What if climate models are wrong?

Plenty of people will argue for and against climate modelling. Some in far more detail than I’m able to understand.

One man who’s spent the latter part of his career challenging the modellers is Richard Lintzen, professor of meteorology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, his career is now winding down.

It doesn’t matter what ‘side’ of the climate debate you’re on, it’s important to keep up with all points of view. Especially expert points of view, like Lintzen’s.

He has problems with computer modelling. And I can’t say I blame him. I’ve worked in the computer business since 1966 and one of the first things I was taught was the importance of GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out.

Lintzen notes that not enough account is taken of the mitigating effects of cloud cover in the climate models. I’m guessing that’s not all that’s missing.

Call me simple-minded if you like, but I look at it like this: The Met Office, despite its ever-larger spend on modelling systems, keeps changing its mind about short-range weather forecasts. Maybe long-range climate models are more reliable, but I doubt it.

The climate debate is agonisingly difficult for everyone that cares about the future. And it certainly generates enough hot air to seriously impact the climate today. But, as a private individual with virtually no scientific training, there’s nothing I can do about the debate itself. So I subscribe to a ‘sustainability’ or ‘quadruple bottom line’ ethic which aims to balance economics, society, the individual and the environment.

And, yes, I put ‘economics’ first because it’s the lubricant for achieving many of the other results.

All organisations and individuals are capable of seeing whether their choices are, for example, polluting the land, sea or air or diminishing scarce resources. They are all capable of seeing how they can change their behaviour in order to reduce or, in some cases, eliminate their harm. The really clever ones may even find ways of delivering a net benefit to the environment.

It’s only by billions of us improving our choices today that we’ll leave a world worth living in for our children, grandchildren and their descendants.

Do we really need a heated debate based on computer models to shape our future? Aren’t the common sense arguments of sustainability for all going to get us to the same place? And probably more quickly.





Here on Earth

HereonEarthI finished reading Tim Flannery’s Here on Earth a couple of days ago.

It lays out a fascinating history of our planet, the flora and fauna and their effects on it (including mankind, of course) and what we need to do to ensure our own species survives. We’re the only ones with the intelligence and understanding to change our ways.

His recipe for global cooperation – a shared ‘mneme’ which acknowledges the harm we’re doing and how to reverse it – is plausible in the abstract. But the book contains all the seeds (no pun intended) of why this is a tall order.

As a provocation, the book is excellent. If you’re of a defeatist mind-set, you could end up very depressed by it. Especially if you have children and grandchildren. On the other hand, if you have a grain of imagination, it could start you thinking very seriously about how we get from an unacceptable ‘here’ to a desirable ‘there’.

It will mean change, and that’s the threat to religions, nations, different strata in society, business, politics, and so on. All have to find ways to put our common interest ahead of their own.

The book is very readable for the most part – at its best when describing our world and its mechanisms and, understandably, at its weakest when suggesting a way forward.

But, unlike the alarmist books which simply annoy, it gets you thinking. And, for that reason alone, I think it’s worth a read.

Interactive Infographic: How To Handle The Media

Since 1988, Martin Banks and I have been running media skills training courses. Early on, we introduced an ‘architecture’ for the process. We drew it on flipcharts for a few years then, in 2004, we formalised it and started giving it out as part of our wallet-sized plastic business card. The model acts as an ‘aide memoire’ for all who’ve attended our training.


A few weeks ago, I was rummaging (as you do) some infographics – pictures that speak well over a thousand words – and took a shine to the interactive variety, where the graphic responds to the user’s actions.

I’d just been doing some training work with the Racepoint Group and, coincidentally, one of its US staff Kyle Austin wrote a blog post: Are Infographics the New Slide Shows?  Good point, I thought, having just taken someone through our ‘architecture’.

So I set to work to convert our flat image into something a little more lively. It’s aim is to refresh the memories of those who’ve attended our training and to give others an appreciation of how they might set about handling the media.

The first attempt was an animated .gif file with text boxes to expand on each element of the image. Horrible. Boring. Sequential. No user interaction. Didn’t lend itself to the web. Etc.

I wanted an interactive infographic that would work in more or less any browser and not depend on the presence of JavaScript, Flash or any other kind of plug-in. Just HTML and CSS. (I’d done some simple stuff before, here and here, so I was optimistic that it could be done.)

The second attempt was a graphic that the user could mouse over, highlighting image elements and showing the relevant text in a nearby box. The size was determined by my computer screen, which was a bit stupid because many of the people I’d like to share it with might have a smaller screen – an iPad for example.

So I reworked it with the iPad in mind. The hover can be achieved with a finger, even on the smallest graphical element. And while I was resizing everything, I added drop shadows and rounded corners to the text boxes.

If you’re interested, the end result is at How To Handle The Media


I hope you enjoy it.


PS If anyone wants the gory technical details of how to do this sort of thing, I’ll pen another post. Just ask.

Media Skills 101 (reprise)

First of all, apologies for radio silence. I’ve been on holiday. Very nice it was too. We hired a motorhome and stayed at four sites in Dorset. We hired the highly specced and almost new vehicle from Ferndown-based Abacus which turned out to be a very professional company. Highly recommended if you fancy that sort of holiday.

Before I get stuck in to blogging again, I thought you might be interested in some posts I wrote over five years ago about handling the press. While a lot of the press appears somewhat emasculated these days and the new media folk are largely more kindly, the suggestions I made then are no less valid for shaping your outlook and approach to the media of any kind.

Unearth, Write, Polish, Share

Well, the die is cast. It took a while but my new life is well and truly sorted out. The idea that I'll spend the rest of my working life helping others to be better communicators feels really good. The ego's parked and the doors are open for business at Tebbo Towers. Actually, the 'Towers' is a joke. I live in a bungalow.

Before I say anything else, I have a ton of 'thank you's and I hereby grovel if I've left anyone off the list. These are to people who, wittingly or not, have helped me gather my thoughts this year: Adriana Lukas, Al Tepper, Anne Marie McEwan, Brian Smithson, Cathy Pittham, Dale Vile, David Terrar, David Topping, Euan Semple, Luis Suarez, Marjolein Hoekstra, Mark Chillingworth, Martin Atherton, Martin Banks, Matthew Pudney, Nick Spencer, Robert Norum, Ronnie Simpson, Sophie Morrow, Tim Lawes, Tom Foremski and Tracey Poulton.

In different ways, whether it was feedback or inspiration, every one of those people has edged me closer to an understanding of what services I should offer and what my website should look like. Along the way, I've tried to give some value back to some of these people. It's been unevenly distributed and, for that, my apologies.

Tom Foremski deserves special mention for his understanding of the role of the organisation in new media terms. His slogan "Every Company Is A Media Company" may still be ahead of its time, even though it's already four or five years old. 

I take the view that we are in a period of transition: some organisations buy into Tom's story and they're out there delivering real value directly through (mainly) new media. Others are holding back and still getting their stories out indirectly through traditional journalists and bloggers. Yet others have a mixed model. No-one knows where this will end. I'd like to think that the value of real journalism will become appreciated once more. But maybe the checks and balances will come from the more responsible parts of the social media world. We'll have to see.

In the meantime, with the help of Tom and others, I have been lucky enough to construct a life that is based on one thing: enabling skilled communication. And, whatever the evolving shape of the media, these skills are universal and perpetual and they apply to other spheres of our lives.

If you have a moment and you're interested getting help with unearthing and sharing your valuable stories, then please drop me a DM, an email or give me a call. The details are on the website at http://www.tebbo.com/. I look forward to hearing from you.

The business value of collaboration software

Originally published in CIO Online Feb 2009

At Lotus/IBM's recent Lotusphere the words 'business value' were repeatedly uttered by keynote presenters, but none really had time to expand, beyond talking in terms of 'efficiency'. CIO online went in search of answers that could help our readers in their assessment of collaboration initiatives.

The first and most obvious thing relates to culture. Not every organisation actually welcomes collaboration. It really does result in a flattening of hierarchies, the breaching of the silo walls and the by-passing of those who add no value. If you've been in the game long enough to remember the advent of email, you'll remember the fears of those middle managers who suddenly found themselves 'disintermediated'. So nothing really new, except that the kind of collaboration that is becoming increasingly popular has the potential to tie anyone directly to more or less anyone, regardless of internal or external boundaries.

Fortunately for the CIO, some systems are more manageable than others and, with the organisation's blessing, an approved collaboration system provides a measure of control without inhibiting the participants' legitimate actions. The alternative, to let anyone use whatever public systems take their fancy, is a recipe for inefficiency at best and trouble at worst. One thing that won't work is an outright ban. People who need to reach out will use this stuff anyway.

Many business folk fail to see the commercial benefits. Especially if they are used to seeing their kids using social software to superpoke their friends or share party pix. They might associate such software with frivolity and are afraid that their staff will use it just to waste time. In fact, within a business environment where full names and profiles are used, all posts are technically traceable and such abuse is fairly unlikely.

As the name implies, the whole point of social software is to help people find each other quickly and in a fashion most suited to the task at hand, while respecting the availability wishes of the participants. It's a wheel-oiling process on a grand scale. But what are the bottom line benefits?

Enter stage left, Luis Suarez, who's part of a team which provides guidance to a 600-strong volunteer social software evangelist community within IBM. This work is additional to their day jobs. While it's easy to explain and enthuse about the elements – profiles, communities, wikis, blogs, bookmarks, activities, instant messaging, and so on – it's quite another to remember to build the business case.

IBM reckons it saves £12.9M in improved search productivity and reduced travel per year. And this figure is probably growing. To get this in context, here are some usage statistics for IBM's social software activities from October last year: 515,000 profiles are accessed 6.4 million times a week; 1,800 online communities contain over a million messages and have 147,000 members; over 25,000 wikis are used by over 320,000 readers; 260,000 blog posts have been made and these have over 30,000 tags; 580,000 bookmarks have been stored by 20,000 users – these have over 1.4M tags; 50,000 activities (think of them as projects) have 425,000 entries and 80,000 users; and over four million instant messages are exchanged daily. That represents one heck of a lot of shared knowledge. IBM is something of a special case. Its sheer size pretty much guarantees that whatever resources staffers want, people or information, they'll be able to find it when they want it. But a company doesn't have to be that big to get similar advantages.

Suarez sat down with me to hammer through some of the main value-related benefits. Here are just six of them:

1) Find: people, places, information – quickly by using profiles, and other people's tags and bookmarks as accelerants.

2) Validate: people especially. What have they posted? What do others make of them? You could arrive at a shortlist for a project team much more quickly and at greatly reduced cost than before.

3) Direct dialogue: with customers (and suppliers), internal and external. This eliminates filtering and politics and leads to more rapid understanding. It could mean fixing things that have gone wrong or identifying new product and service opportunities.

4) Capture information: from people as they're working or reviewing online material. This could prove especially valuable if faced with staff churn or retirements.

5) Connections: spread internal innovation widely and rapidly – bad ideas don't get traction but good ones do.

6) Communities: increase staff morale and retention through a sense of belonging and recognition.

Every one of those has a business value. It may not be easy to calculate, and the effort may not be worth it. But it does require the organisation to have an open, collaborative and trusting culture. Without that, it can never work. But with it, social software can transform the way we collaborate and share information.

Is the eco-wind blowing your way?

It wasn't so long ago that all 'green' activity went under the heading of 'idealism'. Nothing wrong with that, but the so-called developed world is not big on that sort of thing. It doesn't put money in shareholders' pockets, satisfy fashion urges or keep children 'happy' at Christmas. (The quotes are because I remember our family's happiest festive times were when we were poorest.)

Now, with Copenhagen looming and the Carbon Reduction Commitment legislation just around the corner, large organisations especially are beginning to realise that a regulatory steamroller is heading their way and they will need to do something about it, quite regardless of their anthropogenic climate change beliefs, or otherwise.

In terms of business operations (as opposed to political lobbying or scientific research), it's probably best that organisations focus on what they can do which will deliver genuine benefits while minimising their impact on the environment. Generally speaking, benefits boil down to cost savings and increased revenues, although public bodies are likely to focus more on the former than the latter.

The tough bit is measurement. Like accounting and auditing, this is necessary to understand progress and to be able to report convincingly, both internally and externally. All the time the global warming, climate change and greenhouse gas discussions have been going on, it's all seemed a bit abstract to day to day life. Now that we're facing the prospect of being nailed by governments, councils, customers and investors, the need to act has crystallised. What a fantastic opportunity for the IT world. If nothing else, it's very good at collecting and processing information in very high volumes and that's exactly what organisations need as they contemplate their own sustainability, in all senses of the word. (We shouldn't be so dazzled by the CO2 story that we forget about raw material use, water, waste and other forms of pollution.)

Some software companies – Access and Microsoft Dynamics spring to mind, although I'm sure there are others – got into carbon accounting before their clients were fully aware that this was going to become important. Hats off to them, and others like them, who knew what had to be done and just got on with it. They will, hopefully, reap the rewards of their early efforts.

As ever, the pioneers aren't usually the ones that walk away with the big prizes. While journalists and bloggers have been complaining about the apparent lack of action, the big guys were getting on with the job. They were watching what's going on out there, putting their own houses in order while preparing new products and services for market. Now they're emerging from the woodwork.

For example, CA managed to secure the name ecoSoftware for its SaaS-based measurement and reporting system aimed at medium to large businesses. It looks into every nook and cranny of a business in order to assess and report on its environmental health. It takes the whole sustainability perspective, rather than concentrating on carbon or energy alone, for example. It takes its feeds from just about anywhere – hand entered meter readings, electronic feeds and inputs from other recording systems. It integrates with other software, especially the major ERP systems. Users can drill in and out of detail, and filter the information in a variety of ways – by business process, by GHG Protocol Scopes, per shipping unit, by floor area, and so on. The end result is action plans based on genuine insights and, of course, the ability to measure progress.

Another company, 1E, is probably best known for its NightWatchman system which minimises the power use of the desktop computing estate. It has recently announced a system for measuring data centre energy use and identifying how much useful work each server is doing. It can change the power profile of each device according to the work it is (or is not) doing. The system reports what's been going on in charts and tables and users can drill into any unusual patterns. It will integrate natively with hardware vendors' own tools or scripts can be created for exceptions or new developments. Crudely stated, the point of the exercise is to maximise the business value delivered with the least use of equipment and energy.

These examples serve to show which way the wind is blowing. Organisations will find that the IT industry will be key to helping them get a grip on their environmental obligations and costs. It is a case of a win all round but, as is frequently the case, no one will win bigger than the IT industry itself.