Chapter Four: Powering Ahead in the Eighties

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By the 1980’s, the face of the computing industry had changed dramatically. Micro computers were proliferating in the office environment, by-passing the short-lived minis, and penetrating the household market at an accelerating rate. This shift was drawing new entrepreneurs, manufacturers, service businesses and management styles into the industry. At the same time, many original Real Time Club members and their contemporaries were moving on or retiring.

Still, membership in the Club remained a distinctive honour, and invitations to join were accepted with enthusiasm throughout the decade. Names such as Philip Virgo of the NCC, Basil Cousins from UNIX Europe Ltd, John Leighfield from Istel, Brian Jolly of Systec, Denis Lee from Brooke Bond Oxo, and Gordon Pocock at British Telecoms joined the membership list in the 1980’s, keen to carry on the club’s tradition for Establishment bashing, yet bringing their own distinctive brand of reforming energy to the Club.

Highlights of the Decade

From the early 1980’s, the Club’s affairs were being ably managed by the triumvirate of Mike Plumbe, Secretary; Bill Freyenfeld, Meetings Convener; and Stewart Ashton, Treasurer. With its dining and speakers programme thus running smoothly, the Club was able to focus attention on other causes and initiatives.

It seemed that the government had finally awakened to the importance of IT for the country’s future competitiveness in a global economy. According to Reay Atkinson, the appointment of Ken Baker MP as Minister of State for Information Technology in 1981 marked “the first time, in an up-front and positive way, [that] HM Government was seriously supporting the IT Industry”.

Significantly, Baker’s first official engagement in his new post was to address the Real Time Club, which was still aggrieved at the way the government treated the industry. Bryan Mills, RTC Chairman at the time, recalls, “That was a riotous evening. I had to stand on a chair to be heard above the barracking!

To highlight the government’s new stance on the industry’s importance to the UK, Baker designated 1982 the Year of IT. This coincided with the Club’s 15th anniversary, in honour of which a special evening was organised at the House of Commons, with the Secretary of State for Industry, Patrick Jenkin, MP, giving an address on the subject of ‘Government and the IT Community’.

In January 1987 the Club hosted another senior politician, Paddy Ashdown, MP, who talked about ‘Extraterritoriality in IT’. As part of its Cold War effort to keep Western technology out of Soviet hands, the US government had been exerting pressure on any manufacturer whose equipment (or parts) ended up in the eastern Bloc. But the pressure had become increasingly heavy handed, and some UK-based companies were crying foul in what they saw as unfair restriction of their trade. Ashdown was leading a campaign against this policy.

Anticipating a lively debate, Freyenfeld had sent out a flurry of invitations to Ken Warren, MP, Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, Michael Ceverley, First Secretary at the US Embassy, and representatives of IBM, which was still perceived by many Real Timers as the villain in the piece. The evening was a huge success, and Ashdown’s campaign on the issue helped propel him into leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party.

But although government seemed finally to be grasping the importance of IT, there was still considerable confusion and wrangling over the correct policies it should be adopting to support the industry. In 1988, the Select Committee for Trade and Industry, chaired by RTC member Ken Warren, MP, produced a report on the state of IT in Britain. Having identified a crisis in the country’s IT trade deficit and recommended changes to government procurement policies to address it, the Committee was incensed to hear Lord Young, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, cite Britain’s success in the portable telephone market as justification for continuing the government’s ‘hands-off’ policy.

Meanwhile, Warren sought industry views through the Real Time Club. In March 1989 he requested an informal meeting at which members of the Select Committee could be briefed by members of the Real Time Club. Although it took over nine months to find a suitable date for the meeting, it was deemed a valuable exercise by both sides. The issues they discussed included the effect of the Single European Act on IT in the UK, funding for the IT industry, computer security and hacking, and training to meet increasingly serious IT skills shortages.

In May, 1990, Warren reported back to the Club on the ‘Work and Influence of Parliamentary Select Committees’ (on the formulation of Government policy on IT), raising a lively debate within the Club about whether the government should have an IT policy at all!

A Capital Venture

When Margaret Thatcher’s government came to power in 1979, one of its key ambitions had been to create an economic environment that would encourage entrepreneurship. To members of the Real Time Club and their colleagues throughout the British computing industry, this was welcome news indeed. However, their access to venture capital was hampered by more than its scarcity; – few potential investors understood the industry or its products.

Until the mid-1970’s the industry had been seen as almost entirely hardware based, with IBM and the other major suppliers dominating the scene. As the importance of software dawned on the user community, and the arrival of mini’s and micro’s vastly increased the number of users, the market became a confusing agglomeration of start-ups and spin-offs. A high-tech investment boom was sparked off, with fund-raising prospectuses hyping the kind of investor Utopia reminiscent of the South Seas Bubble.

Several Club members, such as the NCC’s Philip Virgo and David Fairbairn, were concerned that this could lead to an investor backlash. Through their efforts, the NCC undertook to publish and distribute a handbook, Obtaining Finance for High Technology Ventures, written by Real Timer, Bill Freyenfeld. The NCC also supported what became the City C3 (standing for Computing, Communications and Control) Club.

This particular off-spring of the Real Time Cub brought together the then separate communities of investment analysts, merchant bankers and fund managers for lunchtime discussions with industry and technology experts on how to assess current and potential investment opportunities in the sector.

The C3 Club’s purpose, according to Virgo, was “to educate the City in the intricacies of high tech investment, so they could actually sort out reality from snake oil”. To maintain quality, it had a tightly controlled membership list of accountants, financial consultants, merchant bankers, stock brokers and fund managers, all with well-respected credentials in the investment world.

By 1985 the C3 Club had become an established venue for Chairmen and Managing Directors to speak directly with their lead investors and other players whose views were respected by the rest of the market. Topics from the programme for that year included: ‘The future of the UK Software Industry’; ‘The UK Games market: Hiatus or Holocaust’; ‘Inter-Active Video – Potential and Economics’; ‘The Economics of Electronic Publishing’; and ‘Convergence in Practice’.

With the help of Richard Sharpe, Editor of Computing, and the NCC, the C3 Club organised a series of very successful ‘Financing High Tech’ events, to educate fund-raisers and enable the sponsoring investors to quietly cherry pick any opportunities they would like to pursue further.

The Club also met with Ministers, like the late John Butcher and his successor Sir Geoffrey Pattie, as well as opposition leaders, like the Rt Hon John Smith, and the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, chaired by Ken Warren. At these meetings they made strong representations as to how relations between the high tech industries and the investment community could be greatly improved through more open briefings and contact.

However, by 1988 the kind of networking that the C3 Club had pioneered was either available elsewhere or being viewed as potential malpractice leading to insider trading. The Club’s last event was a private seminar for bank managers on ‘How to value a software house’ – pointing out, with typical tongue in cheek, that many of the key rules are the same as for valuing a Boarding House: understanding their markets, their competition, and how to foster and retain the staff that are the basis of their differentiation.

The demise of the C3 Club was not the end of the Real Time Club’s interest in the issue of finance for ICT and start-up projects, however, and more direct action was to be initiated during the 1990’s.

Training the Next Generation

The issue that galvanized the greatest flurry of RTC reform activity in over ten years was sparked off when the Junior Education Minister, Alan Howarth, addressed the Club in October 1989 on the subject of ‘IT in Secondary Education’. The National Curriculum had been introduced in all state schools in the country, and Real Timers had several concerns. During the discussions following Howath’s talk, members expressed their dismay at the poor state of IT education in British schools, pointing out that the curriculum was rooted in out-dated technology and emphasised computer operating rather than information processing skills.

Members also articulated their frustration with the slow rate at which computer-based training was being introduced to the teaching of other subjects, despite its cost advantages and flexibility. Several expressed a willingness to help the Department of Education & Science (DES) tackle these problems, prompting Bill Freyenfeld to write to Howarth with an offer of Club assistance. Howarth’s response was to call for a meeting.

The Club quickly convened two special beer and sandwich sessions at a City pub to canvas the membership for ideas and commitment to the project. Over 25 RTC members attended, and a delegation was sent to Howarth’s office on 6th March, to outline the Club’s proposals. The underlying objective was to give the DES direct access to experience and advice on matters relating to the use of computers in schools from a technologist’s rather than an educationist’s point of view.

Specifically, the delegation had proposed that the Real Time Club would ‘adopt’ five secondary schools and a teacher training institution. Under the brief of ‘observe and assist’, a newly formed ‘IT in Ed’ group within the Club would a) help promote an understanding of the use of IT in education, b) assist with the teaching of IT, and c) provide advice on career opportunities and help with IT in school administration. A schedule of six-monthly meetings was proposed in which Club members would brief Ministers on progress from each of these activities.

This plan was accepted by the Government in a formal letter of thanks from the then Secretary of State, John MacGregor. The high level appointment was important in so far as it gave the Club an official standing as advisors to the government on this important issue. The Real Time Club was the first ICT organisation to be given such an influential standing.

By the end of June, sixty-two Club members had indicated an interest in the project, offering either personal services or the help of their firms (or both). Over the ensuing twelve months there was a flurry of activities, including seventeen projects at Thames Polytechnic (Avery Hill Campus), the nominated teacher training institution. The adopted secondary schools were: Holland Park Comprehensive; Abbs Cross, in Hornchurch; Charters, in Sunningdale; Rydens, in Walton-on-Thames; and St Maurs Convent, in Weybridge.

It is interesting to note that when the project started, the machine-to-pupil ratio in the participating schools ranged between 1:16 and 1:41. In his outline report, Freyenfeld also notes that most of the schools offered IT courses at GCSE level and reported greater demand than they were able to fill, although in all but one of them the option was to be phased out by 1992 to fit in with the National Curriculum. The Club certainly had its work cut out, and wrote to other industry bodies with invitations to join the programme, but none took the offer up.

Projects were designed and agreed with each school, depending upon its identified needs. They ranged from giving advice to arranging the loan of key equipment, such as Interactive Video Systems (loaned by Applied Learning to Avery Hill and Holland Park), and ‘Horace the Robot’ (loaned by UMI to Thames Polytechnic School of Education). Advisory work was focussed on giving talks to student groups, providing careers advice and work experience opportunities, giving teacher training assistance and advising staff on IT matters.

A major activity in the first year was the Committee’s organisation of a one-day seminar on distance learning at Thames Polytechnic (which would become the modern University of Greenwich), incorporating examples of distance learning programmes for both trainee teachers and trainee nurses.

On the consultative side, in addition to regular Ministerial briefings, the Committee produced a position paper on the potential role of IT in Local Management of Schools (Alan Mitson), and an advisory paper on the Selection and Appointment of IT Technicians in Schools (Paul Embleton). A small delegation from the Committee tabled six specific recommendations to the DES in a meeting with the new Minister for Schools in March 1991, several of which were either accepted or passed on to the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET). And in January 1991, the Clerk to the Commons Education Committee invited the Club’s views on IT in schools and teacher training, which resulted in the Club’s seminal Report to the Commons Education Committee.

However, the following year saw a major restructuring of school status and governance, which pushed the issue of IT in education out of the spotlight. RTC offers of assistance were not always greeted with enthusiasm at the local level, and some of its recommendations were blocked by government officials anxious not to upset the teaching unions.

Status Report No 6 of the IT in Ed Committee’s activities, produced at the close of 1992, voices the Committee’s growing frustration:

“there is a great deal of official complacency. Ministers continue to claim … that the UK is ‘leading the world’ … in the application of IT to education. This claim is mainly based on the official DfE ‘tin count’… [the] ratio of computers to pupils in our schools. But … one cannot lead the world on the basis of obsolete machines kept in store-cupboards.”

It goes on to say that the teaching of IT in British classrooms was probably comparable to other countries, but in the use of IT as a teaching aid for other subjects, “we are certainly well behind best practice in the USA and possibly other countries also.

By 1993 active membership of the IT in Ed Committee had declined to around twelve, but it still managed to deliver a handful of projects and a major revision of the 1991 Report for the Commons Education Committee.

By then, however, several other industry bodies were beginning to develop their own Ministerial contacts in the education sphere. In February 1993 the RTC’s IT in Committee convened a working party, again inviting other industry organisations with an expressed interest in education, to explore ways of combining their credentials into a single voice for the UK IT community. This time, the British Computer Society, the Women into Information Technology Foundation, and the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists all responded.

The working party recommended to its constituent organisations the formation of a quadripartite Joint Advisory Panel on Information Technology in Education (JAPONITE). This new organisation took over many of the IT in Ed Committee’s activities and all of its formal contacts with what had by then become the Department for Education. The Committee itself was formally disbanded, although a new Education Caucus was formed following the Club reorganisation of 1995.

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