I wrote last month about technical and business timescales determined “by the near exponential tick-tock of the Moore’s Law clock”. I since learned of the unveiling in Cambridge of the Corpus Clock, creation and gift of the inventor, Dr John Taylor.

He has turned the classic mechanical clock inside out, featuring the world’s largest grasshopper escapement in the form of a ferocious mechanical grasshopper that eats time – a chronophage!

I now sit eight years short of the biblical three score years and 10. My former employer, ICI, just made the four score years mark before its final acquisition, restructuring and partial re-divestment by the Dutch Akzo Nobel on 1 January, 2008. A few days later, one of ICI’s greatest ever leaders, Sir John Harvey-Jones, also passed on at the age of 83.

Sir John was a vigorous, creative and insightful business leader, as we all learnt from watching the BBC Troubleshooter series in the 1990s. His key achievement at ICI was to turn the loss-making giant around to deliver its first ever £1bn profit within 30 months of his appointment as chairman in 1982. He cut unprofitable, loss-making businesses, and those he saw as non-core: the UK workforce was reduced by a third and he very sharply reduced the corporate centre, including the size of the main board. His focus was on “making a profit out of the markets where the market is”. His reward was to see the ICI share price double.

And yet, something important was lost in those years. I joined ICI in 1973 at a time when there was no doubt that it was a technological leader in the global chemical industry. Fifteen years later I had the opportunity to travel with the Japanese industrialist, Soichi Saba, then chairman of Toshiba but also a member of ICI’s main board. I asked him to contrast the work of the Toshiba board with that of the ICI board. A brisk, clear answer came back. The Toshiba board spent at least half its time on issues related to the competitiveness of Toshiba’s technology; the ICI board spent most of its time on the ICI share price and relations with the City.

Little wonder that when ICI then invested in a new central research facility in Japan “to bring ICI’s innovative technologies into the heart of the Japanese market”, it was closed within two years, because there were none to bring. I was on the ICI Japan board that supported the move, but was learning first-hand that the ICI technology at the heart of the £55m investment in polyester film for which I was responsible was already out of date. The Japanese competitors to whom we had licensed our then world-leading technology in the 1970s had, by the end of the 1980s, gone ahead of the game by some margin.

As trade barriers came down so ICI globalised, at least in the terms that it then read the world. Business headquarters remained in the main in the UK and trade development was about exporting, though in the largest markets there was investment in the manufacture of basic commodities. ICI remained at its core a British company. My own venture into Japan was part of a determined drive to create a role for ICI at the heart of that innovative economy. History was to show we were a decade too late.

In Sir John’s era, the then ICI deputy chairman, who also sat on the board of ICI’s Indian investments, was reputed to arrive in Delhi for board meetings at dawn with his (UK-made) sandwiches and water in his briefcase, and depart before sundown, so that he could avoid the risk of eating the local food. An isolated story, perhaps, but illustrative of business attitudes that lagged behind the emerging realities of globalisation at the time.

Conclusions? Perhaps we all need chronophagic clocks to remind us that time passed is time lost. There can be no stability in business. If your organisation relies, at its heart, on technology and its application, you cannot afford to lag behind in the game.

Equally, you cannot afford to fall out of close contact with the realities of your markets – and most likely these will now be global markets with global competitors. Reading the recent Economist special report on globalisation reminded one of the success the Chinese firm Lenovo has had in transforming the IBM personal computer business, and the developing strategic battle between IBM and the three leading Indian businesses of Wipro, Tata and Infosys in the global IT services market place.

And, as a relevant footnote, what of the man behind the chronophage, Dr John Taylor? He has made his fortune from the development of the thermostatic strip safety mechanism that can be found in the electric kettle. Through endless innovation and a determinedly commercial focus on the needs of his global customers, Taylor has created the company Strix, a venture whose products are estimated to be used daily by over 20 per cent of the world’s population as they make their tea or coffee. Not bad. Put his name on your chronophagic clock.

About the author

Richard Syles was vice president of IT at ICI in the 1990s and is now a consultant

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