Category Archives: Business – General

Should the Euro Survive?

Spanish Euros

Image by Gadget Virtuoso via Flickr

There’s been an enormous amount of ink used on the ‘veto’ that David Cameron used in Europe last week, with warnings of dire consequences if the UK doesn’t help to support the Euro.

Frankly, I don’t understand this as the Euro has been doomed since introduction in January 1999. In fact, the 10th anniversary of the release of Euro banknotes and coins on 1st January, 2002, would be a great time to announce its departure as a central currency.

“Heresy” I hear being loudly cried… But the facts are simple – for a central currency to work, it needs central control, and Europe doesn’t have this. Sure, it has a hideously expensive, large, bureaucratic parliament that shuffles (at even more expense, thanks to French Government insistence) between Brussels and Strasbourg every month, but all this body does as far as I can – apart from ensure regal lifestyles for its members at taxpayer expense – is create complication in everyone’s life, and silly rules that have clearly not been thought through. What the Eurozone doesn’t have is central fiscal control. A United States of Europe, if you like, where the member countries have the status that individual states have in the USA.

Of course, the reason for this is simple – no member country’s politicians want to be answerable to a (central) higher authority. You can see this in the choice of the European President – a nice enough chap, apparently, but basically invisible, and certainly no “leader of Europe.”

Unlike the USA, Europe is not united in a common history/language/culture. It’s a very diverse set of countries and should remain as such – celebrating the differences, rather than trying to blend them into a murky sameness. It could never support a central government, and shouldn’t.

What it SHOULD be is a free-trade zone, as originally envisaged. The Euro should be simply a currency that exists to facilitate this free trade – similar to the ECU of pre-1999, but actually existing as a currency. Legal tender in all EU countries, it would operate alongside those countries’ own currencies, with a rate of exchange that floats against each, allowing that country to determine its own fiscal policy (as they all do to a large extent anyway – which is what caused the mess) and have the relative value of its currency determined accordingly. Like trade, loans could be made or sought in Euros or a country’s own currency, depending on the will of both parties to the transaction.

The dissolution of the current Euro would be simple – start with each country having its currency at par with the Euro, and let them float from that point. Market forces would soon determine the real value of each currency.

As a considerable side benefit, this would also facilitate the dissolution of the European Parliament saving us all a great deal of money and aggravation.

There would be no need to try to prop up a fatally flawed system and countries could celebrate their individuality while sharing in what should arguably be the biggest and wealthiest free trade zone in the world. This would also mean an acceleration of growth at country level.

Given the Euro cannot survive unless all in the Eurozone abrogate power to the centre – which I can’t ever see happening – isn’t it best to ackowledge the role the Euro should play and move to individual currencies; the sooner the better?

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Apps – the next frontier

iPad is a Wi-Fi 64 GB version (another one beh...

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One thing you can be sure about in the IT industry – change. Lots of it, fast and often in unexpected directions.

After 20 years of PCs in various forms increasingly ruling our lives, getting smaller, quicker, more capable software, and so on, suddenly there’s a change afoot that has the potential to eclipse the PC in terms of the effect on our lives.

I’m talking of course, about relatively small mobile devices and the apps that run on them.

Yes, people are buying ever-increasing quantities of tablets with new models coming out on a monthly basis. Smart-phones, of course, are the other half of the hardware equation, and rapidly becoming the dominant phone device in wealthier economies. But without a substantial body of applications – appropriately abbreviated to “apps” as they are relatively small and simple – these devices would be little more than curious ‘toys.’

For those of you that like statistics, how about these:

  • App market size (value) in 2012 – $17.5 Billion, according to GetJar. This is huge, but even more amazing when you consider how many apps are free.
  • App downloads – 4.5 Billion in 2010, 21.6 Billion in 2013, says Gartner. Huge growth, and really underscores the GetJar forecast for the market value.

Recognising  this opportunity, there are expected to be over 10 million app developers by 2016, and we can expect a bewildering choice of, perhaps, a million different apps on each of the major operating systems/platforms as soon as 2014.

Of course, today, the vast majority of apps are for entertainment purposes: games, music, video, etc. But as tablets and smart-phones become increasingly accepted by business, this will change. We can see this starting already – on the iPhone, fully 65% of the top 100 apps are games, whereas on the iPad, this is down to 45%, with business, news and productivity apps showing marked increase on the tablet.

And this is the key behind the phenomenon. Businesses are realising that by allowing users to utilise their own smart-phones and tablets on the company network they’re saving enormous sums of money, both directly (users buying their own equipment) and indirectly (the lifecycle of corporate IT assets can be longer as these smart, mobile devices take some of the load).

What’s more, apps are taking us back to basics. Away from the massive, resource-intensive applications we’ve become used to – full of features that we don’t use, but which helped justify the upgrade (or even initial purchase price) – and towards small, focused apps that just do one thing, but do it well. A sort of RISC approach to software, as we’ve seen on processors.

In the next few years, look for company-owned “App Stores” to become the norm, providing users with a variety of tools to increase productivity by accessing company systems from their mobile devices. Reducing costs for the company and increasing productivity.

Is your business looking at how to take advantage of this next frontier?

Early Birds Make the Best Decisions

Board Meeting.

Image via Wikipedia

A fascinating piece by John Tierney in the NY Times explored the concept of “Decision Fatigue,” concluding that people faced with making a number of decisions do so less well as the day wears on.

In studies with Roy Baumeister, a clear correlation was shown between the quality of decisions made at a point in time and the number/difficulty of decisions subjects had been required to make beforehand.

These studies explain the anomalies in, for example, parole being granted to prisoners by a parole board – those whose applications were heard at the start of the day, or immediately following a break for nourishment, were considerably more likely to succeed that those whose applications were heard at the end of a session, or just before a break.

Car salesmen were able to increase the value of the options taken with vehicles simply by altering the order in which the options were presented: once decision fatigue started to come into play, the buyers were more inclined to simply go with the recommended/default choice, even when it was more expensive and, potentially, less suitable for their needs.

Supermarkets have long had their ‘impulse racks’ at the checkout counters, but the real reasons these work has only recently been understood – shoppers are fatigued from all the decision-making during the shopping process and so are less able to rationally decide against a tempting treat when this is put in front of them.

What transpires from the studies is that the process of decision making depletes glucose levels in the brain and that this affects the way the brain works. In essence, some areas of the brain will work better for longer: the reward centre area continues to function well, while that controlling impulses weakens. So, our buyer who has been through a number of decisions in deciding on options for the new car will look at fewer and fewer factors in coming to a decision and be more prone to impulse – for example, “those leather seats look great.”

Interestingly, it was shown that replenishment of the glucose levels quickly restored decision-making ability, so if our buyer chewed on some sweets during the process he/she might well save some money. Of course, using sweet substances for instant glucose replenishment is just a temporary solution as the glucose derived from sugar is quickly used up – that from complex carbohydrates and proteins providing a steadier supply over time – but it certainly can help in tough situations.

If you need a decision from your boss, choose your time carefully, and maybe soften him/her up with a piece of chocolate at the start of the meeting so the glucose can be absorbed before asking for a decision, unless of course the decision you want is one that does not require change to an existing situation – in which case low glucose levels will favour the status quo.

The bottom line seems to be that you should make your biggest decisions at the start of the day (assuming you have breakfast, of course!) or after a healthy meal. In board and management meetings where there are many decisions to be taken, ensure the participants are suitably nourished and their glucose levels are maintained. As the article recommended – don’t make decisions on restructuring the business at 4pm…

 

The iPad as a Business Tool

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Some 6 months ago, I posted a discussion on LinkedIn to ask advice about how practical a tablet – specifically the iPad – would be for business use on the road and received enough advice to encourage me to take the plunge. As a now-avid user of the technology, I thought it would be useful to post my experiences and the tools I use to assist others.

Background

Like many people today, my work involves frequent travel to London as well as meetings within, normally, a two hour radius of my home-office.

My excellent notebook computer, as is normal, cannot run for a full day without recharging and this then means lugging around a heavy bag with power supply, cables, etc. – not at all comfortable – while my smartphone is simply too small to do “real work” on.

With a 10-hour battery life and a 10-inch screen, the iPad overcomes the shortcomings of both notebook and smartphone – the question was just how usable it would be in a Windows environment like mine.

My Hardware Environment

Taking advice from several people I opted for the WiFi version of the iPad, together with a 3G data package from “three” giving me 15Gb of data a month with a MiFi device and costing just £18.99 a month.

The money I saved on not buying the 3G version was spent on the extra memory – the 64GB model.

Having seen a few other people using their iPads, I went for three “must-have” accessories, too: screen protectors, a capacitive stylus (from Boxwave) and a leather case with built-in Bluetooth silicon keyboard from LuvMac.  The LuvMac case/keyboard is great – not only protecting the iPad but giving me a built-in keyboard for very little weight, so freeing up the whole of the screen space for viewing. With about 100 hours of use out of a charge, I only charge it once a week.

My Software Environment

This was the area that most concerned me. Fortunately iPad apps are fairly inexpensive in the main, so if you make a mistake and get the wrong app for your needs it’s not a huge problem.

The applications I now use all the time (after some experiments) are: Dropbox, DocsToGo Premium, iAnnotate PDF, zipThat and – to access my Home-Office PC – Wyse PocketCloud Pro. Word and Excel files work very well with DocsToGo, although PowerPoint is less successful unless your slides are very simple and have no background pictures, so there’s a great opportunity for somebody to develop a PowerPoint-compatible app. I use both the Kindle app and iBooks for e-books and have a great business modeling app called Business Model. I’m also experimenting with a few other apps for Mind Mapping, general notes/drawing, etc., but haven’t yet settled on anything in particular. Of course, I have a few newspaper and news (TV) apps, too.

Email and Contacts on the iPad are very basic – workable, but not something you would want as your primary system. An Outlook client for iPad would be first prize (especially as I link to multiple mailboxes on various devices, including my smartphone. Another great thing would be a Google Chrome or Firefox app as Safari on the iPad is pretty clunky.

Setting everything up for my home-office environment was extremely easy and the RDP (Remote Desktop) links to my Home-Office PC from within the house (and garden) are very fast. Getting past my Sky Router and my internet security system was more challenging but that’s also now working well and I can access my PC when on the road if I’ve forgotten to put something in my Dropbox folder.

Conclusion

For me, the iPad definitely paid for itself in just a couple of months. I not only use it on the road all the time for email, etc., but also find myself using to take notes in meetings and events instead of using paper – so notes are immediately searchable on my PC, too.

If you have specific comments or suggestions for apps, etc., I’d be happy to hear them and share them through this post.

Our Changing Lifestyle

London

Many of you will have come across the various forms of the “Did You Know?” or “Shift Happens” slide shows over the past decade or so – there are several versions on YouTube, of course.

Regardless of how accurate you believe the figures presented to be, the facts of the matter are that the nature of work is changing more fundamentally than many people yet believe – and is doing so more quickly than any major change that has gone before.

Urbanisation really came into its own with the Industrial Revolution: although towns/cities had existed almost from the dawn of civilisation, it took the centralising of manufacture to drive the majority of the workforce into conveniently situated accommodation near to their work.

Now, though, two major factors are driving the next big change in the way we live:

  • The increase of service industries – in the US and the UK, this already accounts for around 77% of GDP, v 22% for “traditional industry,” and even in China service industries are fast approaching parity with “traditional industry” in GDP terms (44% v 46%).  Such “knowledge” work is far less location-dependant than manufacturing lines and their like.
  •  The increase in digital communication technologies and speeds which free us up from location dependence even more, as we can talk, meet (over video links), email, and so on from virtually anywhere, any time.

These factors are, of course, spawning ever-more smaller businesses focused on different niche market areas. Big business in many service areas is inefficient as management overheads lead to cost issues when compared with smaller businesses, which are also generally more nimble and able to adapt more rapidly to changing market conditions.

While the higher cost of property in cities was offset by the lower commuting costs which kept the populations of the cities growing, as people need to commute less to central locations so the need to live in a city diminishes and people become freer to choose where to live. Couple this with the issues over living conditions in crowded cities (the recent riots in UK cities underscore some of this) and a somewhat more rural residential lifestyle becomes attractive – less expensive, less crowded, quieter and less potentially dangerous.

The impact this could have on cities is enormous – property prices would drop as supply of properties exceeds demand and infrastructure investment would move elsewhere, following the people. Conversely, large-scale migration to more rural areas will create its own set of problems – residents objecting to large-scale growth (although the shop-owners won’t mind the influx of customers too much), crowded roads and creaking infrastructure which will have to be upgraded to handle the increased loads, and so on. District councils will start to compete with each other to offer the best combination of space (there’s no point moving from one crowded area to another), infrastructure, affordability and general lifestyle.

As location independence grows, the same, of course, should then start to happen at a country level. Some countries – Malaysia, for example – are busy today trying to attract retirees on the basis of lifestyle and costs, and so boost their economies through a relatively high-spending population. Can we expect to see a scenario in the next 10 years where countries compete to attract people on the basis of infrastructure, cost of living and general lifestyle, regardless of where the companies themselves are located?

What would this do for country citizenship, for taxation bases, social security networks and the like? Have you thought about where you would, or wouldn’t, like to live if you were able to be truly location-independent? How does your current country measure up?

Communication in the Information Age

Note: the plate says - "The quick brown f...

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Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440 heralded the start of mass communication – for the first time, text could be reproduced quickly and inexpensively for a large audience. Of course, very few people could read in those days and many authorities were against it, fearing the impact of mass uncontrolled communication on their rule, so it took a few hundred years for this to spread.

The introduction of broadcast radio from 1920 started to spread information even more quickly and widely, marking a significant jump in the speed of communication.

But it was the Information Age which has really accelerated global communication.  Widely accepted to have started in the 1970s with the advent of the microprocessor, it took the introduction of the Internet Browser in the early 1990s for the Information Age to really become as integral to life as it is today.

And yet, it seems, the Information Age is just a quicker way to spread the same sort of information as before. Certainly our main sources of news seemed to have missed the point – news bulletins rely on “sound bites” or their video equivalents to relay information with the result that this is often inaccurate or, at best, unbalanced. Newspapers, too, have not really worked out how to embrace the digital age fully – you either get print (almost as in 1440, albeit more quickly), or the same articles available online, missing the opportunity to have summaries of stories and the ability to drill down for more information.

This is the key – we’re bombarded with information from multiple channels but have not developed the tools to effectively sift it. Long messages are often ignored as we don’t have time for them, while short messages are frequently taken out of context missing the real point that was being made. What’s needed is the ability to capture the essence of a point in a short burst and then enable people to get more information as they require it – almost an inside-out onion, with successive layers giving more and more detail.

Twitter is a great example of the modern communication paradigm – 140 characters to get the basic message across, including a link to more detail, which you can access if you wish. That more detailed message, in turn, could have links to other sources for even more information, and so on…

Nowhere, perhaps, is this communication problem more evident than in politics. There’s no argument with the fact that the UK, like many other countries globally, has woefully overspent and has to completely revisit its bloated public sector spending (how can a majority of the workforce be civil servants – effectively paid for by the minority?).  And yet it, like so many others, is facing widespread revolt at the prospect – look at the pension reform issue, for example…

Why?

Primarily because the government is incapable of effective communication. White papers, government statements and debates are far too long and not suitable for the news media or the viewing/listening/reading public, so people simply don’t understand the issues. I absolutely believe that the vast majority of people are decent, willing to work hard to get ahead and happy to help those less fortunate (but NOT those that are not prepared to help themselves).

But, for as long as governments cannot get the message out in a way that the media can carry without distortion and people can understand in just seconds, they will be unable to implement the changes that are needed, worsening the financial state of their countries, prolonging the agony and the economic downturn.

It’s time to turn traditional communication on its head and embrace “the 140 character world.”

When Will Interest Rates Rise?

The Bank of England in Threadneedle Street, Lo...

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With the Bank of England having revised the growth rate down to 2.7% this year (from a previous forecast of 2.9%) and inflation rate up to peak at 5% in the fourth quarter (previously 4.5%), expectations are again growing for an interest rate rise in the near-term.

Of course, the classic economic theory is that a rise in interest rates reduces inflation as spend decreases and so demand-driven price rises are no longer a factor.

However, we’re not living in classical times. This economic slowdown – it can’t be called a recession as we’ve not had a further 2 quarters of negative growth – is persisting and there’s no real expectation of a marked change to lacklustre growth rates throughout the developed world. So it’s not demand that’s driving inflation but rather a number of external forces, including climatic conditions and wars, that have pushed up commodity prices. These won’t respond to a rise in interest rates.

So, given this, let’s understand who benefits from the current scenario and what this means for interest rates.

The main beneficiaries of the sustained low bank rate are:

  • The banks themselves – don’t confuse low bank rates with low interest rates for borrowing money. Certainly, the rates are lower than they were before the crash, but not as low as they should be, given the drop in the bank rate. In fact, looking at interest rates charged to companies and individuals for borrowings, the bank’s margins are extremely high. A margin of 3% to 3.5% (the difference between bank rate and lending rate) is normal – today it’s running somewhere between 5% and 7%, depending on your financial profile. The banks are, quite literally, “coining it” – just look at the new bonus rounds for evidence of this.
  • The government – the massive government debt attracts interest costs (they have to borrow the money). Historically, governments borrow money at, or extremely close to, the bank rate, so by keeping this low, the government reduces the amount of its budget spent on interest to service its massive debts.

Yes, homeowners can benefit to a degree, too – but the advantages tend to be a lot smaller in real terms for most people due to the structure of mortgages and the costs associated with moving between fixed and tracker rates, together with the fact that many people can’t change to take advantage of lower rates due to not having enough equity in their properties following the decline in values. And don’t forget that homeowners repaid a record additional £24 Billion on their mortgages last year – getting their mortgage values down ahead of any possible rise to cushion the impact.

So who benefits from higher inflation?

  • In a word: government. It comes back to the massive government debts that have been rung up in the past 10 years. One way to reduce the effective value of them is to allow moderate inflation into the system – simplistically, 5% inflation over 5 years reduces the effective size of the debt by 25%. Couple this with the increased tax receipts that come with inflation and you have a model to get government debt down much more quickly than would otherwise be the case.

So, given that inflation won’t respond to a rise in interest rates as this is not caused by high demand, and that the government and banks are the primary beneficiaries of having a slightly higher inflation rate and a sustained low bank rate, is it likely we’ll see an interest rate rise soon?

I think not – although I suspect the impact of a rise in bank rates may be felt less than generally expected. In fact, it might well lead to lending rates not going up at all as the banks would use this as a way to try to woo customers from each other, keeping lending rates where they were before – let’s face it, they have more than enough room in their margins to absorb a few modest rises in the bank rate.