Blame the Technology and Australia


Continuing my search into what happened at Whitcoulls and Borders and  generally what’s going on with New Zealand retailers I am finding no surprises, which is a real worry. Two words come up a lot. Technology and Australia. I know a little of both. I live for technology and have trained many retailers over the years (including some who were already millionaires) and while the technology has changed, the principles haven’t. More on this to come.

Australia and New Zealand

As to Australia. In the 90′s many Australasian retailers who had New Zealand operated subsidiary chains based in New Zealand, decided to do away with local country management, local buyers etc.  and to save lots of money by treating their NZ shops as Australian branches. I guess they considered New Zealand as a slightly bigger Tasmania. Not huge, but worth having, especially if they didn’t put much effort into senior staffing  resources.

When performance decreased they blamed the economy, they said that NZ was just an over inflated state and it was always going to be that way, which was how they justified reducing local resources in the first place. The fact is while we may have a lot in common, we are not the same. We are made up of different cultures and history and have subtle differences in our lifestyles. Subtle enough that you can’t treat NZ stores the same as Australian stores and expect the same result.

Similar scenarios happened in many cases with the decades of American Globalisation. It’s funny really that America wanted to change Japan and the rest of Asia Pacific while Japan wanted to change the west. I well remember having discussions with senior management of Casio in Tokyo and Hamura about improving the software on their cash registers. One of the issues was that they hadn’t allowed for people pressing buttons in the wrong sequence. Have you ever been in a retail store when the ECR (Cash Register) is bleeping loud noises no matter what buttons are pushed and the stress it caused the cashier? Their initial response was “They must use the ECR in the right way or you should find better customers”. We ended up beta testing their software in NZ and Australia first and then getting Japan to tweak their software. That was one of the initiatives that helped us get 70% market share in the ECR market in NZ and helped Casio increase theirs around the world. But then of course the company I worked for was sold and I along with my boss and several other great people were made redundant despite the fact that we were doing really well, but because they thought we were earning too much. I’d love to know what their market share is in NZ now. I know it isn’t 70%. Anyway I’m going off on a tangent.

The big thing I noticed in the NZ stores was inventory management. They were carrying a lot of books that I wouldn’t think anyone would buy other than as a joke. I went back to Borders a week ago to jot some of the names down, but it looks like they went in the $1, $2, $5 sale and were gone. They had many dated books especially computing which must have been in store for several years, technical books on how to use software that almost no one has used in the last 5 years.

From what I’ve been told, someone automated the purchasing software to replace books that had sold, so for example if a particular book sold really well, say 5,000 copies, the system would replace with another 5,000 copies. Well there goes the profit from the first lot.

One of the things that makes New Zealand different is our ethnic communities. All over New Zealand, but particularly in Auckland we have clusters of ethnic communities; Chinese, Korean, South African, Indian, Pacific Islanders and more. Brands who fail to take that into consideration waste massive levels of stock by having the wrong product in the wrong locations, which then becomes shop soiled and potentially unsaleable.

Inventory needs to be managed locally by category managers who understand and are at the leading edge of their category and who understand their local market. They need to know weekly what is going on and understand who their customers are and what they are buying. Some books date more quickly than others and need to be moved on quickly, others will hold their value longer, but will still have a rapid half life.

In my previous blog about Whitcoulls and Borders I wrote about how they could follow the example of Amazon and know what their individual repeat customers were buying and therefore their interests and could recommend books to them. Amazon continue to prove that people in NZ will buy based on recommendations along the lines of “You bought these 3 books, other people who bought the same books also enjoyed the following titles”. Not only do we often buy them, but we also pay massive freight costs to get them here, at the same time as local book retailers are discounting stock that people aren’t buying. How smart is that?

One good way of dealing with this is using Business Analytics or Business Intelligence tools such as BIonaMAP, soon to be launched by New Zealand geospatial solution provider, GeoSmart. Fortunately for retail chains, this product will support both Australia and New Zealand, so users can have visibility over both countries.

BIonaMAP

Whitcoulls and Borders


I was thrilled to learn that the remaining Whitcoulls and Borders have been sold to Anne and David Norman. Now they have some hope. They will now live in the Pascoes Group and of course this group are known as having revived the ailing Farmers chain and given them new life.

Once the essential housekeeping details are sorted, such as property leases and staff contracts, there is every reason to hope that they will breathe new life into Borders and Whitcoulls.

That can not mean BAU or Business As Usual, because even though they did OK and the biggest problems were in Australia with REDGroup. Nevertheless these stores were not run optimally and they were not run with the times.

I heard people, partly lead by local publishers, saying that if the NZ stores were run from Australia, they would probably signal the demise of the NZ author. Certainly I agree that we would have seen less Kiwi authors in store, but I think ultimately either the publishers would have to become less greedy and insular or the local authors would start to embrace the new eBook media and of course in doing so they can either self publish or join Amazon or other local eBook publishers. Neither are ideal for people who love books.

As I’ve said in many previous blogs about Whitcoulls and Borders, a few of them can be found here, the first thing is to go back to basics. For these stores to be successful they need to operate smarter and provide what the modern shopper wants. There are many good examples overseas.

With the chain expanding, here a some ideas that I would look at.

  • Macy's

    Gift Registry. Chains like Macy’s in the USA have had phenomenal success with their national gift registry programs for decades. They have kiosks in store which are linked nationally. I was so excited the first time I went through one I almost bought a gift for a young man’s Bar Mitsva in Chicago. I was in New York at the time looking for a hat in one of the coldest winters I have ever experienced. It was so well laid out, there were thousands of special events from weddings to anniversaries and being national, you could see from New York, what a person in Madison Wisconsin had their hopes on. Given that the chain owns Farmers and a number of jewellery stores, this would be a great opportunity to combine the lot.

  • I keep harping on about Jeff Jarvis’ book What Would Google Do? It’s funny in a way that in one of his first blogs about the book, he suggests that you could buy it from Borders. The thing was though that I couldn’t buy it from Borders at the time because they didn’t have it, so I bought it from Amazon.
  • So I think that Borders and Whitcoulls need to start saying, what would Amazon do. So many companies are naive and believe their own hype that web retailers (only part of what they are) are no threat, or they consider them such a threat that when things go bad, they become a self fulfilling prophecy.

Hanging a few Kobo’s on the wall is not the answer, that has been a major botch up in my humble opinion. Even on the web, sell the sizzle on the home page! But some things they could do with their ‘loyalty’ programs is monitor what each customer buys and make recommendations based on the buyer habits. I have bought at least a dozen books on Amazon’s recommendations. Amazon is also much cheaper than buying locally, but that’s a different story because it costs a lot to get books to New Zealand, so unless you buy a stack of books, you pay back what you save on freight.

Amazon has many great features that can be just asdestination events

Mobile Marketing easily applied to a bricks and mortar chain, which has the benefit of being able to hold a book, tell you what store it is in and provide you with much quicker gratification.

I don’t want to write a book, but here a some things you may find in this blog in the coming days for Whitcoulls and Borders:

  • Becoming a destination for events such as readings and signings
  • Back to basics and way beyond in inventory management
  • A major web presence with lots of ideas perhaps sparked by What Would Google Do (which should be a mandatory read for all Whitcoulls and Borders management at all levels)
  • A new way for both stores to have lots of stock available, but not necessarily on the spot. A central warehouse with the option of home delivery could cut down inventory sizes without sacrificing range and depth.
  • Embrace proximity based marketing on mobile devices. I would strongly recommend that management from Borders, Whitcoulls, Farmers and in fact all retail chains attend the Mobile Marketing Forum in Auckland this June. This Forum could be called The Retailer Strikes Back. They will learn many new ideas at this event.
  • Understand their regional customer base. There is no point in carrying the same stock range in each store. It simply won’t work and you will have aged stock going on sale. Some of the category managers need to take a long hard look at the books they have been stocking and ask themselves what on earth possessed them to make some of the decisions they made? Or was it the publishers reps that conned them?
  • They should look at products like GeoSmart’s impending Business Intelligence on a MAP. This could produce many aha moments when used to geographically view their business results in combination with consumer demographics.
I could go on but that’s plenty for now. I think with the right motivation and attitude, these two stores can be not only revived, but will rise to new heights. But only if they stop living in the past of this is the way we always did it. They need to embrace and perhaps even lead the future. It’s not hard, its just thinking outside the square and remembering that it is the customers and the books that make your business. Its about the words and the stories and people.

Ideas for Retailers including Borders and Whitcoulls


As I mentioned last week, I am speaking at the  Mobile Marketing Forum in Auckland next month. I’m going to share some good practical business ideas there that smart retailers and destination businesses can implement. You might catch the odd one on #NZSoMo on Twitter, but I’d recommend if you want to get into and ahead of the wave of new social media and location based mobile marketing, you should invest in attending this event.

Some time ago I talked about the situation with Whitcoulls and Borders. I said I had lots of ideas about how they could run their businesses more profitably without sacrificing their models. I’m happy to share some of my ideas, but not all of them, because I am thinking that maybe there is an opportunity to partner with some local developers or entrepreneurs to commercialize some of my ideas, seeing as the people in these businesses can’t see the wood for the trees.

I’m happy to share a few concepts to get things started and to show I’m not just full of hot air.

First is basics. Whenever a business starts falling by the wayside, the smart ones go to consultants or mentors. Often the business has gotten so busy they forget about what made them great stand out businesses in the first place and often they have forgotten good business practices.

A key one is stock turn by category. Some of the books I saw in the sales were going to struggle at $1 a book and should never had been stocked. How did Borders NZ decide what to stock in each category? Did they liaise with the people who read the books or just on what the publishers told them.

Back in the day the late Shaun Joyce of Sounds Music used to consult my daughter on which albums he should bring in for the big teenage market. She was big on music and researched amongst her friends which meant they got what they wanted and Sounds stocked what the segment wanted and it moved.

Shaun Joyce

I haven’t explored retail in the US for a number of years because it was no longer relevant to my current business environment, but that is changing, partly due to a new solution that GeoSmart is launching soon called BIonaMAP or Business Intelligence on a MAP. More on this in the near future but it is very exciting for lots of businesses including retail chains.

I fell in love with Borders in the USA. Shame they may not be there much longer.

They were innovative in lots of ways. there were 3 that I particularly liked (I’m not writing a book here folks!).

  1. They had book signings and meet the author every week (I’m talking about big city stores here). The ones I liked best were autobiographies, for example imagine going to a store, watching BB King play Lucille and sing a couple of songs, having a chat and then personally signing his new autobiography.
  2. They encourage you to read in the store and have a cafe you can take the books to. My first thought was, they will damage the books. My 2nd thought was now I can check a few books to find out which is the one I really want, especially for me technical or music related books. I very rarely go to a book store and buy only one book. This year I have bought at least 20 books from local stores and another 8 from Amazon.
  3. They have massive range, width and depth. If I want to buy anything other than a top 100 book (I’m not generally in the demographic for many of those).
I will come back with some advice and would love some feedback from you dear reader because part of the fin is coming up with the ideas.
My best business read this year has been Jeff Jarvis “What Would Google Do?” My first recommendation to whoever ends up owning and managing Whitcoulls and Borders (if they don’t just shut them down) has a mandatory read of this book. If they don’t come up with at least a dozen innovative, exciting and compelling ideas as a result, I’d suggest they resign from their jobs because they are stuck in the track of “This is how the book trade works, this is the way we have always done it”. Folks this is the way the book industry crumbles instead of making itself relevant. And no hanging a discounted eBook reader off a hangsell rack is not a modern way of doing business.
I will share some more ideas with you for those who need some sparks to get their thinking juices started, but I’m really keen for some participation here, so for each idea, I might also throw out some questions.
What do you think Borders and Whitcoulls can do better that would make you want to go to their stores and spend money?
I visited Borders on Saturday. They were having a stock take yesterday and I would expect some more sales coming up. Not much worth buying but I did get a copy of the 2010 book Kiwi Rock Chicks, Pop Stars and Trailblazers down from $49.95 to $5! They probably could have sold it in volume to the record store next door:(
Footnote, while I believe it is a long time before eBooks totally rule, but Amazon has announced that they have for the first time sold more eBooks for Kindle than printed books. Of course one issue and opportunity is the cost of freight, especially to NZ, but then that is compensated for by much cheaper books as long as you buy a few at a time.

The end of Whitcoulls and Borders in New Zealand


If you have a Borders or Whitcoulls voucher, even if you hate the idea of spending double to be allowed to spend your voucher, I recommend you do it quickly, because within a couple of weeks it will be worthless. It was interesting to see that there is no mention of the current situation on the Borders website which talks about eBooks coming soon, although Whitcoulls have been a bit more responsible with a home page announcement.

The demise of these companies isn’t about eBooks, it is largely around debt as pointed out by Liam Dann in this morning’s Business Section of the NZ Herald.  and the business models. I’m not going to discuss the debt because that doesn’t reflect on the industry itself, it reflects on higher level financial decisions and the economy, not on the book trade.

Book stores and music stores are in industries that are steeped in history of “this is how we’ve done it for the last 50 years and why change it if it aint broke”.

As was mentioned in today’s NZ Herald story by Isaac Davison, “In 2010, 9.67 million books were sold, an increase of 1.2 per cent in volume but 0.1 per cent down in value against 2009. This was despite the mark-up on books in New Zealand, which saw paperbacks sold for as much as $20 more than online, even after shipping costs.”

So much for Amazon (of course there were a huge number of Kiwis including myself who purchased from Amazon as well) being the cause of the demise of our local stores.

I also appreciated the comment in the same story from Jo McColl of Unity Books that many people bought hard copy books as a consequence of having purchased eBooks. I’ve done that too. I read eBooks, listen to Audio Books and still have a personal library of around 2,000 print books. The same with music, I listen to lots of music online but have still purchased at least 10 CD’s so far this year.

I might have to go to a separate blog about how Whitcoulls and Borders business model needed to change in order to stay viable and vibrant (ignoring REDGroup‘s debt which doesn’t reflect on the book trade business model itself) because for these guys its too late unless they get a savvy new owner (who will not purchase the chains’ debt) who is ready to adopt a new business model.

REDGroup have called in Administrators. I don’t care who the administrators are. Their role is a short term one and it isn’t about changing the business model or trading back into profit. It is about the creditors.

They will try to negotiate with the book publishers and wholesalers and other suppliers who are desperate to get paid for their product and worried about their future viability in NZ. Inland Revenue want their taxes and will be first in the queue.

They will need to negotiate with the 1,000 staff who will have to have new short term contracts and will be justifiably worried about whether they will get paid at all, let alone have a future with the chain, but at the same time, will be essential should they find a new buyer for the chains.

Based on the outcome of their negotiations a decision will need to be made on whether to go into receivership which is next most likely step. If that happens, enjoy the book sale, because there will be many bargains up for grabs.

The shame of it is that (outside of the decisions that got REDGroup into this financial position) the problem in the trade is that the business model needed to change and like the music industry and other industries, the people running them don’t get it. They should have learned from the music industry, which still doesn’t get it. Other industries who don’t get it include banking, telecommunications and consumer electronics to name a few.

What should they have done and what can other retail businesses do in order to not follow Borders and Whitcoulls into the mire? Subscribe to my blog and I’ll give you a few pointers for free. It isn’t rocket science, but it is a fundamental shift in thinking, whilst also remembering the fundamental simple principles of retail and distributon.

We live in a new world, its exciting and there is a lot of money to be made, but the fatal flaw is thinking that if you do the same thing you have always done, that you will get a different result.

There is an RSS feed to this blog. Come back and read some of my ideas on how companies like Whitcoulls and Borders can thrive and prosper.

Here are a few things I would look at:

  • Understanding your business
  • Communication with customers
  • Communication with staff
  • Distribution methods
  • Stock turn and inventory management
  • Engagement
  • In Store Events
  • Proximity based marketing
  • Shelf Management
  • Relationships with community
  • Relationships with education
  • Location Based Business Analytics
  • The Internet
  • Gift Registry

I could and probably will go on. The answers are a mixture of the old and the new, neither of which these chains have effectively managed. Borders started in the right direction in the US, but didn’t continue the evolution. International chains like Borders and WH Smith focussed more on the  era of globalization than evolution of the business model. Something that would have made short term heroes who have probably made their money and moved on, but was only ever going to be short term.

Comparison Shopping


Comparison shopping on mobile devices has been around for a long time. I first saw apps pop up for Palm many years ago even before I had Bluetooth connectivity. Today things are even easier because of devices like iPhone and Android.

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a Harvard Business Review Ideacast podcast with John Donahoe , which was refreshing  in itself because John had a refreshingly clear vision and understanding of what eBay is as a business, which is not about selling stuff on eBay. Have a listen for yourself. Any business should understand what it really does in order to be able to do it well. For example if you think a grocery store is there to sell groceries, or a car lot is there to sell cars, then you need to listen to this interview.

Anyway, he was explaining why eBay bought the company Red Laser, which reads bar codes through the camera on your iPhone or Android and lets you see information about the product and compare pricing at both other retailers and websites, such as Amazon and of course their new owner eBay.

This is really exciting, especially in countries like New Zealand where items such as books, which I buy a lot of, are really expensive, so shopping around makes a lot of sense. In that area, I have to say that locally I buy on impulse, when I see something I really want or when its on special. They are just too expensive otherwise. Of course if I had an iPhone or an Android, I could check in real time and see if it is worth buying now or paying the postage from the US.

It was really sad to hear that Borders is likely to file for Bankruptcy this month. They really are my favorite bookstore by far, even though I have complained that in NZ since Whitcoulls bought the local franchise, they are slowly turning them into bigger versions of Whitcoulls which pretty much defeats the purpose, although this situation may vindicate them.

One of the arguments sited for Borders’ woes is their failure to prepare for the growth of the eBook market. This may be true to some degree and it is inevitable that print media will follow the music industry. I’ve blogged about this before, which you can find if you dig into my tags. Print is expensive but there are lots of things that you can do. eBook readers is one, but for Borders I would have thought a great opportunity would be Print On Demand, because this can still  be done via the store and allow access to massive stocks without worrying about the costs of shelf space and aged stock.

Whoops, off on a tangent again. I was talking about comparison shopping. Yes there are loads of applications available, I’ve only picked on one. Mashable has a huge number of blogs on this topic if you want to find more.

So have a look at the Red Laser site, to see what what they are all about and watch the short video below from DizzyDougTV to see how cool this is. You don’t need a bar code reader, just the camera on your SmartPhone. Damn I do have to get an iPhone or an Android soon! Maybe I should set up a website with a PayPal (another eBay subsidiary) link called by Luigi a Smartphone:) Would you donate?

Footnote, a lot of people think of Smartphone apps as being the domain of men, but for women who love sales and special deals, this is one for you. I’ll leave the last word to CHIP Chick.

New Ways To Read The News


I’ve written before about the newspaper industry and why newspapers will fade away. In Jeff Jarvis’ book What Would Google Do? there is a prediction that the last newspaper will be printed in 2040.

I no longer subscribe to a daily paper. I do scan the office copy and have a Firefox widget that gives me access to my local paper the New Zealand Herald although they haven’t updated it since March and it doesn’t work properly with the latest Firefox version.

Where I get most of my news from is in fact Twitter. Lots of people still don’t understand the power of Twitter. I’ve found it is the best way to get up to date information about what is going on locally and internationally. If I want to get information, I simply do a search on my Twitter client, Hootsuite, which I can save as a stream so I don’t have to keep searching.

In addition, I use the paper.ly service and have 2 daily Twitter newspapers where the content is generated by the people or businesses I follow. I have 2 daily papers. One is for my generic Twitter account, and the other is for my songwriting business.

The service I use is called Paper.li and my daily online newspapers which you can subscribe to for free are the Luigi Cappel Daily and the other is my Cappel Music paper. I can go to either of these papers and read stories that are of interest to me. The reason I can do this, is because it aggregates Twitter stories with links from people I follow.

A benefit of this is that it focuses me on following people that have something to say that I am in fact interested in. So if you follow me on Twitter you will see that I typically hover around the 2,000 follows as opposed to some people who follow and collect people like they were trying to follow everyone. If I follow you and your tweets don’t interest me, I won’t be following you for long. Doesn’t mean you don’t have something valid to say, just that I only have so much time and there is so much going on.

So my newspaper has a front page and today it includes stories such as Google TV devices being delayed, South Korea’s military exercises, arrests in a UK terror plot, the latest in the Pike River Coal Mine Disaster, faulty Kindles and more. There is a Stories Page, an Arts and Entertainment Page, a Technology Page, and more. You can even subscribe to my paper, or make your own and its all free.

I mentioned searches on Twitter for news as well. I won’t go into hashtags, you can google that if you are interested, but for a couple of examples, here is a search on Heathrow, which has been closed for several days because of snow and ice. The best way to find out what is going on is from people who are there. You’ll probably find photos and lots of human interest stories as well as the latest information. Interesting as I write this, Sky News were saying on TV that Heathrow Airport doesn’t want their cameras at the airport interviewing angry people waiting for their delayed flights.

Another topical example is North Korea which is obviously of great concern to those of us who don’t want to see a new war front.

This isn’t the only way I get news, I also have an iGoogle page which is my RSS feed aggregator. I keep standard news searches there for things that interest me as well as tools such as currency converters, time zone calculations so I don’t miss my online tutorials from Berklee Music out of Boston, weather forecasts and lots more.

So do I need a print newspaper? No. Is that good? Well putting my ecological hat on, according to Wikipedia, 35% of all trees felled are used to generate paper. Newspapers must be a massive proportion of that. We know that we need trees to combat climate change, so I’m doing my little bit:)

Death of the newspaper

Barter, the New Old Economy


I’ve just got back from a break in Rarotonga, which was a wonderful place to visit for peace and rest. It was thought provoking even though thought was not high on my agenda.

I finished a piece of music I had been working on and called it Rarotonga, which you can find on Youtube and my About Songwriting blog. While there I attended a wonderful gospel church service where I had some great singing. This was followed by a bountiful morning tea put on by the open generosity of the locals.

Most of the church service was in Rarotongan Maori, however 2 words that I did understand were Climate Change. In a country where most of the land is very close to sea level this is a real challenge. You need to spend a little time on a South Pacific Island to understand what is at risk.

The one thing you must do when visiting a new country is visit with the people. 3 things stood out:

1. Everyone expressed their gratitude that we visited and explained that their country was entirely dependent on tourism.

2. Every person had at least 2 or 3 jobs and good pay was considered to be about US5 an hour. Other than Sunday’s, most people would be working 12+ hour days.

3. There was a sub economy operating below the cash economy. People trade goods or services. It might be people swapping fish for Taro or playing music in return for food and the ability to promote and sell merchandise such as CD’s.

As you do, when you deliberately disconnect from the grid, you catch up with reading and I got to reading up on Life Inc by Douglas Rushkoff. One of his arguments is that the world’s economies are driven by corporations, banks and other large entities who perhaps care more about themselves and keeping communities reliant on them than helping the people they serve gain any level of independence.

I was blown away by some of the examples of alternative trading systems he came up with, although I don’t know why. Barter as a concept is probably as old as mankind, but a new economy seems to   be reemerging in innovative ways. I’ve known doctors who accepted fish or other produce from patients who couldn’t afford to pay fees in New Zealand. I’ve known plenty of people who share their specialties, a plumber who does work on an electricians home and the electrician is owed a favor by a motor mechanic who then does a job for the plumber for free. The traditional economy still gets revenue from the parts that are used, which includes all the traders and of course tax in all its forms.

From a business point of view, I use Bartercard and they are a great organisation who I recommend. They have Bartercard Maps which uses GeoSmart Maps technology to help you find what you need based on location. However, fundamentally it is still a form of currency and our accounts department and Inland Revenue treat it no different than cash. In some cases, such as accommodation I also sometimes feel that the product you get is a little less quality than you would get if you were paying cash.

One good thing about Bartercard I like is that it is local, at least it encourages companies to use local suppliers. Despite our position, I feel many organisations in NZ from Government Departments through to consumers do not consider supporting their local economy as a major factor in making purchasing decisions.

I don’t want to go into any real detail about the examples in Rushkoff’s book, because that’s what the book is for and you might want to read it. There are some great deals on Amazon. I don’t think you’ll find it in your local bookstore.

Here’s a couple of cool examples.

  • CSA or Community Shared Agriculture. The concept is that people not only commit to buying their produce from a particular local farm, but they even commit to doing a small amount of work on it to help support it. This gives some security to the local farmer, but also helps build local community spirit and has people involved and doing something they would not normally do in their daily lives.
  • In Japan, the Sawayaka Welfare Foundation came up with a ‘complementary currency’ where young people could earn credits for taking care of elderly people. Those credits, called Fureai Kippu can then be applied to the care of their own elderly relatives who may live in a different part of the country. Because it is by the people and for the people, many say that the standard of support they get is far better than if it was provided by commercial caregivers.

The book also has lots of ideas about local loyalty programs that serve to build greater loyalty to local traders and creates stronger community feeling, which can and should apply to any town or village. The people who work, have restaurants or businesses near your home, are your neighbors. We are  often too quick to go and give profit to multinationals, when we could be supporting our local businesses and then complain when our potential customers don’t use our services.

To a degree this blog was motivated by my trip to Rarotonga and the music I wrote which you can listen to below. But it is also out of concern for our future. New Zealand, like Rarotonga runs the risk of becoming isolated. If a war were to strike overseas and our imports (including oil products, food, clothing and technology) how well prepared are we to continue living to the standard we are accustomed to? People in Rarotonga told us about the island running out of fuel for a few days and the chaos that ensued. How long would we continue our lifestyle without petrol and diesel?

Brain Controlled Prosthetics


As you do, conversation at the dinner table last night went to prosthetics. It started with her school planning assignments on innovation and her plan to get her class thinking about how people could cope without the use of their hands.

She mentioned the story of Mariatu Kamara who had both her hands hacked off in Sierra Leone, which is the subject of her book Bite of the Mango. She decided that she would get her kids to spend a day not being able to use their hands and then get them to think about how they could cope with this. The next step would be how to use innovation to come up with a solution to this problem.

I told her about the Kiwi company Rex Bionics who are helping people who are wheelchair bound and thought they would never walk again, to get on their feet with an exoskeleton. This is a topic I have covered on a number of occasions including my recent blog on Singularity.

Anyway, this is an area that is being well researched and just to prove that learning to control a prosthesis via the brain, check out this video where a University of Pittsburgh team trained a monkey to feed itself using a prosthetic arm controlled via a brain implant.

Now I do have to warn you not to try this at home folks. Implants produce scarring and scarring inhibits conductivity. Now of course the problem is how to produce this technology at a price that is affordable. Probably decades away, but pretty exciting, don’t you think?

I’ve been reading


This week I had a short stay in hospital for a minor operation and have been resting up to make sure that I don’t pop any stitches. For a couple of days I was popping pain relief which had as much influence on my head as my body, then I decided I wanted clarity back and started reading.

I mean really reading. I finished a book I had started weeks ago and started another straight away. I really enjoyed myself. I also got into reading some more articles and read a quote by Nicholas Carr, from an article in The Atlantic, which really resonated with me, entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid?

The core of the article is that we have access to so many snippets of information and the ability to easily research any topic, that we don’t have to do any serious reading any more. In fact most of us don’t bother any more. I have been an avid reader most of my life, but these days I spend more and more time on the computer.

My business and personal life involves amongst other activities, reading, responding to and writing emails and spending a lot of time communicating via Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, plus many sites such as MySpace and Music Forte, where I hope an A&R person or singer will pick up some of my songs. It seems to be a race from one micro-communication and application to the next.

In his article, Carr wrote: “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” That sounded so much like what I do, what I revelled in.

But here’s the thing for me. I have read thousands of books over the years, from literature to politics, science, philosophy and psychology and much more. I have enjoyed the American and English classics, with some Kafka and Solzhenitsyn, lots of Science Fiction, and many university texts. They have given me a background from which to interpret all the bytes of information I now sample, to understand them and make sense of them.

Because you can think faster than you read, I was able to analyse, interpret question and process everything I set my eyes on, storing it for future reference. But here’s the thing, many people today are not building those backgrounds of data and knowledge.

Many teenagers don’t read books any more. Many tell me they can count the total number of books they have read in their lives, on the fingers of one hand. When they communicate, they abbreviate words to send text messages on their mobiles or send emails. Spelling has become poor and many people who have come to me looking for jobs, could not write a quality CV to introduce themselves. When I complained about my children’s spelling in their school assignments, teachers told me that it was concept and intent that mattered, not delivery. I’m going on a tangent, but things are changing and they may not be for the better.

When it comes to news, only a couple of people in my office read a newspaper, although most of them are graduates. If we didn’t have one in the office, most people would know nothing more than what they see on the TV news, when they bother to watch it.

I’ve counted myself lucky that I live in New Zealand where people have had a DIY attitude, based around the history of being a young country where people had to solve their own problems and find ways of doing things despite many obstacles, including being about as far away from the rest of the world as you can get.

Kiwis have been known as inventors and problem solvers and have been well accepted in business all over the world, where specialisation is becoming more common. Even here though, talent shortages are becoming obvious, especially as people find they can earn more overseas. Another reason imho, is that without an intellectual background, and moving away from the land and domestic skills that come with necessity, we are losing those skills.

Companies who made their older staff redundant and replaced them with young managers are finding that they may be lacking in maturity that comes from experience and learning intellectually, not just info bytes. This is costing them dearly. In many cases older workers are going back into the workforce for economic reasons and companies are reaping the benefit of their experience, but this comes hard as younger people often think they know everything and don’t need ‘wise counsel’.

The world economy may help us, bringing people home from their extended overseas experiences, looking for a better place to raise their kids and our isolation could be a good thing.

Specialisation is going nuts. A story in The Futurist earlier this year by Bruce Tow and David Gilliam gave an example of a surgeon who was only qualifed to repair knees injured during the playing of football. There is a new specialisation now starting to becom sought after, which is that of a ‘connector’. A connector is someone who can understand enough about a lot of disciplines and can act as an intermediary to help solve problems outside of the specialist spheres.

Without realising it, I have become one of those. Many people come to me for advice in how to solve business problems. They have people within their organisations with amazing specialist skills, but without  the ability to harness these people to and networks to get results. Often it seems really simple to me, with my background and of course an objectivity that comes from not being involved in the path that got them to their current position.

So I’ve been reading and I guess I’ve been waffling, but I’m allowed because this is my blog. Many people think that Twitter and all the other networking sites are a waste of time. For many people they are, because they don’t have the skills to access the wisdom and knowledge behind many of the shared messages. The people who really maximise the wealth of information on the net are those who have read and absorbed knowledge first. The ones who rise up as genuine consultants share real knowledge. They don’t need to fill their micro bytes with quotes and links from someone else, they can think for themselves, because they did their apprecticeships, they learned intellectually and by doing, failing and doing again.

Maybe it was just the painkillers and reading this will be a waste of time. But then I don’t think reading is ever a waste of time.

Another Reason Why Newspapers Will Fade Away


This morning for the 2nd time in 2 weeks my NZ Herald wasn’t delivered. This happened a couple of times previously with the Sunday Herald which was actually the one I used to enjoy the most. After the 2nd time I cancelled it. Two weeks ago when my Saturday Herald didn’t turn up, I tried to call them and got a voice message saying that I had called outside of working hours. I thought to myself that perhaps reading hours might disappear as well and this morning I told them that 3 strikes and they could say goodbye to my subscription.

This is one of the reasons why newspapers are on the way out. Not only are they reliant on people who really don’t want to go out on wet cold dark winter mornings, but a printed newspaper is becoming so inefficient.

I get headline tweets from the NZ Herald along with 1,648 other people, with links to the stories I want to read. Online I can see the headlines and major stories on their homepage and then I can see the headlines for each section and go straight to the stories that interest me. The Herald is only one publication I subscribe to on Twitter, there are several news services that flick past me on the side of my browser using Twitbin which is a Firefox plugin.

I also use iGoogle for my RSS feed. This gives me the latest news on all the topics I want to keep up to date on. That includes lots of streams around topics such as GPS, LBS, Psychology, Music and much more. It updates itself automatically all day and I can see which stories I have read in case my memory fails me.

Twitter of course is also a great vehicle for getting the latest news about anything. It told me that there was an earthquake in LA just as I boarded a plane there, although it turned out to be inconsequential. It told me what was going on in Iran and even if you can’t spell swine flu you’ll find out what’s happening to real people like Izzy who just found out her brother has it.  If you could spell it correctly you’ll find out what is happening, which famous people have just caught it and more than you’ll ever want to know.

I started off saying that newspapers are closing and you probably thought I was exaggerating didn’t you. Well think again. Here are a few examples.

Of course there are also stories around the world talking about job cuts in the newspaper industry like this one in the Guardian.

This doesn’t mean, of course that we don’t want news. Of course we do, but we have new vehicles that are far more efficient, we now have a choice, in fact we’re spoiled for it. Did you wait for news about Michael Jackson’s death to appear in the newspaper? Of course not, it was on every TV news channel and you got it up to date. By the time the newspapers came out, the stories that were in it, such as him not being dead, but only in a coma, had long since been refuted.

The big problem for the print media companies, is that they don’t know how, or if they can monetise the online media. There are of course ways that they can do this, but they have to switch their thinking, which is so enrenched in ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ that many of them won’t be doing it at all in the future. Sounds a lot like the recording industry doesn’t it?