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Solace blog

19th February 2016

Digital Leadership: Carriage clocks and reflections on the past

Born between wars, and raised on a back-to-back terrace in Oldham, my father completed his military service in 1950 before settling down to a lifelong career in the Manchester ICI accounts department. He married at 21, bought a suburban new build house at 23, for the princely sum of £950 [no I’ve not missed off any noughts] and retired after ’30 years’ loyal service’ at 53 on a full pension. It wasn’t exactly a golden handshake, but it was enough to ensure my parents have lived comfortably ever since. And yes – in a manner befitting a sitcom of the age, he left with a carriage

His career was one of quiet, uneventful, gradual progression until the mid 1970s when ICI introduced a new way of working. No longer were mountains of manila wallets, line-ups of ledgers and fortifications of filing cabinets the way in which the company wanted to prepare accounts. But gradually, imperceptibly, they introduced – the computer. By the early 1980’s he was no longer competing with his peers, but with a new breed of numismatists, whom were not only ‘qualified’ accountants, but were embracing the computer revolution. Many emerged from universities which were rapidly converting mathematics and science courses to Computer Science degrees, often without any discernible change in curricula.

For my Dad, and many of his generation, the computer was the last straw of decades of technological development. Reel-to-reel tape recorders, becoming cassette players and then Walkmans; gramophones becoming record players and then compact disc players; the emergence of Betamax [a blog for another day pehaps] and VHS recorders; Bakerlight telephones, turning into trim-phones, and the slide rule replaced by the calculator.

I was lucky. A head for maths, and with a forward thinking and enthusiastic science teacher at middle school, I was one of only 6 kids that got to play with the school IBM clone desktop. I remember the anticipation of something magical and the whirring, dim green glow as it flickered into life. Unsurprisingly the first thing I recall programming was a pixel free-fall game along the lines of what became ‘Space Invaders’.

Alongside my teacher [this was true co-learning as neither of us knew what we were doing], I learned about logic models, decision charts and binary; and was introduced to exotic idioms such as Garbage In Garbage Out. And, I learnt to programme. I dabbled in Fortran and Pascal, but it was the intuitive nature of BASIC in its dialects, that piqued my interest.

Oblivious then, I now reflect that my father must have struggled enormously with the juxtaposition of an eager kid, embracing the dawning of the technology that was signaling the twilight of his career. However, he put aside his angst and succumbed to my nagging by buying me a ZX81, then ZX Spectrum with a now inconceivably tiny 16K memory. I had fun. I wrote my own versions of ‘Simple Simon’, Space Invaders, a synthesiser and a football table which updated automatically as I entered the results whilst squinting at Jimmy Hill on our tiny cathode ray tube television.

Shortly afterward, having moved to a school where none of the teachers really understood IT, particularly the computer science teacher, my interest waned. And I discovered girls. And in particular, that in the 1980’s girls didn’t like IT, nerds.

Having bought myself a desktop PC as an undergraduate, for more money than my father bought his house for, my interest was briefly reignited, as I attempted to demonstrate to my Economics professor how to achieve national full employment by writing my own Keynesian based models.

And that was that. Bereft of potential application, lacking stimulus and external motivation, for the next two decades I became a consumer of technology rather than a creator.

But things are different now…aren’t they?

We may or may not like it, but digital technology and its application is pervasive across all the services we provide and commission and will contribute to narrowing our financial gap. So what might we learn from the first IT revolution and my family’s experience? What does this mean for us as ‘Digital Leaders’ in our unique role as place shapers?

I believe this leads us to ask ourselves some searching questions and learn from past experiences to make sure we make the most of the new digital revolution.

We are all doing something. Some are engaging in exemplary projects. But are we doing enough to get the basics right…?

– Are we doing enough to ensure that people like my father are encouraged and persuaded to learn new tricks? Can you imagine the efficiency and effectiveness step change if all our workforce made the most of tech and digital?

– Have you asked your HR director to ensure that digital literacy is in everyone’s job description and development plan, including your senior managers and yours? Is this managed through performance reviews?

– Are we doing enough to ensure that our customers experience an equivalent digital experience with our organisations as they do in the rest of their lives?

– Are we co-creating solutions with users to the complex problems we hope technology will solve?

– Are we doing enough to address the digital gender imbalance?

– Are we doing enough with our schools and colleges to ensure that young people are workforce tech ready and developing digital creators, not just consumers?

– Are we doing enough to make the most of social media?

– Are we banishing fear and making tech fun?

– In a competitive market place for those who can programme, analyse and create value, are we doing enough to attract, develop and retain staff

Some of us may be anxious about digital technology and unsure about its utilisation and share experiences with my father. We must put this aside and become digital leaders. If we don’t, the danger is that our organisations resemble my father’s experience at ICI…and I’m not sure there’s enough money left for all the carriage clocks!

By Rob Kenyon, Director of Community Services, Thanet District Council and Solace Deputy Spokesperson on Digital Leadership