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The Danger of Knowledge

So, is your technical or engineering team a fountain of knowledge? Have an answer for every question? Can they blind you with science? Confident in their abilities?

Damn right they are, that's what you're paying them for, isn't it?

Does your technical or engineering team revisit what they know? Continually add to that knowledge with new research? Do they challenge conventional wisdom? Do they take note of what their competitors are doing in the marketplace, and are they ready with a response in good time?

Are you sure?

This is a cautionary tale.

About three years ago, I made contact with a company in Durban, South Africa's leading manufacturer of settop boxes for the cable and satellite industry. I contacted them because based in South Africa at the time, I wanted to buy local. My question of them was:

"What is your IPTV strategy?"

At the time, the world internet, telephony and television industries were undergoing a period of reinvention. Some called it convergence. Others called it Triple Play. The bottom line was, each of the three industries had realised that with minimal reengineering, they could provide the services of the other two.

No longer did a household have to pay three amounts against three bills for three different services. Now they could buy all three services from just one supplier. One supplier could charge more money, on condition they could boot out the other two suppliers.

This house just ain't no longer big enough for the three of us.

I was researching IP Television at the time, to find out what headend hardware was available, what Video on Demand (VoD) hardware was available, what set top box (STB) hardware was available, and a range of new products were on the horizon. UK based Amino Communications led the field with their beautifully designed range of set top boxes, an industry lead they maintain today. To the end user, the set top box plugged into your internet connection on one end, your television on the other end, and you used a remote control in the middle. IPTV was indistinguishable from normal satellite or cable, just like users wanted.

A brief history of the South African telecommunications market: Hampered by ill advised legislation, an incumbent monopoly operator Telkom was allowed to run roughshod all over the South African telecommunications industry, charging exhorbitant fees for antique services. But the winds of change were coming. The South African government were committed to opening up the market to competition, and once that happened, competitors would break open the market, leading to a long awaited catch up.

But here lay a problem. In the stifling regulatory environment at the time, technicians and engineers in the South African industry knew that high speed internet access, defined as "anything faster than a dialup modem", was unheard of in South Africa. And they knew that this would never change. Ever.

And so in answer to my question of the settop box manufacturer in Durban, the person billing themselves as their chief engineer laughed me off the phone.

You're crazy. IPTV can never work. You're wasting your time.

My research indicated otherwise, and so I persisted. To the lasting shock of the South African internet industry, the incumbent Minister for Telecommunications for South Africa triggered some exit legislation, effectively ending the incumbent operator's state sanctioned monopoly. The much publicised awarding of a second telecommunications license to Neotel was imminent, and unleased from regulatory constraints, existing mobile operators and internet service providers could enter the industry. The game was hotting up.

Internationally, the race for Triple Play was on. In the UK, Telewest and Homechoice battled it out with conspicuous media coverage. Get your television, your telephone and your internet from one place. Existing operators like Sky got into providing internet access alongside their satellite based offering. The same story played out throughout Europe. At the international IBC exhibition in Amsterdam in September of 2005, the hot topics were HD and IPTV.

About three months ago, I made contact with the Durban based company again. The contact was through a colleague, a friend of theirs had just started working there, and out of curiosity I asked again:

What is your IPTV strategy?

They said they'd ask and find out, and the answer came back.

We looked a making satellite cards to receive internet and television on a PC, but we didn't pursue it.

Turns out they still had no idea what IPTV was.

Over the past few years, the biggest question on the telecommunications industry's lips was how to break the enormous lead held by the incumbent Telkom. But a more burning question was, how would Telkom respond to this threat from competitors?

In our research over the past few years, we have found that wireless technologies simply didn't cut the mustard when compared to the power and convenience of fixed line networks. If it couldn't do full bandwidth television, the technology just wasn't good enough. This fact didn't escape the watchful eye of the incumbent Telkom. To maintain their widespread dominance, IPTV was the key.

So, this last thursday, when the second South African telecommunications operator Neotel launched with great fanfare to the South African public, Telkom responded by playing their trump card: Telkom would introduce IPTV to the South African market, and compete with the dominant satellite provider Multichoice.

On friday, I contacted the Durban based manufacturer again to ask what they thought. The answer came back:

We had not heard Telkom's announcement, where did you hear it from?

Three years later, and they still knew that IPTV was not possible, and they still knew that IPTV would never happen in South Africa.

So confident were they in their knowledge, that they saw no value in research, no value in development. They saw no value in monitoring technological developments overseas, nor did they see value in monitoring the local political and legislative environment.

Their technicians and engineers already knew, what point was there in learning something new?

So, ask yourself: What new things did your technicians learn this week? What do they think their field looks like today? What do they think their field will look like a year from now, five years from now? Is there a change in the air, and do they understand what that change might mean?

And has technical opinion inside your organisation changed over the last few years? If not, you may find yourself quietly exiting your chosen market, while others outpace you.

Forget what you know. It's what you learn that is important.


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That is just so true. Having worked at a company where suggestions by "inferiors" is vetoed because the CTO "knows", and his way is "the way" is infuriating at times. I think this may be why companies get into ruts like this, because the people who DO think about these things quickly learn it's not in their interest to question their godly superiors, you don't want to look like a threat to the powers that be at salary review time. And if the company is making money, the people in charge don't want to risk making a change and losing money, regardless of what benefit the change might hold.

But the thing that REALLY got to me one time, was a team of what I thought were a dynamic group of people, my peers, being the source of resistance, effectively killing any intentions of streamlining their own process, and easing their own lives. In 15 minutes I lost all the respect I had for that group of people. That event set my eventual resignation in motion. It seems to me that a lot of people out there are just not comfortable with the concept of change. And that is just not the temperament one needs in the changing economic environment.

Unfortunately for them, Darwin was right in more ways than one.

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