The transformative impact 5G will have on the sport sector

Most sports business leaders say the changes brought about by fifth-generation technology will be key to future success on the field and off it

More than three-quarters of leading business decision-makers in the sport sector believe that the fifth generation of cellular network technology (5G) will be key to future success, according to new research published by telecommunications giant Vodafone.

Compared with 4G, 5G promises faster response times (latency), superior reliability and resilience, and download speeds that are up to 10 times quicker.

And the research, released in early October to coincide with the opening of the Vodafone Business Lounge at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry – home of Wasps’ rugby and netball clubs – is compelling.

Seventy-six per cent confirmed their sports organisation will use 5G as a platform for innovation with four out of five respondents (80 per cent) saying they are confident 5G will underpin the way they run their organisations in the near future.

However, while the research shows that while 78 per cent believe the sports sector drives incredible innovation, 70 per cent think it lags behind other industry sectors in adopting new technology – and Anne Sheehan, director of Vodafone Business UK, says this is where 5G can dramatically alter the sporting landscape.

“Sport is an area where 5G technology will have a huge impact,” she says. “This technology is a game-changer for business, the economy and the UK as a whole. It has the potential to transform the fan experience, change the way sports organisations operate, open up new revenue opportunities and help athletes improve their fitness and training programmes.”

Kevin Hasley, head of product at RootMetrics, a performance benchmarking firm, said 5G will boost the capabilities of elite athletes, whether through more rapid data-driven decisions, or improved virtual and augmented-reality applications, and even better injury prevention and rehabilitation. “Professional teams are already tracking their players,” he says.  “But greater 5G data speeds will enhance performance tracking even more.”

Notably, the Vodafone research shows that 75 per cent of respondents think that player performance will only improve if 5G is applied effectively to tracking.

“For team-based sports, where digital communications channels exist throughout an event such as a Formula One race, 5G could be the difference between first and second,” Mr Hasley adds. “Whether you’re a racing driver, jockey, sailor or golfer, 5G will enable athletes to train virtually under more realistic settings, meaning professionals can continue to refine their skills despite the bad weather that may have previously prevented them from training outside.

“The greater data speeds and increased connectivity that 5G brings with existing VR equipment will allow zero-latency training and uninterrupted practice which mimics the conditions of a course or track.”

Mak Sharma, a professor in computer science at Birmingham City University, agrees that the teams, athletes and coaches that embrace 5G will accelerate their chances of success.

“It will be possible to ‘wire up’ athletes with multiple tiny sensors that will transmit physiological body signs, micro-movements of joints, limbs, and so on, as well as acceleration, speed and altitude,” he says.

“These can be modelled in real-time using artificial intelligence (AI) and deep-learning techniques to inform coaches to help provide nuanced changes to provide competitive edge. This is only possible by an ultrafast streaming data connection that 5G can provide.”

Prof Sharma points to the current Rugby World Cup in Japan where, he says, the top countries are using 5G. “With the data that can be exchanged simultaneously with players on the field of play and the back-office fitness team, it is possible to have a virtual and even a holographic representation of the last tackle or scrum. This enables coaches and medics can walk round the images, so that that near-real-time decisions can be used to inform players on how to approach the next play.”

But how will 5G, which was switched on in seven cities across the UK by Vodafone in early July, ‘underpin’ the way in which sports organisations operate?

“We’re seeing more sports teams and rights-holders shifting to become entertainment companies, first and foremost,” says Mark Lloyd, Planner at Dark Horses, a sports-focused marketing agency. “As consumption of video content rises in line with 5G adoption, this will only intensify. Teams and rights-holders will be able to seek more innovative ways to capture and distribute content to their fans.”

Alan Stewart-Brown, vice-president of EMEA at global computer network technology company Opengear, says: “Sports venues have an interest in making their venues more ‘sticky’ – meaning that fans stay longer at the venue and therefore spend more money – and I predict 5G-enabled stadia will be rolled out more widely over the next two years.”

Another sporting revolution is brewing – and 5G is at the heart of it.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in November 2019

Humans of the near future

The world’s preeminent ‘cyborg artist’, Neil Harbisson (pictured above), has been stopped “several times a day, every single day, since March 22, 2004”. It’s impossible for him to forget the date: that Monday, 13 years ago, he had an antenna fixed to his skull in order to ‘hear’ colour. The attention generated by the unique appendage can be “really tiring”, London-born Harbisson admits to Raconteur. But, he believes, such sights will be the norm, and sooner rather than later thanks to the inexorable march of technology.

“Initially people questioned whether my antenna was a reading light,” says the 34-year-old, who sees in grayscale but can sense colours (the majority of which are beyond the visual spectrum) 360 degrees around him through audible vibrations. “By 2005 those who approached me thought it was a microphone; in 2007 most reckoned it was a hands-free device; and the following year a lot of them suggested it could be a GoPro camera. In 2012 the top guess was something to do with Google Glass, and more recently a selfie stick has been popular. Lately, people shout ‘Pokémon’ at me.”

Similarly, officials at Her Majesty’s Passport Office didn’t quite know what to make of Harbisson’s antenna to begin with. “On the photograph I submitted I argued that it was not electronic equipment but a new body part, and that I felt that I was a cyborg, a union between cybernetics and organism,” he continues. “I’m not wearing technology; I am technology. It doesn’t feel that I’m wearing anything, it’s just an integrated part of my body; it’s merged with my skull so it is part of my skeleton. There is no difference between an arm, my nose, an ear, or my antenna. In the end, they agreed and allowed me to appear in my passport photograph with the antenna.”

Harbisson had no real issue adjusting to sleeping with an antenna atop his head, but there were other teething problems. “As I had become taller, at the beginning I would bump into doors upon entering cars, and get stuck in branches of trees,” he says. “And I would struggle to put jumpers on. I had to become used to the organ, the body part, as well as get used to the new sense, and it took a while. Having a new sense is something that most people have never experienced. It transforms your life because you perceive absolutely everything differently.”

Moon Ribas, Harbisson’s Catalan partner and fellow cyborg artist who he met when the pair studied at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, has two implants in her arms that allow her to perceive the seismic activity of the Earth and the Moon. Formerly, she warped her vision for a three-month period by using kaleidoscope glasses, and would wear earrings that quivered depending on the velocity of people moving behind her.

For fun, the out-there couple enjoys linking to satellites using NASA’s live feed from the International Space Station. “Instead of using my eyes to see the images, I simply connect the antenna to the data that comes from the satellites, and then I receive vibrations in my head, depending on the colours,” Harbisson says. “They have so many sensors in space that are collecting data, but no-one is actually looking at it. I feel I’m a ‘sensestronaut’ or a ‘mindstronaut’ because my senses are in space while my body is here on Earth.”

Future of humanity

Mindstronauting aside, it’s been a busy year for Harbisson, and a significant one for the future of humanity, with cyborgs in the ascendancy. At March’s South by Southwest – the annual conglomerate of film, interactive media, music festivals and conferences held in Austin, Texas – Harbisson, Ribas, and BorgFest founder Rich MacKinnon presented a draft of the declaration of cyborg rights and also introduced an accompanying flag “which you can only detect if you can sense infrared”.

“We believe it should be a universal right for anyone to have a new sense or a new organ,” argues Harbisson. “Many people can identify strongly with cybernetics without having any type of implant, and there has been a lot of support. There may even be a ‘cyborg pride’ parade in Austin next year.”

Additionally, in February his startup Cyborg Nest, co-founded with Ribas in 2015, began shipping its first product, North Sense – a $425 DIY embeddable device that gently vibrates when the user faces magnetic north.” (Mind-boggling pipeline projects, kept under wraps, reportedly include silent communication using Bluetooth, a pollution-detecting device, and eyes in the back of the head.)

I’m not wearing technology; I am technology

Cyborg Nest is just one of a growing cluster of ‘biohacker’ startups offering a variety of sense-augmenting implants, with body enhancements, prosthetics and genetic modifications are increasingly popular. Pittsburgh-based Grindhouse Wetware, for instance, has been developing ‘implantables’ since 2012, such as Circadia, a device that sends biometric data wirelessly via Bluetooth to a phone or tablet, and Northstar, which allows gesture recognition and can detect magnetic north (as well as the rather gimmicky feature of mimicking bioluminescence with subdermal LEDs).

What does it mean to be human? The answering of this existential puzzler has powered progression for millennia, but now, as nascent technologies fuse physical, digital and biological worlds, it has never been more complex, and critical, to define the age-old question. Alarmingly, we are hurtling inexorably towards the ‘singularity’ – a hypothetical point when artificial intelligence advances so much that humanity will be irreversibly disrupted. But, in fact, the migration from man to machine has already started.

(Photo credit: Lars Norgaard)
Cyborg king (Lars Norgaard)

What is transhumanism?

Entering ‘Sir Tim Berners-Lee’ – the Briton who created the World Wide Web 28 years ago – into a Google search throws up almost 400,000 results. That figure is almost six times fewer than ‘transhumanism’, a movement few have heard of, yet one which is beating the heart of progress, albeit beneath the radar.

The touchstone definition from a 1990 essay by Dr. Max More, the Oxford University-educated chief executive officer of Arizona-based Alcor Life Extension Foundation, states: “Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.”

The benefits would be even broader across the whole of society if everybody got a little bit smarter

A raft of tech billionaires are considered either ‘de facto transhumanists’ or are fully signed up to the movement. Luminaries include Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and Facebook’s first professional investor worth an estimated $2.7 billion by Forbes, Elon Musk, of Tesla Inc. and SpaceX fame, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and – according to H+Pedia (an online resource that aims to “spread accurate, accessible, non-sensational information about transhumanism”) – Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Dr. Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, suggests that transhumanism “questions the human condition”, and tells Raconteur: “It is in many ways a continuation of the humanist project, seeing human flourishing as a goal, but recognising that human nature is not fixed. Rather than assume it is all going to be an entropic mess, transhumanism suggests that many serious problems can be solved and that we do have a chance for a great future.”

There are practical, utilitarian, reasons why submitting one’s body to technology makes sense – at least to Dr. Sandberg and his fellow transhumanists. “Consider that the Government spends £85.2 billion on education every year; even a slight improvement of the results would either be a huge saving or enable much better outcomes,” he continues. “One intelligence quotient (IQ) point gives you about a two per cent income increase, although the benefits would be even broader across the whole of society if everybody got a little bit smarter.

“Childhood intelligence also predicts better health in later life, longer lives, less risk of being a victim of crime, more long-term oriented and altruistic planning – controlling for socioeconomic status, etc. Intelligence does not make us happier, but it does prevent a fair number of bad things – from divorce to suicide – and unhappiness.”

While Dr. Sandberg suggests that the aforementioned DIY ‘grinder’ self-surgery movement “problematic” he is “firmly in favour of self-experimentation and bodyhacking”. He flags up the apparent triumph of Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of Seattle-based BioViva, who in September 2015 underwent what her company labelled “the first gene therapy successful against human ageing”; it was claimed that the treatment had reversed the biological age of Parrish’s immune cells by 20 years.

The Swede is also optimistic about the prospect of ‘mind uploading’, or ‘whole-brain emulation’, as he prefers to call it. He acknowledges that the enabling technology is “decades away” but believes we could “become software people with fantastic benefits: no ageing; customisable bodies; backups in case something went wrong; space travel via radio or laser transmission; and existing as multiple copies.”

Little surprise, then, that Dr. Sandberg is keen on ‘cryonics’ – the deep-freezing of recently deceased people in the belief that scientific advances will revive them – and is fully signed up for Dr. More’s Alcor, the largest of the world’s four cryopreservation facilities. It currently houses 117 ‘patients’, who are ‘considered suspended, rather than deceased: detained in some liminal stasis between this world and whatever follows it, or does not,’ Irish author Mark O’Connell writes in To Be a Machine on the subject of humans of the future.

For Dr. Sandberg, the $200,000 cost of whole-body perseveration is justifiable as it would be “irrational not to” take the negligible odds that technologic advances will revive him, at some point. “Sure, the chance of it working is small – say five per cent – but that is still worth it to me,” he says. “And after all, to truly be a human is to be a self-changing creature.”

Is it morally wrong to augment humans?

David Wood, chairman of London Futurists, counters that question by firing a cluster of his own, asking Raconteur: “Is it morally wrong to teach people to read, or vaccinate people? Is it morally wrong to extend people’s lives by using new medical treatments, or seek a cure for motor neurone disease, or cancer, or Alzheimer’s? They are all forms of augmentations.”

Having warmed up the Scot, who spent eight years studying mathematics and then the philosophy of science (specialist subject quantum mechanics) at Cambridge University, he says: “Recall the initial moral repugnance expressed by people when heart transplants first took place. Or when test-tube babies were created, or when transgender operations were introduced. This moral repugnance has, thankfully, largely subsided. It will be the same, in due course, for most of the other enhancements foreseen by transhumanists.”

Wood, a science-fiction lover from childhood, was switched on to transhumanism “in the early 2000s”, after reading The Age of Spiritual Machines, a seminal book written by futurist Ray Kurzweil, who would later be personally hired by Google co-founder Larry Page “to bring natural language understanding” to the organisation. Famously, the American author has predicted that the ‘singularity’ is on course to happen in 2045, though many critics dismiss his forecast as fanciful and dogmatic.

We could become software people with fantastic benefits

Regardless, transhumanism is on the rise in Britain. “The UK Transhumanist Association (UKTA) used to half-jokingly refer to themselves as ‘six men in a pub’,” says Wood, who in July 2015 co-founded H+Pedia “The UKTA was superseded, in stages, by London Futurists – which covers a wider range of topics – and we now have over 6,000 members in our Meetup group.”

So, what does the near future hold for humanity?

“We can envision ever larger gaps in capability between enhanced humans and unenhanced humans,” adds Wood. “This will be like the difference between literate and illiterate humans, except that the difference will be orders of magnitude larger.

“Transhumanists anticipate transcending the limitations which have been characteristics of human experience since the beginnings of Prehistory: ageing; death; and deep flaws in reasoning. Maybe once that happens, the resulting beings will no longer be called humans.”

This article was originally published by Raconteur in June 2017

Tech-enabled finance could save your company

When crises hit, organisations always lean heavily on their internal finance specialists to reduce costs, streamline operations and plot a roadmap to recovery, in that order. While lessons should have been learnt after the global economic crash a dozen years ago, and more robust business continuity plans established, it was impossible to predict the speed, scale and severity of the coronavirus pandemic.

Once again, business leaders are looking, desperately, to their finance teams for rapid solutions to colossal challenges. It’s a mighty responsibility, given the amount of uncertainty and an impending global recession.

“During the current crisis, C-suite executives rely on financiers to identify the most cost-effective sources of financing, not only for the survival of the firm in the short run, but also for the growth that follows economic stagnation,” says Dr Nikolaos Antypas, finance lecturer at Henley Business School.

“For most companies, the top-down directive is: survive first, grow later. Since the pandemic started, the role of internal finance has shifted towards turning down or postponing indefinitely any project or cost item with non-existential importance.”

However, unlike in 2008, access to digital technologies, cloud storage and data analysis are enabling faster results, greater agility and collaboration, and better forecasting. If COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation, the financial function is in the driving seat of that change.

Finance Tech

Tech-savvy organisations have major advantage

Laggard organisations that decline to embrace technology will fail. And even industries that have rallied well since lockdown, such as ecommerce and healthcare, should be anticipating more obstacles on the road to recovery.

“The threat of decreasing revenue looms ominously,” warns Antypas, nodding to the tapering of the furlough scheme, which could trigger a sharp rise in unemployment. “No company should be complacent with their current success; their customer base is about to lose its revenue stream and that loss can have devastating ripple effects. Even the most profitable company can suffer if cash flows are not managed efficiently.”

Red Flag Alert, a credit risk management company, has amassed financial data of UK businesses for the last 16 years. The analysis is bleak. “UK industry is facing a mountain of unsustainable debt; it could be as much as £107 billion,” says Mark Halstead, a partner at the Oldham-based firm.

“Technology and data will be critical to companies bouncing back from the pandemic. It will also enable businesses to protect themselves and strive for growth in an economy saddled with record levels of debt.”

Technology and data will enable businesses to protect themselves and strive for growth in an economy saddled with record levels of debt

Organisations that invested in digital technologies and evolved the financial function before the pandemic have an early-adopter advantage. Kaziu Gill, who co-founded London-headquartered LimeGreen Accountancy in 2009, has long promoted accountancy software and other digital tools to his clients, who are mostly small and medium-sized businesses in the creative industries.

“COVID-19 has forced many businesses to change and become leaner and more mobile, but we have managed to continue without any disruption,” he says. “In some cases, we have been more productive.

“We are seeing more businesses exploring how they can grow digitally and the suite of tools that we use complements any organisation’s approach to budget and forecasting.”

Finance functions arm themselves with digital tools

LimeGreen enjoys a partnership with cloud-based accounting software platform Xero. “We offer plug-ins to Xero, like Spotlight, which is a great forecasting tool, and Receipt Bank,” says Gill. “And there are other project management tools that help link the financial function with human resources, such as CakeHR. We have always strived to utilise tech and now financial functions simply have to make that transition to digital. Pieces of paper are no good when you can’t send or receive physical mail during lockdown and with remote working.”

He argues that the recent open banking directive – a government-enforced programme designed to open up banking data, launched in 2018 – strengthens the case for finance departments to embrace digital tools. “It’s the perfect time because every bank in the UK is obligated to open up their application programming interfaces so third-party software companies can use them.”

Xero, for instance, recently launched a short-term cash-flow tool that projects bank balances 30 days into the future, showing the impact of existing bills and invoices, if paid on time. “This capability helps the financial function to scenario plan accurately and make changes to business plans instantly,” explains Donna Torres, Xero’s general manager of global direct sales and operations.

“It’s more important than ever for organisations to have an up-to-date view of their cash flow so they can plan, forecast and make the right decisions about their future. Cloud accounting technology provides a real-time snapshot.”

Empowering finance teams to change business plans

Financial functions that push to arm their organisations with other digital tools, including artificial intelligence-powered document scanning and e-signature, are discovering they can achieve company-wide efficiencies almost overnight.

Mike Plimsoll, industry head of financial services at Adobe, offers a banking example. “Facing increased demand with reduced branch capacity to maintain social distancing, TSB acted quickly to transform a significant amount of offline forms into digital-only interactions, creating an end-to-end journey for its personal and business banking customers,” he says.

“After implementing Adobe Sign, TSB managed over 80,000 customer interactions in the first eight weeks, saving the need for up to 15,000 potential branch visits.”

Plimsoll posits that by switching their processes and establishing digital technologies, finance teams have been able to “keep the business moving and react quickly to the shifting landscape and help steer a course through the uncertainty”.

Adopting a shorter planning window is paramount for business continuity and recovery, says Thomas Sutter of Oracle NetSuite’s Global Solutions Centre of Excellence. “Most businesses operate on a 12-month budget cycle and manage strategictra plans with longer timeframes, but at this time the focus must shift to immediate priorities,” he says.

“Now more than ever, establishing a clear framework of visibility and control will streamline and protect cash flow in the short term, keep customers happy, and reveal new and innovative options business leaders have available to drive the business forward in the future. Finance leaders and their teams will be at the heart of these strategic moves.”

Finance departments may have had more responsibility thrust upon them when COVID-19 hit, but it seems their role will only grow in importance in the coming months and years. Technology is both empowering and enabling their new lofty status.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Business Continuity and Growth report in August 2020

‘Innovation is made, not born’

Business leaders seeking to justify the critical need to drive innovation often, and erroneously, quote Charles Darwin, whose 1859 book On the Origin of Species transformed the world. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the most adaptable to change,” according to the sage advice.

Alas, there is scant proof the English evolutionist said or wrote those famous words. Nevertheless, the paraphrased comment holds water in 2020, because organisations that fail to prioritise evolution will drown. Conversely, enterprise pioneers who embrace a proactive attitude will sail ahead of rivals by achieving operational optimisation to drive innovation.

Progressive businesses have attempted to keep pace with society and technological advancement since well before Darwin’s time. However, in this digital age, the speed of disruption cascading upon all industries has elevated the level of urgency. Enabling innovation is now imperative for survival.

Some of the brightest ideas come from the most unexpected places. Be open to opinions, have empathy, show curiosity to learn

“Over half of all Fortune 500 companies from 2000 no longer exist because they failed to pivot,” says Simon Marshall, founder of TBD Marketing, a Bristol firm that helps organisations identify and grasp opportunities, either to improve operational optimisation or in other markets.

He points to Nokia – founded in 1865, six years after Darwin’s masterwork was published – as an example of a company that has sought to drive innovation, but has floundered in recent times. The Finnish organisation began life as a wood pulp mill before expanding into other vertical markets, from rubber boots and tyres, to televisions and mobile phones.

Indeed, Nokia was the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer before Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007 and triggered the smartphone revolution. Four years later, Nokia’s chief executive Stephen Elop warned the company was “standing on a burning platform”, having missed the boat.

Responsible innovation

Survival of the…most adaptable

Marshall cites another cautionary tale. “Kodak owned the patent for digital photography, but was unwilling to slay its golden goose. It stalled and, when the patent ran out, others stepped in and killed off the photography giant. Organisations need to make brave internal decisions to drive innovation and pivot.”

As markets merge and shift, taking adequate time to consider outside insights, to gain fresh perspectives and spot potential threats and opportunities quickly, is vital. “Nokia performed those three transformations in over a century, whereas Apple’s transition from iTunes downloads to Apple Music streaming took only 15 years,” says Marshall.

“Consider that Netflix initially rented physical DVDs and helped kill off Blockbuster, before launching its streaming service a decade ago. The streaming service is now itself under fire from Disney+, Apple TV+ and others looking to fragment that market again.”

Driving innovation and encouraging creative working, while sustaining operational optimisation, is perilously challenging, though. Tim Flower, global director of business transformation at employment engagement organisation Nexthink, likens it to “changing all four tyres on the car while it’s moving”. He stresses the importance of a heads-up outlook to keep aware of potential problems and possibilities on the horizon.

This outside-insights approach resonates with Emilie Colker, managing director of London design firm IDEO. She posits that cultivating a creative and innovative mindset is the only way to future-proof an organisation. Offering tips to business leaders, she says: “First, acknowledge that you will never have all the answers.

“Listen to your team. Some of the brightest ideas come from the most unexpected places. Be open to opinions, have empathy and show curiosity to learn. When striving for momentum in innovation, remember that your people are your power and unlocking their combined potential should be your number-one priority.”

Successful innovation is people-centric

Sandeep Kishore, who has led the transformation of Zensar Technologies from a legacy IT organisation to a “100 per cent living digital enterprise” since he was appointed chief executive in 2016, says: “People are always at the heart of any innovation. Technology is the tool and the platform, but not the solution.”

Kishore, whose 10,000 employees can communicate with him through the company’s new smartphone application, believes people-centric innovation is most likely to succeed because it is driven by empowering workers rather than increasing profits.

Further, innovation has to be a work in progress. “It’s a continual journey,” he says. “The model of innovation needs to be flexible and adaptable to the changes we keep facing across industries.”

How much, then, should organisations invest in innovation? Alf Rehn, professor of innovation, design and management at the University of Southern Denmark, and author of Innovation for the Fatigued, notes that Amazon spent a mind-boggling $36 billion on research and development alone in 2019, a 27 per cent increase on the previous year.

“That number is about 13 per cent of its revenue and doesn’t include all its innovation expenditure,” he says. “Top companies in innovation-focused industries tend to fall into the 5 to 15 per cent band of revenues. But budget alone doesn’t drive innovation; without a strong creative culture, innovation becomes very difficult.”

Time C-suites allocate to innovative initiatives

Rehn suggests that “culture eats innovation for breakfast” and advises business leaders to “create a working environment in which people feel comfortable presenting new ideas, taking risks and putting the effort in to generate new value”. He adds: “The approach of tomorrow’s winners is balancing outside insight with intelligent inside risk-taking.”

Neil Sholay, vice president of innovation, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Oracle, agrees. “Innovation is made, not born,” he says. “There’s no proven formula; you can’t simply snap your fingers and expect invention to happen spontaneously. What you can do is create the ideal environment for it to flourish. With the right approach and processes, it can even become regular and reliable.

“While innovation doesn’t need to be big, it does need to be structured. The groundwork must be laid in advance, otherwise it won’t happen at the regularity and speed demanded by the market.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Operational Optimisation report in March 2020

Grounding sci-fi ambitions in reality

Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult film Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, came of age five months ago: its dystopian futurescape was Los Angeles ablaze in November 2019.

While some elements accurately hit today’s world, now stricken by the coronavirus pandemic, the planet is dangerously warm and computers can be commanded by a human voice for instance, other predictions fall short. High-collar, full-length trench coats are unfashionable, flying cars have failed to take off and, most pertinently, so-called ‘general’ artificial intelligence (AI) does not exist.

UK AI businesses

Sci-fi is increasingly becoming sci-fact, admittedly, but a technology that can replicate a range of highly advanced human characteristics – the basic definition of general AI – does not walk among us, yet. Moreover, the so-called singularity, when machines achieve sentience and technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, is some distance away, most experts say.

“Think of general AI as HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Skynet in the Terminator series,” suggests Bernd Greifeneder, founder and chief technology officer of leading automated-software organisation Dynatrace. “We’re currently nowhere near that becoming a reality, with estimates ranging from it being five years to a century away. Some even believe we’ll never see general AI step out of sci-fi and into the real world.”

Arguably that conclusion is good for the longevity of the human race, though not everyone agrees. “Unless humanity takes a wrong turn, general AI is likely to arrive around 2050, perhaps sooner,” says David Wood, chair of London Futurists. “General AI, handled wisely, can enable humanity to enter a profound new era that I call ‘sustainable superabundance’, in which we can transcend many of the cruel limitations of the human condition that we have inherited from our evolutionary background.”

Gorilla warfare in the technological jungle

Wael Elrifai, global vice president of solution engineering at Hitachi Vantara, pleads for greater caution. “When we achieve general AI, it will drastically transform our economy and society in ways we can’t even predict,” he says. “We’ll be faced with what Dr Stuart Russell, a pre-eminent thinker in the field, dubs ‘the gorilla problem’. Namely, human beings will be outmoded by machines in the same way we evolved to dominate our gorilla kin.

“Finding our place in that future isn’t a decision that can be left in the hands of a few. Technologists, educators, psychologists, policymakers and testing experts must put their heads together to consider how we measure human capital, improve human performance and ensure equity in a world where machine intelligence surpasses human capabilities.”

For the moment, though, narrow AI, which is programmed by humans to focus on a niche task, will have to suffice. The hype around AI has calmed recently, in part because business leaders have realised it is neither akin to the general AI of Blade Runner or Terminator nor a silver bullet. Narrow AI, however, is potent if pointed the right way; those who work out what direction to aim at will triumph.

Besides, as Dr Iain Brown, head of data science at SAS in the UK and Ireland, posits: “The machines have already taken over, to some extent, and with little resistance.” Our smartphones, smart speakers and driverless cars all rely on AI. “Self-learning machines are embedded in services or devices used by three quarters of global consumers,” says Brown, “and algorithms choose what news we read and the entertainment we consume.”

Canny members of the C-suite are beginning to realise the true potential of narrow AI. “General AI isn’t a pipe dream, but it is irrelevant,” says leading futurist Tom Cheesewright. “Focusing on it as a business leader is like seeing the wheel for the first time and spending your time dreaming about a Tesla. Make use of the wheel.”

AI adoption challenges

Targeting niche tasks with narrow AI

Indeed, according to Microsoft’s Accelerating Competitive Advantage with AI report, published in October, businesses in the UK already using AI at scale are performing 11.5 per cent better than those who are not, up from 5 per cent in 2018. Further, the study calculates the number of UK companies with an AI strategy has more than doubled, from 11 per cent two years ago to 24 per cent in 2019. The report also finds that more than half of organisations in the UK (56 per cent) are using AI to some extent, including a rise of 11 per cent in machine-learning from the previous year.

“Narrow AI is certainly a more rewarding prospect for businesses in the short term, as it has more specific applications and so can help to overcome the clearly defined challenges that exist today,” says Greifeneder. “It’s also easier to manage the risks and ethical implications associated with it.” As an example of granting too much autonomy to a machine, he points to Microsoft’s infamous AI chatbot Tay, which began tweeting racist and inflammatory remarks in March 2016, after just 24 hours of exposure to users on Twitter. And, like any tool, AI can be used for good or bad.

Focusing on general AI as a leader is like seeing the wheel for the first time and spending your time dreaming about a Tesla. Make use of the wheel

“We don’t need to wait for general AI to experience elements of AI utopia or dystopia,” says Peter van der Putten, assistant professor of AI at Leiden University in the Netherlands and director of decisioning solutions for cloud software company Pegasystems. “AI is used successfully to understand the structure and function of COVID-19 and to mine COVID-19 research articles. But bias has been creeping into models to determine credit card limits, decide who needs to await a court case in jail or who gets selected for preventive care programmes.”

Why general AI and man must work together

There may be justified concerns about algorithmic biases, how the associated technologies might develop and AI displacing human jobs. But it is critical for business leaders to understand what AI can achieve and it’s certainly not for every organisation.

“If you don’t understand what you are trying to solve first, you are carrying a hammer looking for a nail and AI is going to be of no real use,” says Nick Wise, chief executive of OceanMind, a not-for-profit organisation using AI to protect the world’s fisheries.

For now, the realm of sentient computers seems a long way off. And if we humans are prudent, if or perhaps when general AI becomes a reality, man and machine will augment one another. As Brown concludes: “The future belongs to the cyborg: humans working hand in glove with AI, rather than the android alone.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s AI for Business report in April 2020

Hackers smell blood as crisis exposes cyber vulnerabilities

Less than two years ago, in June 2018, when Ticketmaster UK revealed cybercriminals had stolen data from up to 5 per cent of its global customer base via a supplier, it set alarm bells ringing.

The following month, a CrowdStrike report laid bare how ill-prepared organisations all around the globe were against hackers seeking to exploit third-party cybersecurity weaknesses. Two thirds of the 1,300 respondents said they had experienced a software supply chain attack. Almost 90 per cent believed that they were at risk via a third party. Yet, approximately the same number aadmitted they didn’t deem vetting suppliers a critical necessity.

Given Symantec’s latest Internet Security Threat Report, launched early last year, highlighted that supply chain attacks had increased by 78 per cent in 2018, one hopes organisations heeded the warning signs and shored up their third-party cybersecurity policies well before COVID-19 hit businesses.

Experts fear companies that failed to bolster their cyber defences are now even more exposed because supply chains have become fragmented, and hackers, like great white sharks, smell blood. “Criminal groups have recognised that to catch the big fish they need to catch some smaller fish first,” explains James McQuiggan, security awareness advocate at KnowBe4.

To extend the fishing – or rather phishing – analogy: to net the whopper organisations hackers are scooping up the tiddlers in the supply chain, McQuiggan says, as they “may not have the robust security programs and often unable to afford adequate cybersecurity resources or personnel.

“As such, they are potentially more susceptible to social engineering scams or attacks. The criminal groups will attempt to gain access and then leverage the connection to attack a larger organisation.”

You’re only as secure as your weakest link

Predators know when to attack vulnerable prey, and COVID-19 has weakened the cybersecurity of countless organisations. “Coronavirus passes from person to person, and a percentage of victims are asymptomatic, yet can infect others – cyberattacks work in a similar way,” says Matt Lock, UK technical director at Varonis.

“A smaller supplier that’s fallen behind on their basic cyber hygiene can become infected with malware and unknowingly spread it to their business partners.”

Alluding to the issues presented by lockdowns enforced because of the pandemic, he continues: “At first, we were seeing cases where companies took shortcuts to get their employees online to keep their businesses running. Now companies are starting to settle into their new normal. They’re taking a step back, actively trying to rein in access and resolve security issues that cropped up in their race to get everyone the access they needed to do their work.”

Chris Sherry, a regional vice president at Forescout, argues there has never been a more vital time to have a cyber-resilient supply chain. “COVID-19 is the ultimate stress test for many supply chains,” he says. “The demand for critical supplies has never been greater, and it’s the biggest challenge. It’s a marathon to continue with ‘business as usual’ while trying to achieve an output of 150 per cent. Industry 4.0 and the industrial internet of things are driving improvements in operational efficiency, but also leaving suppliers more vulnerable than ever to downtime or data loss if critical processes are interrupted.

“The benefits of operational technology and automation are clear, but they also significantly increase the potential attack surface of any organisation. As bad actors look to take advantage of the crisis, the cybersecurity strategy of any supplier should ensure this is well understood, continuously monitored, and appropriately secured.”

Top tips to shore up cybersecurity

If an organisation’s cybersecurity is only as sturdy as its weakest link in the supply chain, what could – and should – be done in the face of an increasing number of attacks?

“Ultimately, the relationship of ‘trust’ many organisations once had with their third-party suppliers is no longer enough,” says Sherry. “The National Cyber Security Centre puts out a huge amount of guidance on the right questions to ask, as well as the right parameters to measure the security of your supply chain.”

Nigel Stanley, chief technology officer at TÜV Rheinland, agrees that the NCSC is a good source of information, and points to its Cyber Essentials certification scheme, which offers a “base level of cybersecurity assurance”. For him, streamlining supplier assessments is crucial, as is how deeply the supply chain network is traversed.

However, he notes: “Managing this is a challenge as presenting suppliers with 150 questions to answer every month can be a real turn-off. Using supplier contracts to enforce cybersecurity controls can be useful as it links payments and contracts to cybersecurity performance. The problem is how such a program can be implemented proportionately, balancing supplier and customer requirements.”

Criminal groups have recognised that to catch the big fish they need to catch some smaller fish first

The ‘zero-trust’ certification offered by analyst firm Forrester is worth the money to improve cybersecurity across the supply chain, suggests Patrick Martin, head of threat intelligence at Skurio. “Securing the supply chain is key,” he says. “Look for suppliers with certifications like Cyber Essentials Plus and BS 10012 ISO/IEC 27001, and don’t be afraid to ask suppliers and partners to provide proof of their practices.”

Serving up a final piece of expert advice, he adds: “Another great first step is to monitor the deep and dark parts of the web for breached data, credentials and mentions in attack planning scenarios. In this way, businesses can be much better prepared to mitigate an attack if they see it coming.”

Considering Ticketmaster UK’s supply chain breach was almost two years ago, it’s fair to say organisations have had ample time to prepare, but those who failed need to move quickly with the fallout from COVID-19 likely to be long and painful.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Procurement and Supply Chain Innovation report in May 2020

Pandemic pushes long overdue sales rebalancing

The pandemic has jammed the fast-forward button on progress in many industries, mainly for the better. Indeed, concerning the evolution of sales roles, the prevailing feeling is the sudden rebalancing of importance between field and inside sales is long overdue.

The need to sell during COVID-19 has precipitated a doubling down on digital tools within sales organisations and shone a light on the dark arts of those operating in the field. This scrutiny, coupled with the ease of video conferencing and the substantial cost-savings it achieves, has highlighted uncomfortable questions about new and future sales roles, as well as issues around adequate remuneration.

“Traditionally, good salespeople were unmanageable individuals and measured by results,” says Richard Higham, executive director at SalesLevers. “If you were doing a good job, you were bombproof.

“Until a few years ago, inside sales was used for early-stage, low-value transactions and to warm people up before the real heroes [in field sales] would ride out on their Harley-Davidsons to solve the problems.

“But before the coronavirus pandemic, sales organisations had recognised quite a lot of relationships and transactions on a big scale could be managed entirely without meeting people. There was already an increase in transparency with sales roles, as well as a blurring of the edges.”

Digital-first sales strategy

The previous model was forcing cheaper cost of sale towards inside or digital salespeople and higher cost of sales, the big-ticket items, more towards field-based sellers, according to Andrew Hough, chief executive of the Association of Professional Sales.

Now, though, he believes sales teams will neither return to the office nor recommence field-selling until the end of social distancing. Also, the advance and necessary adoption of technology “will allow us to measure things in a more sophisticated way than just first past the post”. Hough adds: “Compensation will become more outcome-based and there will be different ways we measure people.”

What managers value in sales people

This blurring of sales roles is forging a hybridisation of the modern salesperson, says Kathryn Wright, chief sales officer of Upside, a London-based fintech focused on customer engagement.

The role of field sales will be changed forever,” she says. “Technology has enabled us to continue building business relationships and facilitated back-to-back meetings that wouldn’t have been physically possible to achieve before lockdown.”

Dr Peter Colman, partner at consulting firm Simon-Kucher, urges sales teams to become experts at remote selling: “Key and field accounts usually receive close personal attention through the traditional outside sales channel. Sustaining that level of attention is now impossible, which means the mix must change radically in favour of remote sales.”

However, data from growth and sales platform HubSpot shows marketers in the UK are sending 49 per cent more emails than they were before the lockdown, although responses are down by 24 per cent.

Crevan O’Malley, HubSpot’s director of sales in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), argues that while the current circumstances are unquestionably impacting sales roles, the blurring of roles has been coming.

Merging of skills

“Inside and field sales have been converging in successful ways for some time,” he says. “Skills like emotional intelligence and self-awareness have long been key for high-performance field sales teams, and they’re just as important when you ‘go inside’ and adopt a digital-first sales strategy.

“Personalised engagement via digital channels, impactful language and an empathetic tone are key skills that inside sales need to master for high performance. Lasting business relationships can be built ‘remotely’, but what you say, how you engage and how you make people feel matter more than being face to face.”

This chimes with Richard Langham, managing director, EMEA, at Highspot. “Even before the pandemic, ‘spray and pray’ tactics were failing,” he says. “There’s often only a small handful of key, time-poor decision-makers you’re trying to reach. Flooding their inboxes with billions of one-size-fits-all generic emails doesn’t work. Worse, it actively damages the relationship.”

Hence, the skill of using data has engendered greater respect by sales leaders for those in inside sales. “When used properly, the right data, at the right time, helps your sales team earn a more authentic human connection with the person they’re talking to,” says Langham, who has identified a shift from new customer acquisition to customer satisfaction because of the crisis.

Wright, from Upside, says the sales team of tomorrow “will look more like channel managers and customer-success managers”, and believes embracing data and technology is paramount. “With omnichannel marketing, sales teams can see every touchpoint, every video watched, every document opened,” she says. “This provides two opportunities: an accurate cost per action and feedback on what helps the customer to understand the company’s offering.”

Jamie Barlow, managing director at Hyped Marketing, says a 20-80, field-inside sales split is the vision of the future and those who secure sales should be compensated accordingly. With sales roles updating, it’s critical to invest in technology, specifically marketing automation, which enables campaigns to operate autonomously 24 hours a day, Barlow stresses.

“Digital tools allow us to engage on a personal level with hundreds of prospects and help qualify leads,” he says. “We will then take an educated approach as to which point to remove the prospect from the automation programme and engage on a one-to-one level.”

Stephen Corfield, senior vice president and general manager of industry sales for Salesforce in the UK and Ireland, promotes a pairing of “technology with a personal touch”.

“Smart, context-aware customer service will only grow in importance to better serve experiences and value-added interactions,” he says. “The sales team will need to be nimble and wholly data-driven in its approach.”

Evidently, sales roles are transforming fast. And for everyone, aside from field sellers on their Harleys, that’s a good thing.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Sales Performance report in June 2020