Twitter business information: railways lead the way

A little while ago I facilitated an event looking at social media in business. Part of the discussion, of course, focussed on in-enterprise social interactions: tools like Yammer, which sit within the enterprise and facilitate social interaction without risking compromise of business information.

But, inescapably, there was equal emphasis on the business use of external social media. Not just to put out messages on behalf of the enterprise: but to notice and respond to what the community is saying about you. As one delegate outlined: you can pick up on Twitter or Facebook a comment from a client who’s had a poor experience, and interact directly with them to explain. And quite often, they will then post a follow-up message offering appreciation along the lines of “now I understand”. What could be negative can be turned positive.

As a minor railway buff, I was interested also to hear the number of delegates referring to their commuting experience and the way that Twitter, particularly, has developed. First, of course, as an information tool for passengers: the twittosphere carries information about delays and problems, often much faster (and perhaps more reliably!) than official information arrives from the train operator. Particularly to passengers stuck somewhere after a points failure or, heaven forbid, a suicide. But the first development from that has been the way that train operating companies (TOCs) respond: keeping a feed going, and responding to tweets about problems. The best avoid anonymity: this morning’s first feed from First Capital Connect, for example, says “Morning folks, Jay, Tina and Greg here to take you through the morning. Hope you have a super day ^Jay“. There was strong favourable comment in the room about this. Another example of Euan Semple’s mantra: Organisations don’t tweet. People do.

Then Modern Railways magazine carried a couple of articles in successive months about Twitter data on the rail network.

In July, Roger Ford’s Informed Sources column covered a website which aggregates Twitter information for passengers. The site, from Delta Rail in Derby (which used to be British Rail’s research facility), produces something like a tag cloud through which you can see tweets about incidents on your commuter route. Because it’s commute oriented, the main page is an index by TOC not by location. Though it doesn’t seem to pick up tweets from the TOCs themselves.

You can also see the overall rating your TOC is currently getting, though since the tweets are mostly adverse (more people are likely to tweet for a problem than to praise) it’s not clear how this is achieved. It’s not the only such idea; the  Twitraffic app on my mobile aggregates information about road delays and incidents, which I contribute to when on the road and (of course) not driving.

There doesn’t seem to be an app for, which is a shame. The website is mobile friendly, with big blowsy panels and large text, but all you can get to by way of detail is the entire twitter feed for the TOC. It would be nice to be able to click through words in the tag cloud.

Back in the June issue, Informed Sources reported on another business-oriented development from Delta Rail. Sophisticated visualisation shows, for example, the level of Twitter activity compared to the norm; analyses positive versus negative messages (the example is to distinguish “Thankyou very much” from “Thanks a bunch!”); and, in real time, can show the build up of an incident from the volume of feeds relating to a particular location. This may well provide information to the operators faster than their own sources: after all, passengers are on the spot! Reviewing the data, both in real time and retrospectively, against other sources such as the National Passenger Survey can produce a wider overall picture than (say) the Survey on its own.

Nice to be able to highlight an IT success!

• Tweets put passengers ahead of the game, Roger Ford, Modern Railways, June 2014, p 36
• Social Media: more than just Tweets, Roger Ford, Modern Railways, May 2014, pp 36-37 (there are no online links to the articles themselves)
• Twitter: First Capital Connect (@FirstCC)
• Twitraffic online or as app
• Delta Rail “Innovative Software and Technology for the Transport Industry”

Formula 1 spreads innovation

Travelling home yesterday evening, I was unusually listening to the BBC’s Radio 4. Unusually because we usually drive to classical music, but the Prom wasn’t to my taste and we did need the radio on a BBC station to ensure we collected the traffic reports as we travelled.

So we heard a report on the In Business programme about McLaren’s Formula 1 racing team, and a new venture called Maclaren Applied Technologies (MAT) which is creating a spin-off business by applying the F1 team’s approaches to help other businesses innovate. It’s grown rapidly from a handful of individuals to around 250 people. It’s worth a look (or in this case a listen).

F1 lives by innovation. Racing cars develop significantly between races, to short timescales of one to two weeks. Not only that, but there is significant process expertise too. A pit stop will lift a car, change all four wheels on a car, put it back on the road and have it accelerate away in less time than it takes to read this: perhaps two seconds. All down to well practised team work: each person ready, in place with the right equipment, and knowing exactly what to do.

Now MAT is helping other businesses. They offer their experience in areas like advanced sensor technology, and large scale real time data handling. Not Big Data for the sake of Big Data, but identifying what’s needed to resolve a problem or monitor and improve a process: and then having the technology and the expertise to gather the data, and to analyse and report on the necessary timeline. Not forgetting the teamwork, process-based innovation which gets their cars through their pit stop.

Examples cited included other sports, of course: GB Cycling, and rugby, working on the performance of athletes and their equipment. It’s perhaps a natural development of that to equip individuals tackling their weight problems, so that they can be made aware of their “energy burn” during different physical activities from walking to house cleaning: this in partnership with a doctor’s practice (about 11 minutes into the broadcast).

And (at about 14 minutes) the conversation moves to my old company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). GSK have had an established partnership with McLaren for around three years now.

Clinical trials are a large scale and, of course, critical element of drug development. GSK is moving this data gathering from retrospective (trial participants’ records being mediated by a clinical partner and reported perhaps monthly) to real-time, using MAT sensor technology. Not only does this provide more complete and more robust data; it can of course speed the process of getting a valuable treatment to market. Crucially, too, it helps failures to be spotted sooner – hence reducing overall costs to the company, costs which can only be recouped through successful products.

And then, still in GSK but in consumer-health manufacturing, McLaren’s pit stop expertise (remember?) comes back. GSK makes several toothpaste brands. No, they’re not all the same inside the tube and the line has to be changed over for a different batch. For McLaren, the speed of the pit stop changeover wins races. Applying this to manufacturing changeover has, it seems, created operator pride in the speed with which it can be achieved – and saving time, quite simply, gets more toothpaste to market.

Of course, conventional management consultants might tackle some of the same problems. McLaren see their differentiator as this: theirs is engineering-led innovation rather than analysis-led innovation. They come at things from a doing angle, not a thinking-about angle.

The broadcast is available as a podcast or download, not the usual time-expiring iPlayer replay. It’s worth half an hour of your time.

Now, how about applying pit stop thinking to the process of software release and upgrade?

• Fast and Furious, BBC podcast from Peter Day’s World of Business, 7 Aug 2014 from BBC Podcasts and Downloads
• Maclaren Applied Technologies
• MAT In the News features some of the examples cited in the BBC programme, including obesity monitoring and toothpaste manufacturing
GSK McLaren partnership, from