Industry commentator John Dwyer has just filed his 100th management column for the IET website. During the past five years he's tracked the foibles of the boardroom, Whitehall, and even our own organisation. Here's his pick.
Most large companies - not just in manufacturing - are led by people whose grip on reality is so tenuous it's a wonder they can brush their own teeth. With this - to me - routine observation, I set out five years ago on one of the most delightful journeys of my professional life, as a contributor to the IET's management blog.
The opinion column's rather grand aim was as weapon of mass instruction, to lay out the issues besetting manufacturing, engineering and IT or related activities, and comment upon them - entertainingly if possible. Re-reading the 100 columns, one or two make me blush, but not as many as I feared. Stick to what you know, and even a leavening of opinion doesn't lead you far astray. And there was fun to be had among all the serious stuff. In April 2005 the column suggested the Vatican adopt a reality-TV format to pep up that year's papal election: 'Pope Idol' had been doing the rounds, to which my column added 'Big Brethren' and 'I'm a Celibate, Get Me Out of Here'.
The low profile of manufacturing was a more serious matter. In April 2008, 'I consulted the self-styled 'Ultimate directory' of UK companies to find that neither 'industry', 'manufacturing' nor anything similar was an available choice among 40 types of business. You could find a 'football club', but no one who made a football; 'hire tools' but not meet anyone who made them; go 'shopping' but not find anyone who might put goods in the window. The EEF worries about manufacturing's invisibility too. Why, it wondered in its recent innovation report, did everyone think manufacturing had declined when output was 25 per cent higher than in 1980?'
The credit crunch
Government had more important friends to cosy up to. They dealt in proper innovation, in dodgy bonds and worthless mortgage derivatives. I have no economics training, though I try to keep up. But even I could see that, if you so much as kicked the tyres of the modern economy, you were likely to trap your leg under the car. The 'last modified' date on this file is 5 March 2007: 'I really hate to alarm you all, but I fear only rampant bird flu will stop the chickens coming home to roost. I know the writer's first law is never to stick your neck out. But even if such laws weren't made to be broken, I would be left with no choice. Alone if necessary, mine must be the voice that warns of the catastrophe about to engulf us.'
The basis for this prediction of now-gratifying grisliness was the bewildering sense of living in fairyland, a tide of imports being paid for by borrowing on the back of house-price inflation: 'A month ago the trade deficit was the largest in our history. At over £7bn, that's more than £100 for every man, woman and child in the country. When I was a lad, that sort of thing toppled governments. And the levels of personal debt are quite staggering. Including mortgages, says Datamonitor, total personal debt is £1,200,000,000,000, or £20,000 per head of population.
'We've had low interest rates for so long that the younger members of the community assume that borrowing-and-only-paying-a-bit-of-it-back is a sub-clause of the law of supply and demand. Every one of us owes 1.4 times our annual income to someone else [in] unsecured debt - plastic and the like.'
We were spending it on cars, school fees, beach huts, flying lessons, £7.23m in 2004 to pay for divorces, and even more - nearly £10m - for cosmetic surgery. 'There has to be what economists call 'a correction' and my dad would have called a 'come-uppance'. Alas, only last Friday the following chill message from one of the economic pundits at find.co.uk confirmed my worst fears: 'It's rare to find such a cross section of reports all showing such a rosy a picture'. That can only mean it's all going to be ten times as bad as I thought.'
It was, but the penny still didn't drop. This from December 2008: 'I'm quite concerned about UK Business and Enterprise secretary Lord Mandelson's latest blueprint for yet another industrial policy. Britain's future as a trading nation, he said, starts with the continuing development of world leading financial services. Look around you and weep. Does he mean the same financial services whose domination of the UK economy - and the amounts needed to bail it out - are the main explanations for the collapse in the UK's currency? He then crowns all this fatuity by adding that the UK has a 'good record on regulation'.'
Inevitably, a number of the columns were concerned with offshoring. There are sound reasons for manufacturing offshore. Unhappily, offshoring mania infected many for whom the sound reasons were nowhere in sight.
'Offshoring is to outsourcing as alcoholism is to wine with your dinner,' the column proclaimed in November 2005. 'The compulsion to outsource is a mild condition which can even be beneficial to the patient. But recent years have seen extreme outsourcing - offshoring, or 'dementia yangtsiensis', as we clinicians know it - spread alarmingly, with symptoms surfacing even among parts of the manufacturing population who admit they ought to have known better. Wedgwood, for example, took one look at the cost of labour in China and, whoosh, its managers were on the next sampan. So was its crockery, for weeks.'
Industry's recruitment woes always provided good copy. Recruitment is already a management minefield, but managers always make it worse for themselves. They never prepare for interviews, rarely set candidates down with the people they might be working with, and too often resort to psychometric tests. The column suggested in January 2006 that managers, 'share a widespread belief that [the tests] are somehow objective, avoiding the main interviewing bear trap, which is to stretcher off gifted but unappealing candidates and sign up the eye candy.
'The cat among the pigeonholers, however, is that many tests were devised by hucksters who make extravagant claims about their value. And the japes people get up to: 'Describe this teabag without using the word 'teabag' Think up as many uses as you can for a brick' (without using the word 'Blair', presumably); or 'If your life were a vehicle, would it be a Ferrari or a bicycle?'
A May 2005 column offered some explanations for industry's poor recruitment record: 'The average 16 year old can read the signs from the marketplace as well as anyone else. His or her attitude to anything to do with engineering, for example, may be influenced by the number of employers they see closing UK factories and sending their work abroad.
'They may also be pretty wary about studying any subject that carries the slightest risk of lengthy detention in a call centre battery-farm. And they are bound to notice boardrooms seething with accountants and lawyers, concluding that being a skilled designer or a peerless production scheduler has about as much future as the wind-up alarm clock.'
Future of engineering
It's a short step to the future of the engineering profession. The column marking the IEE's April 2006 transition to the IET recalled the chicanery that attended the ditching of 1979's Finniston report on the future of engineering. As a young Electronics Weekly reporter, I had many clandestine meetings with both Finniston and fellow Scot, then-IEE secretary, Dr George Gainsborough.
Since his 1962 arrival Gainsborough, a physics PhD as well as a lawyer, had turned the debt-ridden IEE into engineering's healthiest, most influential professional institution. Finniston's proposal for statutory licensing of engineers would have created an engineering BMA. But the IEE's determined support for it gave the incoming Thatcher government an almighty problem. Elected to implement a bonfire of quangos, it couldn't really begin its first term by setting up a new one. Nevertheless, Gainsborough told me, if the IEE had kept up the pressure, Joseph would have bowed to the IEE's view.
But GEC and its managing director Arnold Weinstock, the country's largest employer of professional engineers, were even more hostile to the bargaining position that licensing would give engineers than the new government was. And a GEC employee, John Brown, became IEE president the same year: 'In March 1980,' said the blog, 'the Presidents of the four main engineeering instititions - chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical - signed a joint response to the Finniston report which made no mention of the need for the statutory licensing. Presented as 'an alternative to Finniston,' the document let the new Conservative government escape from its dilemma.'
Brown had signed the 'four Presidents' document, George told me, 'without the authority of the council or the authority of members. This is not a mere change of emphasis, this is the abandonment of a major feature of the Institution's policy' We've lost the opportunity of the century,' he told me, 'perhaps for all time'.
In May 2006 the column noted that the benefits of technology were ill-shared. 'We were once told that electronics and automation would take over so much labour that we'd be paid handsomely for working two days a week. The problem, we were told, would be what to do with all our spare time.' Two IT friends I mentioned this to over a pint were overcome by projectile spluttering that near-ruined a very nice jacket. 'Someone or other,' the column says, 'is making massive gains from really exceptional leaps in productivity, and it isn't the people whom the technology is making so productive.'
But the developing world's technology problems are far worse. This is from August last year: 'I was astounded and horrified by what I recently learnt about the real-world effects of computer viruses. One agriculture bureau employee lost the multi-year plan for agricultural improvements for Benishangul-Gumuz, Ethiopia's fourth poorest region. Donor organisations make great play of their 'generosity' in offering computers to the developing world, but they won't fund running costs - which includes software, and especially includes anti-virus software. African government and private-sector organisations simply cannot afford an annual $30 a head for Symantec and other virus-protection systems. And your response, Symantech?'
Data privacy is an abiding concern of the column. A year ago it reported that the medical records of every patient attending a hospital appointment or admission are sent to BT and a database called the Secondary Uses Service, set up to sell NHS data to the private sector. BT then sends the details to the Department for Health (DH), the DH Information Centre for Health and Social Care, PCTs, Strategic Health Authorities - and a private healthcare data-mining company called Dr Foster. If pharmacists retrieve the data, then other recipients of your name, address, NHS number, GP details and even, if you have one, ex-directory telephone number include the survey firm MORI.
'The world's largest medical research charity, the UK-based Wellcome Trust, argues in the widely-respected newsletter Research Fortnight that, without such access, research into life-saving drugs becomes impossible. Sometimes researchers need access to data which, directly or indirectly, could identify an individual patient - the definition of 'identifiable' data. An example is the study of 33,000 children with leukaemia by age and postcode to find out whether they lived near power lines.
'But others say the price is too high. In the same issue, Dr Fleur Fisher, former BMA head of ethics and information, pleads for the confidentiality of patient data to remain sacrosanct. The data belongs to the patient, and each patient must give their consent to its use. To use it without consent, she said, was 'data rape'.'
Extreme? Then consider the July 2008 column about an IET debate at Surrey University: 'If you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear from private or state-sponsored electronic snooping, we're told. Consultant Martyn Thomas's demolition of this mindless mantra was total and deeply felt: 'There are good reasons why ordinary completely upright people have things to hide. They may be escaping an abusive relationship. They may be a celebrity getting away from stalkers. They may be children in care needing to be in safe houses, or people who have suffered bouts of mental illness - 20 per cent of the population - and want to conceal that.'
'Rape victims, he said, want to conceal their identities: 'There are people working in abortion clinics, in Huntingdon Life Sciences, and they have to deal with people who are threatening to blow up their family. Prison officers want to conceal their identities. There are hundreds and hundreds of issues like these. Just because privacy doesn't matter to you, it's perilous to assume it doesn't matter to other people'.'
Of course, one day you walk the prediction tight-rope with effortless insouciance; the other, of course, you fall off. I described electric cars as 'going nowhere', for example, strictures born of concern about the lack of generating capacity. David MacKay's excellent book - 'Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air' - put me right.
But there are lots of grounds for concern. In March 2009 Peter Mandelson's Business Department opined that carbon capture and storage (CCS) 'could play a global role, particularly in fast-growing economies with rapidly rising fossil fuel consumption, such as China and India': 'In other words, not here. CCS may be effective in reducing CO2 emissions by up to 90 per cent, but it wrecks the efficiency of a power station. Depending on which CCS technology you adopt, it consumes somewhere between 15 and 40 per cent of the power the station generates. Some CCS technologies can be retro-fitted - at an estimated cost of $1bn per station; others can't. Add in the cost of piping the CO2 to burial sites at $1m a mile, and anybody with a pocket calculator can see that it's a non-runner.
'Except, for some reason, in China or India. The British government seriously believes it can rely on these countries to develop CCS for our climate-change benefit while encouraging UK generators to carry on building their own non-CCS coal-fired generating stations.