Shaun Mccran

My digital playground


MIT autonomous Cheetah running and jumping over obstacles

MIT University recently released a video of their Cheetah project jumping over obstacles. The Cheetah project started a few years ago, the aim was to develop an autonomous robot that could perform under difficult conditions. Every now and then MIT release a video showing their progress with this.

The most recent video shows the Cheetah detecting the distance and height of an obstacle and adjusting its step length to accommodate jumping over it. You can view the Youtube video here.

This is pretty amazing stuff when you consider that this is entirely automated, it's a self-evaluating robotic Cheetah. This really shows that with a dedication of focus, thinking in the same direction, for a dedicated period of time, people can really bring something exciting and innovative into being. What will happen next to the Cheetah? Where will the MIT team take it? Well I'm excited to find out, and so should you be, as I think this could develop into many different industries and technologies, and bring about real, significant change to robotics and logical thought processing.

Read more about the MIT Cheetah here:


Can an Innovation lab fit into the classic Corporate model?

At a recent company event one of the leaders in my division presented his thoughts on designing and implementing an Innovation lab. The presenter, Daryl Wilkinson, Head of Group Innovation at Nationwide (Link: @DarylAndHobbes) put forward the idea of creating a digital Agency style innovation lab. This would allow a select group of Thinkers, Strategist and Developers to rapidly wireframe up services and applications/widgets and quickly prototype them into working, running applications.

I think this is a very interesting opportunity, but I think the radically different approaches between operating an Innovation Lab and a large-scale UK Corporate company may pose some interesting issues.

Having worked in a few smaller companies, particularly digital and marketing agencies I can see the value in this. The benefits of this sort of approach are many, including increased flexibility, ability to change direction quickly and a more open way of communicating and moving ideas around. A key principle that allows this way of working to be productive for smaller companies is the removal of barriers. These barriers might be Company rigidity, Governance rules, formulaic team structures and employee ego. By removing all of these things, you can take away, or minimise their impact on the way people think about opportunities and problems. By removing traditional working barriers, you encourage people to open up to new ways of thinking that is not constrained by traditional learnt behaviour. (This is often referred to as disruptive thinking). The two fold acts of giving them literal authority to become unconstrained in approach, and the removal of these business rules allows for a different, more agile operational model.

This also results in the blurring of responsibilities and roles within the team. Team members are far more inclined to own their own space, and stretch out into other member's spaces, as the boundaries between them are blurred, in a far more collaborative working approach.

Let us contrast that with the traditional UK corporate model. Typically, they have a far more rigid structure, with defined lines between departments and responsibilities. Employees have a role to play and generally, because of the luxury of scale, people are kept in that role, and find it difficult to venture too far into other roles without encountering resistance.

Add into the corporate mix a defined, constrictive Governance model, security policies, hard-wired policies and processes and a corporate operating model, and the attitudes that brings with it. These elements are in direct conflict with the outline described above, that not only enables but also drives an Innovation lab. How this newfound Innovation lab will integrate into a corporate environment, working its way through the barriers described here, will either enable or contain its success. It will be a tricky journey implementing, then maturing a lab like this into a working state. It could become an interesting bubble of productivity, living inside the corporate structure, creating ripples that disrupt the usual state of thinking within traditional departments. What better way to introduce change into your organisation than by having a department like this forge new ways of thinking and approaches to solutions.

I'll certainly keep an eye on how it develops, and see if any of these conflicts arise.


EE creates multi-tiered customer experience with 50p call queue-jumping charge

The mobile operator Everything Everywhere has recently caused a bit of controversy by introducing a 50 pence call fee for customers who want to jump the call waiting queue. This is available for Pay monthly (Contract) and sim only customers.

This raises some interesting questions and issues, specifically about the split in the customer base because of this. EE have effectively created a tiered customer service system with this move. Intentional or not they now have priority customers and second class customers.

Why not allow this for all your customers?

This is likely due to the spending profile, when you look at the different spending profile for Contract and pay-as-you-go customers the latter are far less likely to spend money on a premium service. Their PAYG habits mean that they are less likely to require support, and far less likely to pay for it, it typically has a more independent nature.

The dangers of a two tiered customer experience

Allowing some customers to jump the queue raises difficult questions around customer priority, and service levels. If I already have a contract that I am paying reasonable money for, why should I pay more for a support service?

Also is this queue jumping pushing other customers back? Probably. At the same time, if this is viewed as a revenue stream to EE, doesn't that encourage them to present the outward view to the customer that they are very busy, and that you should be paying for a premium service? Chances are the call centre staff are being measured on how many 'paid customers' they service rather than 'free' this will be a new KPI. By creating a bigger gap between the paid and non-paid service they can outwardly justify the fee. You can call them and receive free service, but you might be waiting a REALLY long time.... Or you could pay 50p to skip the REALLY long queue and talk to an agent sooner.

Whether this is real or not is debatable, but it does show that by creating two customer experiences ('we a care a lot because you paid' and 'we don't care because you're free') you are creating a dangerous class divide.

I'm really hoping that this isn't a trend and that other call centre providers don't follow suit. News article here:


Is it the end of the road for the telephone landline?

OFCOM recently published this year's communications market report detailing digital trends and usage amongst different age groups. [Link]

There report starts off with a particularly punch quote:

"As a result of growing up in the digital age, 12-15 year olds are developing fundamentally different communication habits than older generations, even compared to the advanced 16-24 age group."

It goes on to explain how its children leading the digital revolution with mass adoption of online applications and channels.

The following graph shows the 'weekly exposure to devices':

One thing that this report does highlight is that over the generations surveyed landline telephone usage is on the decline. This raises some interesting questions, and a few intriguing possibilities.

I put a an example case to you:

When I was a child the Landline was the ONLY telephone in the house. Now it's pretty much an ornament as modern mobile contracts tend to come with so many inclusive minutes that I only ever use the landline for premium numbers that are free on that over the mobile. All of the adults in the house have thousands of inclusive minutes. Why would they ever use the landline? Despite that I still pay a month fixed line fee though, but the actual usage bill is regularly in the pence cost bracket.

The OFCOM report is showing exactly this behaviour in children. Mobile usage is massively up, for a number of reasons, such as barriers to entry lowering, i.e. handset costs and contract allowances, and increased stability and speed in mobile networks means that the quality of service is always improving. Just search for 4G coverage in the UK.

What are the reasons for having a landline?

So why do people still have landlines?

  • 1. The first reason is to make calls.
  • 2. The second reason is because of other over-the-top services such as broadband and TV services
  • 3. The third is as a bundled product. Often service providers will cut you a discount for taking many products instead of just one. For example if I remove my landline from my Virgin Media bundle I'll actually pay MORE for not having it.

So what is the Landline used for now?

So realistically that leaves the second reason as the most valid. Some providers are still using the landline for TV broadcasting or device communications rather than their satellite network (I'm looking at you Sky). But doesn't that seem counter intuitive? Having to have a landline to support increasingly bandwidth hungry Hi-definition TV channels? What the OFCOM report shows is that the newest generations of our society don't use a landline at all. When they come of age as to be moving into their own homes and having the conversations with service providers about 'requiring a landline because you have TV' there is going to be a serious customer backlash.

Death of the landline

So I'm predicting that he landline has to find another purpose. Or its Dead. It's not good enough to be in a bundle of service, or to merely be a cost differentiator. It has to do something. Otherwise 'digital natural selection' will occur and Broadband and satellite comms will consume it.

It will follow the usual pattern of decline in as much as customer uptake will drop, meaning that the cost will rise. Suddenly all the cost and effort in dropping new lines into new housing estates and renewing old lines will start to look like a bad expenditure to the big telecoms companies. The landline will price itself out of the market, and investment in it will shrink.

You just watch. Next years annual OFCOM report will show even less landline usage in the youth generation.