By Jessamy Baldwin
A successful innovator must possess three driving forces according to award winning inventor Ross Harling, strategic advisor at Netitude. “One is a curiosity about how things work, the second is a desire to make something better and the last is a sense of dissatisfaction with the way things are,” said Ross, whose long and diverse international career spans technology, business and environmental ethics. Ross has inspired successive generations through pioneering new concepts, ground-breaking products and revolutionary business models.
From heading up one of the biggest computer consultancies and having his business tools used by NASA and the Department of Defence in the US, to inventing non-toxic coatings and winning both The Observer’s ‘Ethical Business Award’ and The Sunday Times ‘Green Pioneer Award’, this is one very interesting and dynamic man.
Where it all began
After finishing his Economics degree at Oxford Brookes, Ross completed International Management qualifications at IMD in Lausanne and at Harvard. Following an initial career in international logistics, Ross got his first big break when he became head of IT for Wolseley plc, the leading construction industry distributor. “I started out in admin and procurement and was really shocked by the quality of their IT systems. This was before PCs so a lot of it was done with punched cards and paper. After grousing about it for some time, their managing director told me stop complaining and go in there and sort it out.
I quickly realised I couldn’t understand what ‘computer people’ at the time were talking about so I first volunteered to train as a programmer and systems analyst. “I had a good understanding of Wolseley’s business, but I didn’t understand much about working with computers or technologists. That’s still a problem that exists today: Most business and IT people don’t really understand each other; they see the world from very different points of view. “I worked for Wolsely’s for a number of years in the UK and as they expanded into America. It was at this time that I started thinking about business systems. In simple terms every business or government organisation is just a collection of systems and I started analysing the outcomes that result from a system rather than just its outputs. Outputs are a measure of business efficiency, for sure, but nowadays it’s really about what value your Outcomes provide to the customer and the business as a whole, rather than just processing more and more transactions.”
Ross was soon headhunted to become Head of IT at GEC Telecommunications, before being headhunted once again to lead the development of pan-European IT consulting services for Digital Equipment Corporation in Geneva. “At the time, DEC was the second biggest computer company in the world, second only to IBM. “One of my proudest achievements was developing methods for interpreting the way that businesses operate in diagrams rather than documents. I remember one day I came home from a business trip to see my three small children playing an early version of SimCity which made me wonder if we could represent a whole business through similar visual representations.”
Ross went on to develop enterprise mapping, which produces billboard size, single picture diagrams of how a business operates from end to end. “It’s been used by a numbers of government ministries and companies, from Hiscox Insurance for major business expansion, to Tesco in order to open new stores faster than their competitors.” At this point, he was in charge of over 1000 consultants across Europe when Digital Equipment changed direction which led to it being merged into Hewlett Packard. So in 1994, Ross founded Atticus Consulting and pioneered new methods for improving business processes and performance in many large and complex organisations – a process today known as ‘business transformation’.
“In the period running up to the millennium there were lots of guru books and theories on how organisations brought about change but there was little evidence of how it actually worked in practice. So in 1999, I launched the world’s first online study of change management, using the Internet which at the time was only just being seen as a business tool. That study is still running today, after 18 years, and has been used by the Department of Defence in the US, NASA and a whole range of other major organisations.” In fact, Ross’s ‘Changeability’ study remains the longest running study of ‘real world’ change management practices and has been incorporated into the work of leading Economists and Organisational Change specialists.
In the last decade, Ross has also turned his hand to environmental issues. He said has always encouraged his three sons to think: “If you don’t like the way something works or the way something is, think about how you can make it better.” He certainly practices what he preaches. “Like many I have become much more concerned with the environment. I took a break from consulting and technology to develop a new type of paint which was the first coating product to be independently certified as non-toxic, low carbon and completely free of VOC’s (climate changing volatile organic compounds).
Once again the inspiration for this innovation began with his children: “I remember my children asking me ‘we’re doing a project at school daddy, what do you make at work?’ I couldn’t answer the question and again it really made me stop and think because, like most of us in business, you go from meeting to meeting and don’t actually produce anything tangible.”
“So I started taking up hobbies using my hands so that I could feel the satisfaction of actually having produced something, and one of those interests was furniture restoration. I started doing a lot of research into early paints and varnishes. By studying recipes and formulae from 200 years ago, long before the era of petrochemicals, I developed new formulations of water mixable powders with the colour range and convenience of modern emulsion paint but totally natural and safe. By leaving the customer to add their own tap water the cost and environmental damage of transportation is greatly reduced.”
Today Ross is an expert evaluator for the EU Commission on new research and funding proposals, as well as being a strategic adviser to Netitude Limited, and he has no plans to slow down. In a series of innovation briefings for Netitude Ross says: “We’ve been talking about AI for so long and there have been many false starts and dead ends. What we’re seeing now is a wave of technology where a combination of different elements is making AI a reality and much faster than we thought.” There have been a range of breakthroughs which mean vast amounts of information can now be processed by machines and new means of interacting through advanced natural voice to text technology, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri.
He says that the way we interact with machines is quickly going to change from using a keypad to talking to a computer and having that tell you its response. “It’s so much more productive for us as humans. An average person types at 40 words per minute but speaks at 100- 150 words per minute. We can read at 200 words per minute, but we can listen to more than 400 words per minute. Whatever the size or type of our business we can get three time more work done by changing from typing to speaking, and another two times more from reading to listening.” “We all spend our lives making decisions, beginning with what to eat for breakfast to choosing whether to take an umbrella. And we already use information sources to take some of the guess work out of the equation. We look at weather forecasts and we use Google maps to navigate a strange city. Shortly we will have personal AI assistants, where we can ask almost any type of question and expect a sensible practical answer.”
“Now this isn’t to say we’ll lose free will, we can choose to ignore or live without computers. But increasingly AI is going to give us rational advice and help us make the right decisions. The combination of big data, cloud technology and the ability to process and analyse vast amounts of data is already changing professions like medical diagnostics. IBM’s Watson machine can process the equivalent of a million books a second. It’s analysing and diagnosing cancer biopsies and it’s doing so with a speed and overall accuracy than any human can or will ever be able to do.” In investment management for example, it’s going to replace the intuition and experience of investment managers because it can research far more information than any investment manager can do in their lifetime.
Life is changing
Throughout his work with the EU, Ross has been looking at how advanced technology will change life as we know it in this era often called the 4th industrial revolution. He has also recently undertaken and published a study on the impacts of cloud technologies and artificial intelligence on UK Local Authorities entitled: “Will your council be a digital dynamo or dinosaur?”
“Governments are increasingly aware that Robotics and AI will displace traditional employment. That could mean we end up with 40% of current jobs in the UK becoming redundant, not just manual jobs, but in jobs that require professional application of rules and decision making. Just like the 1st industrial revolution, the real threat is that we’re not geared up for actually understanding how those changes will impact us, where salaries will come from and what are we going to do with our time if machines are doing all the work. There aren’t answers at the moment, there are only guesses.”
“Only one thing’s for sure, we are now on the crest of the biggest technology wave, ever.”
This article was published by Netitude in January 2018.