‘Birmingham – A digital opportunity’

The Digital Revolution

I was recently at a Birmingham Business Breakfast Club event and the guest speaker – Simon Jenner, a technology entrepreneur – gave an inspiring and motivating talk regarding the position of Birmingham as a digital hub.

As we are all becoming increasingly aware, the digital landscape is changing and technology appears to be influencing everything we do.

A great example of this is Uber. Simon explained that within a 4 year period, the company has gone from nowhere to being a $50bn business and the biggest taxi firm in the world. Yet they own no taxis and no taxi drivers – they are a truly digital business.

Brummies Overlooked?

So, where does our great city and the surrounding area fit into the global digital arena? Simon told us that in terms of numbers in employment, digital technology accounts for the 4th largest sector, equalling 40,000 people. The public sector is still by far the biggest employer in Birmingham, with 450,000 people.

However, despite most sectors now being affected by technological advancements and despite 20% of the UK gaming industry being based in nearby Leamington Spa – why is ‘digital’ is still being overlooked?

An Opportunity

Simon is clearly very passionate about his city and technology. The issue from his perspective is that the two have not become aligned as yet, but there’s absolutely no reason why Birmingham cannot become a ‘digital hub’ on a grand scale, rivalling London, Manchester, Edinburgh…

It’s easy to think of this scenario as classic Birmingham – living up to a reputation of a city behind the times. However, it’s thanks to Simon and other visionaries that we should see this as a great opportunity for the city to build a reputation, like any brand, by offering a clear vision and standing out from the crowd.


It’s true that without a ‘champion’ business, such as a Google, it has been difficult to be seen as an industry player, but with lots of smaller individual companies – who knows which one of them could be the next overnight phenomenon?

Success breeds success, and the time is now for Birmingham to join the digital revolution.


Ashley Madison – A broken marriage

Fundamentally Flawed

“Life is short. Have an affair.”– The slogan used by website Ashley Madison offering extramarital relations and a 100% guarantee of confidentiality.

The site, which prides itself on being the ‘world’s leading married dating service for discreet encounters’, has suffered from a recent hijacking from a group of hackers known as ‘Impact Team’, who gained access to over 30 million user details and subsequently released them online.

The identity theft of users’ personal details including sexual fantasies, has swept all hope of confidentiality away from the brand. Few who’d signed up to have an affair could be happy to have that particular portion of their moral code exposed to all.

Founded 13 years ago, the Ashley Madison website concept was fundamentally flawed from the start. A service promoting betrayal of a partner will have been considered by a large majority to be of such a low moral standard, anyone who signed up would get their just desserts.

Vision, Mission and Values

A reputation can be defined as “everything you say, everything you do and everything others say about you.” (Chartered Institute of Public Relations)

In order to build and maintain a sustainable reputation, it is key for an organisation to deliver their service focusing on a clear vision, supported by a mission and set of values.

Ashley Madison’s vision could be described as becoming the world leading service for extramarital relations and ensuring people have no regrets about having an affair. Their mission would simply be to provide guaranteed privacy, secrecy, confidentiality – call it what you will. Finally, some relevant values may include‘rigorous security’; ‘changing perceptions’ and ‘customer successes’.

The Theory Bit

Jane Jacobs, the author of the business publication ‘Systems of Survival’, details that in order to be a successful company there are a number of key precepts. Let’s consider two of the most important: respect contracts and be honest.

Following the clear breach of trust to keep data confidential, it is evident that Ashley Madison had little respect for their customers’ data when they entered into a contract with them, while the guarantee of anonymity was, in fact, far from honest. In the eyes of this particular commentator, Ashley Madison will clearly struggle to survive after breaking these values and contract.

A guarantee within a legal context is described as a pledge to be responsible for another’s debt or contractual performance if that other person does not pay or perform. This provides yet more evidence that Ashley Madison is a business on the ropes as it could also be bound legally to refund their customers for an inadequate performance relating to one of their values – rigorous security.

Broken Trust

The moral question here should really be how Ashley Madison can remain a functioning business with such a blatant disregard for people’s data?

The answer is, it can’t.

There is a clear association between personal relationships and business relationships – both are based on trust. Alas, trust can take years to gain, yet can be whipped away in a flash – the Ashley Madison fiasco a case in point.

Given the kryptonite nature of the data entrusted to them, Ashley Madison clearly did not do enough to protect it. The seemingly relative ease that private information of customers has been obtained and released into the public domain is alarming and completely conflicts with the company’s mission of guaranteed secrecy – hence, a reputation destroyed, broken families and now two suicide cases.

DivorceThe trust between this business and its customers has been obliterated and it is hard to see this particular relationship not ending in divorce proceedings.

Ashley Madison’s slogan has become rather apt – “life is short”

Trust – lost by a robotic response to a human problem

United Airlines Blog

You can understand why some are concerned about the growing influence of robots in our lives when you consider United Airlines’ thoughtless response to a customer complaint.

Pushing for efficiency Chris Chmura’s flight had left twenty minutes early, leaving him at the gate feeling somewhat confused. His initial complaint was down to the behaviour and service of the gate worker who had failed to deal with the problem caused by the airline. When the Florida reporter issued his complaint United Airlines’ customer service department fell short of what it promised to deliver – instead issuing an unmoving response. The decision to add robots to the customer care team may be a step too far, and consequently have gone some way to damaging the brand image.

The major problem is the gulf between United Airlines’ promises of great customer care compared to the actual delivery of their service. If they truly promise to ‘provide great customer service’ then surely, they’d not have allowed this spell checking gaff, suggesting that his name is relatively similar to ‘Mr Human’, nor would they be so impersonal. The choice to not spell check, or even look over the response points to a lack of a strict external and internal communication policy.

With  little human intervention, what should have been a straightforward apology and correction has now been forgotten and escalated into a much bigger debacle, with the company being ridiculed for its inability to deal with a simple problem.

The idea of a customer services department reliant on its computers to confidentially deal with issues overshadows the original problems highlighted by the baiting reporter, but what’s more alarming is that Chmura has blown up a bigger problem, failure to successfully communicate with its customers in an appropriate and diligent demeanour.

Words are cheap and United Airlines has definitely proven that by saying “Mr Human, your email clearly expresses your disappointment and I would like to extend a sincere apology for any negative impression that may have been created.” How can a computer be sincere?

In all the communication error made by the airline points to a larger problem, and has gone some way to scarring the brand. If you’re going to make promises, make sure you keep them otherwise your brand will appear hollow.

That’s why a guarantee is so binding – a contractual promise that pays out if you fail to deliver rather than a few well meaning words and a discretionary compensation.

Where is the brand custodian at UA?  Why aren’t they putting up a stauncher defence?

Is this a world class company?

Chris Chmura isn’t the only angry felt passenger…

Will.i.am tweeted: @iamwill I’m flying to china and @united just gave my seats away…wtf

Robert from El Cajon, California: ‘The United flight #5422 was delayed when a crew member did not make it to work.’

Jeff of Tomball, Texas: ‘My mother-in-law who is 72 was supposed to have a direct flight with United Airlines leaving from Houston to San Francisco today. We get there. The flight’s been cancelled to 10am… So we wait till 10 then the flights cancelled to 1:15pm… the customer service is non-existent with this company.’

Would YOU trust to fly UA?

Accents in business by Jade Mansell

Jade Mansell

‘Oy kwoyt loik the berminggum accksunt’. Oh sorry, does that sound comical? And I mean the actual statement as well as the way it sounded: is it possible to have any love for the Birmingham accent?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy living close to the haven of shopping that is the Bullring, and Birmingham is supposed to be the “second city”, isn’t it? But it wasn’t until university that I realised quite how much my Brummie credentials affected perceptions of my personality.

I don’t live in Birmingham, I’m around 45 minutes away on the train – though of course this doesn’t mean anything to my lofty aristocratic southern friends. They deem anything above London ‘The  North’, whilst repressing an involuntary shudder at the thought of the murky, uncivilised wasteland that they have thankfully avoided thus far in life.

On arriving at Oxford Uni, I was astounded to find myself one of only 3 other West Midlanders in my year; needless to say I stuck out like a sore thumb. I’ll never forget the fresher’s week team-building exercise in which I addressed the whole hall with a microphone. Heads whipped round, students fell off their chairs, people took out ear-trumpets, all the better to hear the strange and jarring tones of my unlyrical utterings. Ok, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad, but I soon realised that I was different, and what’s more, I would become the butt of everyone’s’ joke.

Not that I minded – I love attention in any form – but I did find it grating that people were so quick to ‘figure me out’ based on my accent. A 2008 survey found that, as The Times put it, ‘the Brummie accent is perceived as ‘worse than silence’’. In a series of experiments, even a control group who said nothing at all were considered more intelligent than those with Brummie accents, and I have no trouble believing that. People with this bothersome accent are considered far less intelligent than those with other accents, and as such I sought to ditch mine as soon as possible.

Now don’t judge me, I wasn’t just being vain. I was thinking of my career, I swear – another survey showed that the Birmingham accent severely decreases interview success. (But mainly I was just being vain).

This all provokes the question: accents – should you tactically ditch or be proud of your roots? It’s a tricky one, and has sparked debate in the Kinetic office. On the one hand, the Brummie accent is associated with stupidity, and could be damaging. On the other, it’s quite cool to be novel, and certainly makes you more memorable. Plus, ditching your accent is like denying a part of your past. So I decided to try and embrace it, and, not gonna lie, it’s proven to be something of a talking point (see what I did there?).

Three years later and my accent has become ‘kind-of-southern-with-a-west-midlands-twang’, or so I’m told. At home, I’m posh. Amongst my uni friends, I’ll always be the Brummie. Damn!

A glimpse of business in the future by Angela Podmore

Gives a future business model in place of 'growth at any price'

Amanda Sourry believes future business must be sustainable and long-term

Beacon brands are ‘always on’ brands which not only meet expectations and go beyond and enable deeper relationships. That calls for transparency. You can only have that if you’re the real deal.

That was the topline at a fascinating http://www.bcu.ac.uk presentation by Britain’s most admired companies (as featured in http://www.managementtoday.co.uk/) where Amanda Sourry, chairman of Unilever UK and Ireland said the old model of ‘growth at any price’ is broken. Rather than see this as a threat, Ms Sourry sees it as a huge opportunity.

See the Unilever model for the future: http://www.unilever.co.uk/. In a nutshell, it’s about doubling their business but halving their environmental impact while boosting impact on society.

They’re doing it by being more long term – they’ve 50, time-bound targets. Actions speak louder than words. They’ve stopped reporting to the stockmarket and are committed to renewable energy sources.

When Mr Lever started out, he was on a mission to spread cleanliness with his bar of Sunlight soap. Unilever brands are now in 9 out of 10 UK homes. The tradition carries on. Next time you enjoy a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, savour the positive karma that you’re helping African farmers.

Ms Sourry was very generous with sharing what’s going on out there in consumerville:

• The rise of the super-savvy consumer – where bargain hunting starts at home.
• Collective buying power – witness the rise of Groupon which now has 8m members.
• Cash is king – we now prefer cash to credit card control of our money.
• We’re stretching the monthly shop – scrunching loo rolls so they don’t flow so freely!
• We’re wasting less.
• We’re waiting to buy some stuff when it’s on offer.
• Although our real income is in the sharpest decline for 35 years, our aspirations and expectations continue to climb. Capturing the consumer mood, a Leeds focus panel member’s comment: “Just because I’m poorer doesn’t mean life has to be dull.”

So good to know how a massive organisation such as Unilever is wrestling with bridging that gap between aspirations and lifestyle and making a profit. They’ve a clear plan and know why they’re in business and how they do things the Unilever way.

The event was also sponsored by: http://www.managers.org.uk/ http://www.cipd.co.uk/ and http://www.iconsulting.org.uk/ and was held at http://austincourt.theiet.org/.

There’s no I in team by Jade Mansell

Jade Mansell

One of the most overused clichés in history? Possibly. One of the most pertinent and underestimated values in business? Almost definitely. Teamwork is just one value which should help to make up a code of conduct in the workplace, and this is the key ingredient for the maintenance of reputation: a clear, enforced, and well-thought out ethos.

Shakespeare’s Cassio illustrates to us the importance of reputation: “”Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial!” Well perhaps that’s a bit much…But it does serve the purpose of highlighting that reputation is key, and should remain at the heart of any business.

The British Army purports to follow a code of conduct encompassing six core values: courage, discipline, respect, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment, and this helps them to maintain their excellent reputation. A solider must exhibit and embrace the most extreme forms of trust, placing their lives in the hands of a co-worker who will cover their backs, in what is quite literally a life or death situation. It is only this trust which allows the team to co-operate and work as a unit, and to safeguard their reputation of professionalism and self-discipline. This reputation derives from, and depends upon, unequivocal commitment, self-sacrifice and mutual trust, and, like rowers on a boat, if any one member diverges from the code of conduct, the reputation is sunk.

Take for instance the recent controversy surrounding claims that British soldiers operated a regime of systematic torture, leading to the death of an Iraqi prisoner, Baha Mousa. This incident has provoked horror from the British public, and as well as offending human conscience, violates each axiom of the army’s code of conduct. Thus the validity of the shining reputation that the army attempts to promulgate is called into question.

This example can be seen as a microcosm for businesses to observe and learn from: a lack of uniformity in adhering to the rules means that the team does not face in the same direction, and does not pull together to achieve. Even in the couple of days of my work experience here at Kinetic, I’ve seen first-hand how a carefully planned message to the employees can make a huge difference to mindset. Here the mantra is based around being challenging, rigorous, moral, pioneering, and fun, and this simple code of conduct provides a focus and an understanding of the business, as well as the expectations, in a simple, memorable way. Businesses then, would do well to learn not to neglect the importance of the code of conduct in the workplace, and within that, the central tenet of the concept of teamwork.

These values come into play at every level of work: just yesterday over lunch we were discussing a situation in which the Kinetic team found themselves, which was effectively akin to the stress of a PR court martial. I commented that under such pressure I would’ve lost my head, especially since I hate conflict. Yet to know that were I to face such a situation, I’d be standing side by side with a colleague who shares and acts on the Kinetic values, would make me feel that much more confident and able to withstand the heat: here at Kinetic we are not just in it for the money. Apply the same situation to the solider who knows his colleague is only in it for the pension, and you get a sense of the kind of insecurity one might feel – it is the same in business: there’s no I in team.

BP and Chile: building belief in a brand – by Aimee Postle

Aimee Postle

Aimee Postle

So, back in April, an oil rig blew up off the coast of Louisiana.  More than six months later and BP is still feeling the full force of the damage to its reputation, its share price and its ability to move forward with new projects.

In August, 33 miners were trapped deep underground in Chile and were not rescued until two months later.  A month after the rescue and Chile is still basking in the reflected glory of success and world attention.

Two crises, two very different outcomes.  What lessons are there to learn for business?

  • Get out of your BED (blame, excuses, denial) and pick up your OAR (ownership, accountability, responsibility) – where BP tried to blame everyone but themselves, the Chilean government took responsibility for staging a mammoth rescue attempt with the eyes of the world watching.
  • Personality matters – while Tony Haywood at BP was vilified for taking a sailing trip in the middle of the disaster, Chilean billionaire President Sebastian Pinera was available for comment and acted as a charismatic spokesperson for the country as a whole.  US President Obama’s approval rating sank after a slow reaction to the BP disaster while Pinera’s grew.
  • It all comes back to basic identity – while BP workers the world over conveniently forgot who they worked for when it came to socialising with friends, the Chilean people rediscovered their heritage and national identity.  While BP tried to disassociate itself from the crisis, Chile used their situation as a textbook example of turning a crisis into a reputation triumph.  The rescue of these 33 miners has sparked nationalist parties throughout the country with people celebrating and reconnecting to their national identity.

So, next time you get a call in the middle of the night to react to a business crisis… stop and think.  Instead of thinking about how to pass the buck, consider instead how you can own the crisis and influence your reputation positively.