Sunday, 20 November 2016

Week 7: (14th November to 20th November 2016) or 'Dreaming with the Spires'

We shuttled, like a shooting star, through the stillness of the night. From the carriage window, diffusing into view, hovered a glow of marmalade over a city of dreams and spires. Tomorrow's bustling cobbled pavements were tonight's sanctuaries of peace. Along the lanes were rows of electric stars on sticks, shining a light for the nocturnal Oxford scholars. Across the city, behind sash windows, wisdom and expertise rested on pillows. The quills, the pads, the leafy volumes awaited the tasks of tomorrow, straightening the curves of question marks into the detailed, factual exclamations of knowledge.

Across the aisle, a young boy of no more than 4, dressed in a red woollen jumper, sat making hot chocolate for his family. The spoons, the cups, the lid were visible only to him. He stirred the cocoa with his imagination and offered cups to his parents. As each received and acted out their sips, the young boy watched intently for their expressions. Too milky? Need more stirring? All the knowledge in the Bodleian could not address these questions. The Dad lapped up the froth from his lips, murmured tones of satisfaction and nodded his approval energetically to his son. We pulled into the station and alighted, the young boy following in his fantasy world. Little did I realize at the time that I was to spend the next five days estranged from my knowledge and expertise and instead, stepping into that land of imagination, of artistic invention; dreaming with the spires in a world of innovation.


In some ways, my week in Oxford was about building bridges; innovative links between knowledge and what I may loosely describe as an 'outside world'.  It is a well-known problem that in the pursuit of a niche, or in the attempt to establish themselves as 'world experts', academics have dug more moats than fashion bridges. Many shy away from opportunities to cohere their work with that of policy and business. Ultimately, it's knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

To be accurate, the aim of the week was not necessarily to build bridges between the island of Soil Science and those perched on banks from the other side, but to learn how to build bridges. However, the workshop invited students from across a wide range of 'Earth Sciences' (biologists, pedologists, zoologists) and as such, the mere bringing together of this diverse congregation had already laid the first bricks. Peppered over the programme were opportunities to develop other skills too, such as project financing and management.

Convening the workshop was Dr Kevin Parker, a former chemist who worked for 12 years at BP but having subsequently trained at the London Business School, currently leads a consultancy and training company called KKI Associates. As part of this latter venture, he mentors companies, start-up businesses and university institutes with an interactive business training programme. Also joining in on the week's activities was Kevin's associate, Dr Tony Aldhous. Tony also worked for BP, first as a researcher but later in the Research and Development programme. Alongside Kevin, he guides spin-out companies to tailor their prospective businesses but also finds time to support universities in efforts to commercialise research.

Now, I would be doing a great disservice to this narrative were I not to state that I found the week challenging. Aside from the pennies that rattle around my pocket, the world of business management and finance is becoming increasingly abstract to me. 'Markets' seem no longer to be places with self-employed traders perching on cardboard boxes and huddling under tarpaulin. No longer are they places where kids wave wooden chip folks at pigeons whilst mothers barter down the price of fifth-hand scarves. I remember physically walking around a market. The only 'liquid assets' were cheap bottles of Panda Pop. There was not a portfolio in sight. Competitor analysis was simply a speedy dash around the other side to check how much Mrs Jackson was selling her nectarines for. It is true to say that these physical markets, by and large, do still exist; indeed, I had a very interesting walk around the Oxford Indoor Market. Likewise, we still deal in units of physical currency and we do still have physical banks where automatic teller machines whir away at customer requests. In short, the world of business does still hold shape and colour. It still makes sound. Money still smells. And yet the world of business we were to plunge ourselves into on the workshop seemed many millions of miles away.


The leap between the outdoor (or perhaps, indoor covered) market and that which exists in an entirely different space altogether is a narrative spoken by the very fabric of the building we spent the week in.  The workshop took place in the Ship Street Centre which is part of Jesus College. In the early 1880s, this was a warehouse operated by William Baker and Co., to produce cabinets and carpets. The company built up of decorators and furnishers couldn't have invested more in a physical and tangible business if they had tried. As I walked under an arch, where horses once rested their hooves, I caught sight of the transformation. Gone are the shavings of wood-dust and the pungent odours of varnish. The off-cuts of unpurchased carpet and the lids of emptied paint-pots no longer litter the floors. If the spirit of William Baker persists, it did not haunt me. The building is now largely vacuous; the design speaks a contemporary dialect. The reception area is mostly air, apart from a sideboard and a single photocopier. In the far corner is the Bastion Breakout Area where brick and beam whisper the past.  



The business people who do deals on this leather physically turn their backs on their own history. Once upon a time, this room was used to make tables, chairs, wardrobes, desks and cabinets. Today, all you can make is a cup of tea. Once upon a time, a thick cloud of dust and smoke would have spouted out from the lungs of the machines. Today, the cloud remains but it's a capitalised Cloud offering a free wireless internet connection facility.  Of course, I am not suggesting that business must become more tangible; after all, I may well have 'stocks and shares' of my own in the future. I may even have a 'portfolio' which is sobering thought. I acknowledge the intricate and complex work millions 'in the city' do to keep the engine of our country's economy from stalling. All I wish to state is that for someone, like myself, who spends the best part of the working week studying mud, diving into an abstract world of business and finance is challenging. Building bridges with no tangible material is challenging. Just like the father who pays bills one minute and drinks his son's imaginary cocoa the next, the task requires adaptation and innovation.

The tasks throughout the workshop often reminded me of the little boy on the train. We would often have to 'pretend' to be someone, working on a 'pretend' industry. For example:  

"You are a group of doctors, practice managers and finance professionals working for a medical practice. You are wishing to build a new small hospital and medical practice. You have found the web-sites of three architect firms who seem to be able to design medical buildings- whom do you choose?" 

"You are a group of technologists working for Wessex Technology plc. Your work is to evaluate new technologies and recommend which ones Wessex might wish to take to market."

"You have £120,000 to invest in 5 high technology companies launching on the Northland Stock Market Today. Can you turn it into £1m?"

And so it went on. In teams, we would be assigned a task and would have to carry it out as efficiently as possible. Sometimes we were investors, sometimes project managers, sometimes market researchers. In coffee breaks, we became scientists again.


***

After another bout of overnight commuting, I awoke in Lancaster on Wednesday to a bellowing wind. Rain surfed over rooftops and splintered the gaze from my window. Redundant brollies littered the pavements down the university avenue. I was neither businessman nor scientist today. I was a couple of hours away from carrying out the very first mentoring duties of my PhD studentship in a Cumbrian school as part of the RCUK Partnership Initiative. In short, this is a three year initiative that allows universities and research institutions to work in partnership with secondary schools and colleges. Researchers, such as myself, visit schools and attempt to "enhance and enrich the curriculum". I won't name the school I visited for security reasons but I found both the teachers and students most welcoming.

It was encouraging and deeply inspiring to see school students actively involved with some research of their own. Each had individually chosen a topic and had started to comb through resources to extract the information they needed. The topics themselves for such a small and close-knit class, were extraordinarily diverse. One was looking into serial killers, another into the future of robotics, another into dementia, another into Brexit. The chief commonality weaving them together was a shared interest in hiking through the sometimes foggy and unpredictable quest for knowledge. In this respect, they were no different to the gowned scholars I had walked past in Oxford the day before. The next step, so I'm told, is to mentor these students using an online portal. I felt slightly sad that the student researching the problems with a robotically led, automated, virtual future still has to resign to using the internet for their mentoring.

***

As the pigments of colour and the fractions of light were vacuumed from the land, I headed southbound again. The cords between Lancashire and myself were becoming stretched once more. I have often pondered, especially on long trips across the country, what the 'mega' in Megabus refers to. If my return to Oxford was in any way representative then I can report that the 'Mega' refers to the copious on-board range of sounds and smells. Between two junctions of the M6, one can indulge in an aromatic smell-scape and with my new-found knowledge of business and enterprise, I can confirm that Megabus has completed extensive market research. With such a diversity of nostrils to cater for, there is a unique blend of the classic whiff with the exotic spice. Fumes of fully-fried fat spout from samosas but on a race to the nostrils is that old favourite: the cheese and onion crisp. No trip is left odourless.

Suitably ponged enough for one day, we dropped a few passengers off at Manchester. A middle-aged local couple came on board. They left their suitcase in the luggage hold but they brought up their domestic as a 'carry-on'. Getting a domestic up to the top deck was clearly hefty work; she lost her Woman's Weekly and the domestic only seemed to enlarge from this point. Eventually, the pair became sick of both being right and resigned to sleeping instead. I learnt then that the man was heading to the UK Snoring Championships and that this was his final dress rehearsal. What a polished performance! Rest assured, he has nothing to worry about.


By the time I finally reached the point of slumber myself, it was already Thursday. I had a few hours of rest before making my way once again to the Jesus College Conference Centre for the third and penultimate day of the workshop. By the first coffee break, we had already planned a (pretend) trip to Antarctica! The remainder of the morning was perhaps a little more sedentary, with a talk on how to successfully manage and finance projects. The tonsils of business spoke, yet again. The air was enriched with words such as 'parallel processing', 'overheads', 'internal rate of return' and 'net present value'. I was slightly relieved that there are many, besides myself, who find all of this reasonably complex. In fact, Robert Cinnamon and Brian Helweg-Larsen have made money out of this mass incomprehension by publishing a book: How come you don't understand your accountant? (If they had done their market research, they would soon realize that I don't actually have an accountant, but that's besides the point).

"Business investors do not want to hear about the Science. They don't care about the Science. They only want to hear about the money."

It would be fair to say that if I heard it once, I heard it many times this week. Indeed, I have no doubt that they are solely interested in money. If I took anything away from this workshop, aside from a range of useful skills, it was a disenchanting insight into just how large a gap there is between the world of research and that of business. I admit researchers are rightfully accused of closing their office doors on innovation, but slowly and surely we are starting to build bridges. As Fredrik Nael once wisely pronounced, "it takes both sides to build a bridge". Surely, if science and business are to unite to solve global problems, both parties have to become interested in what lies on the other side of the moat. Yes, that does mean that scientists spend weeks like this, learning about how to pitch for investment. But we should not rest easy unless those within business become interested in the way scientists operate. "Don't tell me about the Science; tell me about how it makes money". It's almost as excruciating to write as it was to hear it. Of course, aside from the lack of zest for science, it's an ignorant concept: the fact that the primary outcome of science is to boost profit. That's not why I'm in this game.

That evening we re-assembled in the 'snug' of the local Chequers Inn for a rendezvous. I watched as gowned members wandered in, acquired a glass of something spirituous and sat discussing various matters with deep enthusiasm. At times, they would glance up and stare at me as if to silently protest at the vulgarity suggested by my lack of gown. Then they would return to the matters at hand. In the 'snug', we grouped around a table and as the baton of time passed between evening and night once more, the dialogue waned and Kevin brought out his acoustic guitar to play a Scottish Lament. He strummed us off and we surfed on his melody. The college facades melted into silvery mountain flanks and every book in the Bodleian turned back to highland forest.

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