“In looking at one or two important aspects of what you bring to the party, technological expertise is important, but if you’re engaged in the management of things it is often a knowledge of understanding that technology rather then being the expert in it and knowing how to interpret it and how to believe the people that are telling you the story. I think that’s very important.”
Alan was born in London in 1937. His father died when he was three and his mother who had been a housewife until that point, took up war work in order to keep the family.
Alan’s education was disrupted by the war. He attended eight schools, each for a short time, before at the age of twelve, going to the local secondary modern school in London where he saw his education out for five years. Alan sat several GCE exams and passed them all but didn’t have the opportunity to study maths or physics. Alan describes his experience: “I didn’t have much chance to be academic as a child; it was more survival. If a youngster keeps going to new schools all the time, it’s more to do with survival than it is with education.”
After school Alan went to work in a bank in the City but quickly realised it was not what he wanted to do. He applied and was interviewed for several jobs in journalism, but with his National Service still outstanding, he found it difficult to secure a role. With the intention of getting this national commitment over, he wrote to the Ministry of Defence and was called up ten days later. A chance conversation on a train with an RAF radar technician encouraged Alan to volunteer for an RAF air radar course. After qualifying as an air radar mechanic, he was posted to a Canberra photoreconnaissance squadron in Germany where he serviced airborne radars.
During his RAF National Service Alan was trained in the basics of radar but was aware that he had no formal engineering qualifications. He worked alongside a number of airmen who were formally qualified and soon realised that his lack of an appropriate qualification was going to be a serious handicap in civilian life. He became determined that on completion of his National Service he would restart his education.
After demobilisation, while working in a telecoms factory, Alan commenced his studies with evening classes at Cambridge Technical College. He was fortunate to be allowed day-release by his employer to complete his City and Guilds Technicians Certificate. He then progressed to physics and maths courses in the Ordinary National Certificate syllabus. Alan says; “I took every course and examination that were suggested to me, with no real knowledge of where it was all leading, other than, I needed to get qualified.”
At the age of 23 Alan decided to go to college full-time and was accepted at the Regent Street Polytechnic for a three year course to study for their Diploma in the Electrical Engineering – a course that qualified for the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Chartered Engineer status. He completed the course with a Distinction, and was awarded the Polytechnic’s Governor’s Medal for the best examination results of the year.
Alan then applied to the University of Birmingham where he was offered the opportunity to study for their Diploma in Information Theory. This was the first course of its kind at the time and attracted a large entry of international students. On successfully completing the course, he was invited to stay on in the Electrical Engineering Department to do an MSc by research. The research project was concerned with the large steerable parabolic antennas that were being used for research in satellite and deep space communications.
Alan explains: “These antenna structures were designed for lower frequencies than were now required. The surface accuracies of the very large parabolic reflector were not good enough to achieve the high performance required at microwave frequencies and the surface distortions changed as the antenna was steered. The microwaves were being scattered by the imperfect reflector and not received by the microwave horn located at the reflector focus. The question of interest was whether it was possible to collect the scattered microwave energy round the reflector focus and sum it together as though there were no errors in the dish?” Having made good progress on the project, the department invited Alan to stay on and continue his research and submit a PhD thesis rather than an MSc.
Early Career and a move to the USA
In 1968, having been awarded his PhD, Alan was recruited by the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute (IITRI) and he immigrated to the USA. In Chicago he joined a team working on a US Department of Defence contract to design and develop a mobile non-linear radar system for immediate application in Vietnam. Alan found himself responsible for the design of the novel antenna for the system when his new boss left unexpectedly before he arrived. This was a challenge but the project was completed successfully and the radar system was built, delivered and deployed in Vietnam.
University of Birmingham
Having married, Alan and his wife decided to return to the UK in 1971 to enable their daughter to be educated there. Alan obtained a teaching and research role in the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Birmingham. He lectured on a range of electrical engineering topics and his personal research work included antenna spacecraft projects for the European Space Agency; and military radar and communication antennas for the Ministry of Defence. After three years of teaching and simultaneously working on, and managing, multiple research projects, Alan sounded out the department on the prospects of organising research on a more professional basis along the lines of the university research centres in the USA. When no interest was shown, Alan decided to move on.
Radio Frequency Technology Centre and the Electrical Research Association
Not wanting to continue in academia but not finding roles in UK industry a very attractive proposition, Alan decided upon a bolder venture. During the UK summer holidays he had been returning to IITRI in Chicago to work on research projects. He decided to put a proposition to their management to set up an independent research organisation in the UK. Somewhat to his surprise, they were immediately receptive. Subject to an approved business plan, with financial break-even at the end of the first year, IITRI was willing to support the venture. However, if financial break-even was not achieved then Alan would return to work in Chicago. Alan found out many years later his American colleagues were receptive only because they thought the venture was certain to fail! They were confident that the outcome was predictable and it was just a rather innovative recruitment process.
Having prepared and agreed the business plan, Alan secured a short-term lease for working space and back office services from the Electrical Research Association (ERA) on their Leatherhead campus. He then began hiring people to his newly formed Radio Frequency Technology Centre (RFTC) while building a modern antenna research facility with equipment funded by IITRI. He won competitive contracts from the Ministry of Defence and the European Space Agency, both organisations being familiar with his work from his university research contracts. With hindsight Alan realised that these early successes for the RFTC must have been a setback to his backers in America, because they hadn’t thought he would get that far.
Initially Alan spent the bulk of his time on pursuing contracts and carrying out the technical work with the other engineers and mathematicians he had recruited. However, the management and administration tasks demanded effort and were growing steadily. After five years of growth the Electrical Research Association and the IITRI became partners in the venture that by then had a staff of forty, with research and development contracts for a range of industrial and government clients. Among them was British Telecom. BT was engaged in doubling the capacity of their national long-haul microwave network by introducing dual-polarised transmission and the RFTC was contracted to develop and supply the dual-polarised primary feeds for their antenna systems. To deal with the growing workload Alan faced the choice of either taking on a full-time management role or hiring someone to do it. He decided that he couldn’t trust anybody else and at the age of 42, he started the transition to a predominantly management role. He continued to make contributions to the research work but no longer took on projects personally.
The path of a growing business is rarely a smooth one and as the operations grew in scale tensions arose between the ERA and IITRI – with Alan shuttling between Leatherhead and Chicago to act as the mediator/interpreter. Finally, in 1979 the disagreements reached a point of no return and Alan persuaded IITRI to sell the business to the ERA. The RF Technology Centre became a division of ERA and Alan joined the ERA Board. Six months later, ERA dismissed its Managing Director and Alan was invited to take on the role, which he performed for the next seven years.
At that time ERA employed 250 people but was struggling financially, with its campus site mortgaged to a property developer. ERA had been founded in the 1920,s as a cooperative research organisation, funded jointly by industrial subscriptions and a matching Government grant. However, it had never fully coped with the withdrawal of direct Government funding in the early 1970’s. Alan found that it was going steadily downhill but an excellent Finance Director had recently joined the organisation and working together the business was turned around and restructured as an Independent Research and Technology Organisation. The technical remit of the organisation was broadened and new areas of activity developed. The recovery was slow but steady and by 1986 ERA employed 400 staff, was commercially profitable and had regained the freehold of its campus site. The ERA pair had also taken the lead in bringing together forty-four of the UK’s research organisations to create the Association of Independent Research & Technology Organisations (AIRTO). Alan was appointed as the first AIRTO President.
In 1987 Alan was approached to join BT as Director of Research and Technology. He found it difficult to leave ERA, but after 12 years at Leatherhead he felt it was time for a change. At BT he quickly moved through the ranks, being promoted to the BT Group Management Board after one year and to the company’s Main Board in 1989. After a variety of roles, each with increasing responsibilities, he became Deputy Managing Director in 1995 and Deputy Chief Executive a year later.
At the start of his BT career, Alan was tasked to “sort out” the Group’s Research Laboratories largely located in Martlesham Heath in Suffolk and which employed between 2,500 and 3,000 people, with an annual budget approaching £300 million. With BT facing strong external competition the senior management were understandably questioning the cost/benefit of a large central research facility. When Alan arrived at his new office, he found that the BT Board had rejected the annual R&D Operating Budget and his predecessor had already left the company.
BT had been privatised only two years earlier and, not uncommonly for Government departments of this era, there was very little management information available internally beyond knowing the total cost and the overall headcount. In addition there was no clear argument as to why the company needed a substantial R&D capability at a time when BT was aiming to reduce its staffing from 250,00 to half this level. The technical staff in the labs were of the highest quality but the value of what was seen as their “ivory tower’ activities was increasingly being questioned by the commercially-focussed divisions.
Alan found the culture in Martlesham at the time was very much that of a National Laboratory and this was not helping their case. A common question heard in the labs was ‘Where are we going to get the money to do the research we want to do?’ Alan made it clear that he did not want to hear this question again. What he wanted to hear was, “Who are our customers, and what do they need from us?” Alan emphasized that these few words were not trivial but the beginning of a major cultural shift.
Moving from the private sector to an organisation, which had just been privatised, proved a shock to Alan. The civil service type culture was alien to the world from which he had come. He says: “It was something of a shock to me – I joined BT seeking a change and, by golly, I found one. The Laboratories were unionised, right through to the senior management. Everybody had to have their office square footage, and their coat stand and their carpet, depending upon their rank, and any change in practice had to be negotiated with the unions. The research staff recognised no customers and they hardly understood the term. It was clear that if the labs were to survive the privatisation transition a substantial change in culture and practice was urgently required”.
A shock was called for and Alan had one in mind. He took 85 per cent of the entire budget for the research and development organisation, and returned it to the company. The remaining 15 per cent was to be retained for longer-term research and developing international standards. The labs would have an annual operating plan and budget but no guaranteed income. The income would be acquired by providing the Group with R&D and technical services based upon timed and fully costed proposals for projects required by the other BT divisions. Essentially the BT Laboratories would operate as an independent research organisation – a company within the company, in competition with any outside organisation. The Martlesham staff were absolutely certain that this madness marked the end of BT Laboratories! Alan’s response was that we had to learn to exist in a competitive world and if we failed then he would be out of a job too.
To have any chance of this initiative being successful it was necessary to undergo a major reorganisation of BT Labs and to install effective financial and project management systems into the laboratories and to train the staff in their use. The new mode of operation demanded a fundamental cultural change and initially this was not something all of the staff were ready to undertake. Initially there was a degree of resistance to the concept. However, ultimately the inherent high quality of the workforce proved to be a major advantage in achieving the change and only three roles were filled from outside the company. The three, a Finance Director, an HR Director and a software Programme Manager, played key roles both in the cultural and operational conversion. All other leadership positions were filled by selecting the best qualified of those already available in BT Labs. Much effort was required to achieve the change and while mistakes were made initially, the transition was achieved successfully.
Moving to this new format saw BT’s R&D facilities delivering around 80 per cent of the relevant internal development, software and IT projects, with the balance awarded to outside organisations and often implemented with support from the labs. These projects included working with BT’s main equipment suppliers to develop, adapt and bring new systems and equipment into operation. The retained research budget was deployed to develop technology, expertise and know-how in advance of the company’s needs and an internal “ Research Programme Office” was created to manage the research funds and to monitor the flow-through of the outputs into later applications.
Under the new mode of operation selected laboratory staff were tasked to work closely with their divisional customers to identify technical problems and to define how they could be resolved. They became very good at this and there was no shortage of problems needing resolution. Over the next ten years BT’s overall headcount was reduced from 250,000 to around 150,000 while the strength of the labs went from 3000 to 6000 based entirely upon the demand. The developments and technical services required were paid for by the operating divisions and the budget necessary to support the laboratories was always fully realised. The internal services always had an edge over the external competition but only providing they had the right technical expertise and delivered the goods to time and at a competitive price.
Having the right technical expertise in advance of the need was a key parameter of success for BT Labs and this required a major, and sometimes painful, shift in the technical strategy being pursued. At that time there was major focus on fibre optics and fibre optic components to the extent that optical components were being manufactured for UK industry on site at Martlesham and backed up by BT funded research. Alan was well aware that many of these activities were world class but, while it was necessary to retain optical expertise, things had moved on and many activities were no longer a direct benefit to BT and were more appropriately dealt with by the suppliers themselves.
On the other hand computer and software issues were already very substantial and were growing rapidly. Electronic exchanges such as Systems X and Y were replacing mechanical switching with major installation programmes in place. Computing and switching technologies were advancing rapidly and if BT was to be able to provide the huge range of telecommunication services demanded by the end customers then the problems of replacing large scale legacy systems designed in the 1970’s demanded urgent attention. Cellular telephony was in its early stages and its full impact was yet to be realized. The Internet threats and opportunities were still below the horizon and would need clarification. These were the areas of increased focus where research was called for and new expertise had to be developed and consequently a substantial part of the optical components work had to be either passed over to industry or ceased.
In support of BT’s marketing division a modern marketing building was established in the middle of the Martlesham site. This allowed the account managers to bring their clients to the labs for technology demonstrations that were designed to suit the visitor’s business. The underlying theme was “This is the future of technology – it will influence your business, but BT is on top of it and will keep you informed at an early stage”. The account managers found it to be a very popular among their clients. Alan added, “It was also very beneficial to the Labs and one of the ways of coupling our researchers into the business. Many of the new technologies we have today were demonstrated on the Martlesham site at that time”.
BT’s Procurement Division was responsible for the acquisition of some £4 billion of equipment and services on behalf of the company and the responsibility was added to Alan’s management remit. He found that after the many years of civil service practice there were huge opportunities for making savings, often by simply removing wastage. He explains: “In the first few years Procurement provided BT with a major contribution to their increased profits. This was not only in the negotiation of major switching and computing contracts, but also for literally thousands of smaller over-priced components. A classic example was the BT ‘five and a quarter pound axe’. Sometime in the past a design had been produced for the ideal axe for use in BT vehicles. While similar products were available there was no axe available on the market meeting this exact specification and it was made uniquely for BT. The cost of course was five times the price for a standard five pound equivalent. There were many such examples and a general tightening up on the procurement processes provided very significant savings.”
In addition to his research and technology remit Alan was made responsible for all of BT’s computing and the provision of IT services throughout the Group. The immediate challenge in the computer sphere was to reduce BT’s forty-nine district computer facilities to nine main centres. In doing so to reduce costs substantially and to standardise the data descriptions employed. There was also the management of the high-risk activity of regularly up-grading the basic software for the massive billing and customer management systems to allow the introduction of new services. To achieve this the complete system software had to be taken down in the early hours of Sunday mornings and the new software installed and back in operation without the many millions of BT customers being aware. It is to the great credit of the BT managers and engineers involved that all of these tasks were achieved without a major disaster
The provision of common IT facilities across the BT Group was a task fraught with problems. Not least was the fact that every department was in favour of standardisation providing that their specific practices were taken as the standard. Central IT departments are universally disliked because of the need to impose standard offerings and the limitations of their fixed operating budget. To change this unhappy arrangement Alan introduced a customer-supplier model for IT provision. There was a standard offering and inevitably this was the lowest cost option. If a Division insisted on something different then it would be supplied, but at full cost. This cost could be dramatically more than the standard offering and generally the financially pressed Divisions had better things to do with their budgets. Nevertheless, since it was their choice it took much of the heat out of the issue and helped separate “would like” from “real need”.
When a new software system was required across more than one Division then problems agreeing and fixing specifications were common. The software developers were continuously faced with changes in the specifications because one or other of the divisional customers had either overlooked something or just changed their minds. To deal with this issue the customers were asked to form a Customer Project Team to agree the specifications and oversee the development. BT Labs provided experts on the team to help them thrash out the specifications and then to freeze them before the software development commenced. They also provided an indication of the costs of delivering “additional features” and this served to moderate many of the more extreme requirements. These changes helped considerably in delivering software developments to time and cost.
At this time broadband fibre optics technology was becoming available from a number of suppliers and BT Labs had performed a number of successful trials. Alan presented strategic plans to effect a “Broadband Fibre Britain” strategy on several occasions. However these plans were hampered by the UK regulatory authority (Oftel). In their determination to protect the nascent Cable TV industry Oftel barred BT from transmitting TV entertainment over its fibre network. At this time TV was one of the few services requiring wide bandwidths and without it the financial case for a large-scale fibre network was seriously weakened. In the internal debate neither the BT Marketing Department nor the Group Finance Committee could see the business potential and lacking their support the proposal was rejected.
The rejection saw Alan look for an alternative route. He explains: “We did more studies, and found that in locations where less than fifteen per cent of the population wanted broadband, then a mixed fibre/copper wire approach employing Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) technology could provide a cost-effective solution. This would mean using optical fibre to the telephone exchange, or a street distribution box, and then converting the signal to an ADSL format for transmission over the last kilometre of copper. If the broadband demand in an area rose significantly above fifteen per cent, it made sense to take fibre to the home.” The project saw Alan make a tour of telecom suppliers to encourage the development of “an ADSL box, which would have optical fibre in at one end and would be able to deliver at least 10 M/bits over a kilometre of copper wire.” Within two years Alcatel and then Fujitsu came back with chipsets, which exceeded these specifications and BT Labs worked with them to adapt the technology to BT’s requirements. Alan adds: “So, we were then equipped to deliver broadband via ADSL and when I left BT, the technology was ready to go.”
Retirement from BT
In 1997 Alan was 60 years old. He was then Deputy Chief Executive of BT and had reached the mandatory retirement age for a BT executive director. Alan says of his retirement; “ it lasted all of 10 days and I should have made it longer.” Instead he took on a number of main board appointments, including ones with GEC, Great Universal Stores (GUS), Lucas Varity, MSI, and Chairman at WS Atkins and Chairman of ERA Technology Ltd. He also continued as Chairman of the Engineering Council and Chairman of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
Alan points particularly to a lack of self-confidence early on in his life. He says: “I think early on I could have been more confident than I was. I started off in life with a poor educational background and didn’t have the confidence that good schools can give you. Early in my career I tended to stand back and follow the lead of people who had plenty of confidence and appeared to have more knowledge, more capability and more experience. But after a while I became aware that in many cases they didn’t have any more experience or capability than I did. I often had difficulty understanding their proposed solutions to problems that seemed to me to be unlikely to succeed and sometimes unworkable. I gained confidence through finding myself facing problems and having to solve them. Fortunately, life put many diverse problems in my path that I found I was able to solve.” Alan added; “Everyone makes many mistakes throughout their career and perhaps the most important factor is how well you recover from them and what you learn to avoid repeating them.”
Alan attributes his engineering background to his logical approach to problem solving and to organisation. However he adds that, for effective management, this has to be coupled with an understanding of people. The combination gave him a good insight into tackling business management issues and to basics like putting the customer first. He says: “A fundamental problem with the civil service style of management, as practiced at BT in the early days of privatisation, is that the basic philosophy is based upon managing upwards. The whole organisation is motivated to protect the minister and keep him or her happy. Each layer of management is primarily concerned with keeping their bosses happy. They are forever looking upwards, only rarely down at their team and never down to the end customer. Many of the management changes I tried to introduce were based upon managing downwards. i.e. your goal is not to please me other than by doing your job well. That job is to ensure that your team can work effectively. In reality I am working for you, since my job is to make sure your working conditions allow you to do what needs to be done as effectively as possible. This is managing down – an absolutely fundamental requirement for good management.”
While Alan says he hasn’t studied the potential impact of AI on jobs closely he says: “It’s too early to say, and we have to take these developments in our stride. Clearly AI technology will have impact but it will continue to be developed and there is no value to be gained in fearing it’s possible application. Like nuclear energy or the hydrogen bomb, different sides of the same coin, most new technologies offer threats and opportunities depending upon how they are used. I doubt that artificial intelligence will be any different.”
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
In 1995, in addition to his duties at BT, Alan was asked by the Minister for Science to become Chairman of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) that had been newly separated from the earlier Science Research Council. The EPSRC was responsible for some £400 millions of Government funded research for engineering, mathematics and the physical sciences. The EPSRC required a new strategy and guidelines and a complete reorganisation of its mode of operations. Alan recruited a new chief executive for the organisation and worked with him and the EPSRC committee members to structure the new organisation and to seek significant improvements in the management of Government-funded research. These changes were implemented and the new chief executive did an outstanding job of building a strong management team and redirecting and reorganising the executive functions in Swindon. The old-style committee structures were dismantled and new processes for research proposals, peer group review and research management were introduced.
Initially these changes brought a large negative reaction from the research community affected – particularly the physicists who were up in arms and declaring that “this was the end of physics research in the UK”. Two years later the Institute of Physics did a survey to gather more evidence of this impending disaster and found that the unilateral response from the physics community was that the EPSRC was working better than it ever had in the past.
Alan emphasises; “The case for Government to spend taxpayers money on research is not for the occasional scientific breakthrough, or new inventions or patents – pleasing though these may be. The real objective is to generate new relevant knowledge and expertise to prepare the nation for the next generation of technological change. If the general guidance is right then the research will be largely in areas that are relevant, although the choice of the specific research project may be best derived as a proposal from the research community and not the EPSRC. The EPSRC task is also to ensure that the new knowledge flows effectively into the wider community. These were the issues that were dealt with and efforts made to resolve. I believe with some success.”
The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851
This unique organisation came into being following the Great Exhibition of 1851. Prince Albert, the driving force behind the exhibition, asked the Royal Commissioners who had been involved in managing the event to stay in place and make use of the profits to encourage the best of science and art for the benefit of British Industry. The Commissioners invested the monies in land and property in London, including that which is now part of Imperial College and the Royal Albert Hall. They established scholarships and gave appropriate grants to further the aims defined by Prince Albert. The work continues today with the Princess Royal as the current President, having taken over from Prince Philip on his retirement after 46 years in 2011. Alan became a Royal Commissioner in 1997 and was appointed Chairman of the Management Board in 2001 and served in this role for 11 years. Scholarships in science and engineering from the 1851 are highly prized and are awarded only to outstanding candidates. During his stewardship Alan worked with the Executive Secretary and the Management Board to establish a clear strategy for the organisation and this has remained in place until the present day.
Retirement: The second attempt
In 2014 on his 77th birthday Alan retired from his last remaining FT 100 company. He had been on the on the main board of Experian Plc. for nine years, first as the Senior Independent director and then as Deputy Chairman. He had also retired from Chairmanship of the ERA Foundation after 12 years in this role, but was then appointed President. He has since agreed to become Chairman of Civitas, a London based think tank
Awards & Honorary Positions
For services to engineering research and industry:
President Association of Independent Research & Technology Organisations (1986)
UK Advisory Committee on Science and Technology (1987-90)
President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (1993) (now IET).
Chairman of the Engineering Council (1996-99)
Chairman of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (2001-12).
Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. (Elected 1984)
Visiting Professor Queen Mary College, University of London (1985)
Fellow of the Royal Society (Elected 1992)
Governors Medal Regent St Polytechnic (1964)
IEE Faraday Medal (1991)
Duncan Davis Memorial Medal R&D Society (1994)
Honorary Fellow University College London (1998)
Freeman of the City of London (1998)
Founders Medal IEEE (USA 1998)
Millennium Medal IEEE (USA 2000)
Life Membership of the IEEE. (USA 2000)
Honorary Fellowship IEE (2000)
Pro-Chancellor University of Surrey (2002-7)
Royal Academy of Engineering Chairman’s Medal (2009)
1851 Royal Commission Medal (2012)
Chairman of the ERA Foundation (2002-14)
Chairman of Trustees Civitas (2017-)
PhD Electrical Engineering Birmingham University (1968)
Honorary Doctorates from the following Universities:
Birmingham 1991; Strathclyde 1992
Bradford 1994; Portsmouth 1994; Surrey 1994
Nottingham Trent 1995; Bath 1995; Loughborough 1995
Interviewed by: Richard Sharpe on the 9th November 2018 in London
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Lynda Feeley