Away, but in touch

On holiday and away from the office last week, but through Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as tracking our electronic news cuttings, I was able to keep abreast of what has been going on.

The experience has made me ask myself questions – about increasing the role of social networking in driving innovation, and more particularly developing a social networking strategy for our organisation.

With time to pay more attention than usual to the week’s electronic news cuttings, I was able to pick up on some of the detailed stories of our projects. For example, Automotive Engineering International covered the story of our investment in a new collaborative project involving GSI Group’s Laser Division,  the LPA Group at Heriott-Watt University, PowerPhotonic and Cranfield University. Many publications picked up on our recently announced  ‘Retrofit for the Future’ competition , which opens in the summer and will encourage suppliers and designers to bid for a share of £10m to develop ways of improving environmental performance of existing buildings. In other stories, the EE Times covered the award for a collaborative R&D project led by Wafer Technology Ltd, (a subsidiary of IQE plc) to develop thermo-photovoltaic cells for generating electricity from the waste heat of industrial processes; and www.thebusinessdesk.com ran the story of Neotherix,  a regenerative medicine company also leading work co-funded by the Technology Strategy Board, and how it has recruited Italian scientist Dr. Lorenzo Pio Serino to work on its RegeniTherix project.

As usual, our cuttings also contained trade journal coverage of recent announcements, news of forthcoming events and local stories generated by KTPs - all emphasising the breadth and depth of our activities.

My week away really brought home the topicality and immediacy of social sites, and in particular Twitter. I am still fairly new to Twitter - http://twitter.com/iain_gray - and would hardly call myself an expert. In fact until recently I was sceptical about whether a micro-blogging site based on 140-character missives could really serve a useful business purpose. At a dinner where I boasted of using Twitter, one of the guests responded ‘get a life’. But this week I saw the real value of using it to keep in touch, and even managed to build new connections and extend our reach.

With many Technology Strategy Board staff now signed up to Twitter, I have found it an excellent internal communication tool, keeping people informed of who is talking to whom and providing local updates. For example Kitty_Miller in our operations team “is nearly through the 145 optional EOI we had in for high value manufacturing and looking forward to the weekend” and maurizio_tsb , one of our technologists, tweets “Nice conf call today with ZPL - Digital Britain and strategy implementation plan.... now we are friends and sea brim for lunch tomorrow! :-)” I also value Twitter pointers to breaking news and media coverage, like these:

  • Lack of content clouds 3D TV picture: the world's first experiment in marketing three-dimensional television is struggling…  (FTTechnews)
  • Should Apple make a net book? If Tim Cook wants to be its CEO, yes… (guardiantech - http://bit.ly/e4Z3o
  • Microsoft explores educational link to video games… (http://cli.gs/v6Z3VP)

And, increasingly, information from trade organisations such as the UKSBAC, which announced “Launched our 2009 UK aerospace survey - http://tinyurl.com/ddsf6y
I also like thought-provoking links from Twitterers such as tom_watson , MP for West Bromwich East : “More than 60% of baby boomers are avid consumers of social media (New York Times:  http://bit.ly/10h6ZR) and tips like this from TheSourceress: “The best for renewable energy news has to be @BBC_Earth #followfriday”

Finally there are new contacts and prompts that I intend to follow up, such as a link to the 'Pride of Swindon Awards 2009' on the website of Anne Snelgrove, the local MP (http://tinyurl.com/cczcj3).

I’m still exploring, but there is no doubt that last week Twitter kept me up to date and enabled new connections – which is after all what our strategy of ‘Connect and Catalyse’ is about. One of our key tools to deliver the strategy is the Knowledge Transfer Networks, or KTNs - a great way of building innovation communities and facilitating communication within and across those communities. With some 40,000 members across the KTNs, I feel the time has come when electronic communications and social networking can really come into their own in enabling the KTN platforms to help people from dissimilar organisations to have more meaningful conversations about technology and service innovation knowledge transfer.

Thinking about the evolving strategy for social networking across the KTNs and our extended enterprise,  I came across a meaningful bit of work this week by Terrance Barkan, Chief Strategist and Business Architect for GlobalSTRAT. He describes how “Social Technologies” are rapidly changing how people communicate, collaborate and associate…. and all for free or next to free in terms of real costs.

He provides insightful tips, pointing out that social networks only succeed when you have several important ingredients:
• Critical mass
• Peer groups (defined by common interests)
• Elegant technology (i.e. it is very easy for members to join and use)
• Openness and inclusiveness
• Thought leaders and champions (fanatics!)
The technology is already available to allow a user to connect not only with content but also with other users, building communities and allowing users from different backgrounds to share information - whether it be from specific technologies themes to the softer issues so necessary to help individuals and communities get to know each other better. As Barkan says, employees of large organisations rely on self-generated social networks of colleagues and peers for advice, rather than turning to their bosses and superiors; it is this “informal organisation” that is the strength of social networks.

I think we have a challenge in our organisation to develop a social networking strategy which builds on this with a framework but without losing the benefits of informality.

In the first instance we are networking through sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Ning, and extending into media such as Second Life. There is always the danger that some of the tools available may get over-exposed or come to be seen as fads - but that means staying one step ahead.The Technology Strategy Board should be well positioned to do so. We are funding research and development around many of the new technologies. Examples include Emote Games, an online games publisher that specialises in high quality, cross platform, social games and technologies. This style of connected gaming is enhanced with the use of AI Non Player Characters (NPCs) who can take many forms but essentially facilitate and act as opponents, informants, tutors and counterparts for gamers, contributing to the social cohesion of gaming communities. The outcome of this project will not only bring about a breakthrough in how online communities are managed, but also create new opportunities to grow the online games market and push growth within the online social networking space. Another example is a project with Toshiba Research Europe  arising from our Spring ‘07 competition, called ViewNet – context-enhanced networked services brought about by fusing mobile vision and location technologies.

An organisation I have followed with great interest since first visiting last May is the Serious Games Institute at Coventry. It brought home to me just how significant the business opportunities for UK companies are in this area. In fact it was this meeting that first introduced me to the opportunities of Second Life - where we now have our own island which we will use for exhibitions and conferences as well as general information. I see many opportunities for Second Life. It was at the recent DIUS event ‘Building the Britain of the Future’ that I met with Clicks and Links and Second Places and learnt about the work they were doing on Second Life business applications, particularly in energy management.

Our KTPs provide another excellent avenue to develop capability and knowledge transfer in this digital web-based area.
WebMission 2009 is an initiative helping to build the business opportunities for our remarkable pool of companies developing capability in this space; the Technology Strategy Board is supporting WebMission 2009 to San Francisco in March (http://webmission.co.uk). To quote Michael Birch, founder of Bebo, “The WebMission represents an amazing opportunity for the best of entrepreneurial UK talent to visit Silicon Valley and learn for themselves the differences that make the US a breeding ground for innovation and, more importantly, successful execution of ideas.”

This year will be the 20th since Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal to build a hypertext project called  “WorldWideWeb”. This idea has spawned some of the biggest companies in the world today and nobody can dispute that it has been the biggest driver for innovation of recent times. As we move into the next generation of web-based technologies I believe that social networking will continue to grow, creating equally big new business opportunities as well as facilitating many more through open innovation. At the Technology Strategy Board I want to see this growth benefit UK based companies. Our Connect and Catalyse strategy has as a key theme fostering an innovation climate – in which social networking will have a major part to play.

As you see, a week off has given me some time to think about the potential of social networking. I encourage you to develop your own strategies for using it to pursue your own innovation agenda and maximise business opportunities.

 

Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:36

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