that social media is little more than digital graffiti and the still born announcement of a Chief Transformation Officer.

Last week’s announcement of Chief Transformation Officer who happens to have no budget – the UK office the local initiative is based upon received more than a hundred million dollars in the Brits’ last budget –  is probably the best indication of how far behind the ball Australian governments, particularly the Federal level, are in dealing with a changing economy.

A Chief Transformation, or Digital, Officer can be an important catalyst for change but to achieve that they have to have the support of the organisation’s leadership; if the CEO or minister isn’t on board then the CTO or CDO is doomed to irrelevance.

The Prime Minister’s blithe dismissal of social media as being digital graffiti over the weekend shows just how little support an office charged with managing the Australian government’s transition to digital services will get from the executive. The sad thing is none of the likely alternatives – on either side of politics – to the current Prime Minister seem to be any more across the changes facing governments in a connected century.

One good example of the profound changes we’re seeing is in agriculture; this feature on farming robots shows just how technology and automation is changing life on the land. These applications of robotics are going to affect every industry, including government.

As we’ve discussed before, if you want digital leadership then you’re going to have to provide it yourself . If you’re going to wait for the government, then times are going to overtake you. How are you facing the changes to your business and marketplace?

Jan 262015
 
management-sending-email-on-computer

As the scale of technological change facing organisations becomes apparent, managements are appointing Chief Digital Officers to deal with the adjustment. Is this a good idea or just window dressing?

Last week the Australian Federal government became the latest  administration to announce they will appoint an executive to manage the process.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the Digital Transformation Office will be charged to co-ordinate the adoption of online services across agencies and state governments.

“The DTO will comprise a small team of developers, designers, researchers and content specialists working across government to develop and coordinate the delivery of digital services,” the Minister’s announcement stated. “The DTO will operate more like a start-up than a traditional government agency, focussing on end-user needs in developing digital services. ”

Minister Turnbull hopes to emulate the UK Office of the Chief Technology Officer which was launched with the intention of delivering streamlined sign ons, simplified government websites and easier access to online services in Britain; although the experience has not been a great success so far.

What’s notable about the UK experience is the CTO came with high level support within cabinet, which gave the agency a mandate within the public service to drive change.

A job without a budget

That the Australian CTO has no budget – its UK equivalent has over £58 million this year – indicates it will not have a similar mandate and will struggle to be little more than a letterhead.

When Digital Officer do have the support of senior executives and ministers, it’s possible to achieve substantial returns. Vivek Kundra, former Chief Information Officer in the Obama administration described to me in an interview two years ago how his office had created a dashboard to monitor government IT projects.

Kundra learned this lesson from his time as the US Government’s CIO where he built an IT Dashboard that gave projects a green, yellow or red light depending upon their status.

Some of these government projects were ten years late and way over budget, the dashboard gave the Obama administration the information required to identify and cut over $3 billion worth of poorly performing contracts in six months.

This is low hanging fruit that a well resourced group with the support of senior management can drive.

Looking beyond end users

A concern though with these CIO positions is they are only looking at part of the problem with the UK, US and Australian teams all focusing on end-users.

While no-one should discount the need for easy to use online services for customers or government users; digital transformation has far greater effects on private and public sector organisations with all aspects of business being dramatically changed.

In Germany a survey last year by management consultants PwC found eighty percent of manufacturers expected their supply chains would be fully digitised by the end of the decade, almost every industry can expect a similar degree of change.

The risk for CTOs focused on how well websites work is they may find the digital transformation within their organisations turns out to be the greater challenge.

Indeed it may well be the whole concept of Chief Transformation, or Digital, Officers is flawed as digital transformation is pervasive; it affects all aspect of business through HR and procurement to management itself.

Passing the buck

The great risk for organisations appointing a CTO or CDO is that other c-level executives may then believe those individuals are responsible for the effects of digital transformation on their divisions.

While Chief Digital, or Transformation, Officers can have an important role in keeping an organisation’s board or a government aware of the opportunities and challenges in a rapidly changing world, they can’t assume the responsibilities of adapting diverse businesses or government agencies to a digital economy.

Done well with proper resources and management buy in, a good CTO could genuinely transform a business and be a catalyst for change.

Regardless of the responsibilities a CTO or CDO assumes within an organisation, for the role to be effective the position needs the full support of senior management and adequate resources.

If a company or government wants to pay more than lip service to digital transformation then a poorly resourced figurehead is needed to drive change.

Jan 192015
 
v8-supercars-launceston-truck-fleet

Last weekend Uber founder Travis Kalanick told a tech conference in Munich, Germany how his company wants to take 400,000 cars off Europe’s road by the end of the year.

On Monday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported the nation’s car sales were at best flat, a trend that’s been apparent for two years and one being repeated around the world as younger adults turn away from automobiles.

The technology that defined the Twentieth Century was the motor car; it reshaped our cities, changed our lifestyles and drove the consumer economy.

Now that economy is changing and the motor car, and consumerism in general, is in decline.

Which leads to the thought of what our communities will look like if the motor car isn’t the defining feature?

A challenge for governments

One obvious answer is we won’t need as many roads and carparks so governments will have to shift their priorities towards public transit and shared car services.

Governments are also faced with voters wanting more services closer to centres as the 1950s model of dad driving an hour to work or the 1970s model of the family driving to the shopping mall are no longer valid. This has serious ramifications for communities were land use has been zoned based upon twentieth century assumptions, not to mention their taxation bases.

That zoning problem has ramifications for property developers as well, it’s possible to argue this is already happening as pressures mount to turn over more inner city areas to high rise buildings.

Redefining retail

For retailers, it means the end of suburban big box stores and more focus on smaller stores with delivery services – a trend we’re already seeing in larger cities.

The finance industry as well is affected by the shift away from personal ownership of cars as automobile loans and leases have been a lucrative business for the last fifty years. If people are no longer fussed about owning a car then then there’s little demand for easy payment plans.

With the motor car not being as important to people, we start to see a society with very different economic underpinnings to that we became used to in the late Twentieth Century. How do you think our communities and businesses will look in a world without cars?

Jan 182015
 
churchill-stalin-roosevelt-potsdam

Today’s links include a look at the complexities of the Charlie Hebdo discussion, how Lithuania intends a passive aggressive response to a Russian invasion and how Winston Churchill was not always Britain’s most admired figure.

Should we hang Mr Churchill?

The New Statesman has delved into its archives to find its articles on Winston Churchill, it’s an interesting article that shows the complexities of the Churchill myth and legend.

Lithuania’s plan of passive resistance

Having the Russians occupy your country is a living memory in Lithuania. With the troubles in the Ukraine, the Lithuanian authorities are planning for a future invasion. Their advice is to be passive aggressive.

The world’s highest cost living

Which countries are the most expensive for a British expat to live in? Switzerland and Norway top Movehub’s list with the UK coming in tenth, New Zealand seventh and Australia sixth.

No, I am not Charlie

A British cartoonist’s view on the Charlie Hebdo murders illustrates the complexities beyond the facile soundbites.

The popping of the tech startup seed bubble

Has the tech startup mania peaked? The funds being invested into startups at seed stage seems to falling away, which may not be a bad thing suggest Alex Wilhelm.

What’s your password?

The Jimmy Kimmel show went onto the streets asking people what their passwords are. The results, sadly, are not surprising.

Jan 152015
 
project-ara-google-phone

The scale of the carnage Boko Haram has inflicted on remote parts of Nigeria is becoming more apparent every day and satellite imagery shows just how much damage the insurgent group is doing to communities in its territories.

Closer to home, Google’s Project ARA gets another outing, we look at how economies can deal with the jobless future, what a terrible aunt Ayn Rand was and how the IoT is going to sea.

The IoT goes to sea

At the CES show two weeks ago Ericsson launched their new maritime cloud service that promises to connect ocean going ships to the same services available on land

Google unveils more about Project Ara

Project Ara is Google’s attempt to reinvent the smartphone, the project came a little closer to completion with the company showing off some of its progress

Creating the innovation state

What do we do in a world where most people’s jobs have gone? Create an innovation state rather than a welfare state could be an answer suggests one economist.

The extent of Boko Haram’s massacres

Words fail to describe the horrors being visited on the people of Nigeria.

Ayn Rand was a terrible Aunty

What happened when one of Ayn Rand’s nieces asked aunty for a $25 loan?