What are the right things to do to sustain UK competitiveness in 2025?

Crossing the finishing line This was the subject of a debate for 40 invited guests to the Royal Society on January 15 2007. The evening started with two speakers outlining the pros and cons for the UK. These were by John Leighfield from Research Machines and David Butler co-founder of Butler Cox.

The debate centred around the premise that competitive advantage is increasingly enabled by IT and the use of intellectual assets.

The two introductory speakers focused on:

  • How can we build on the existing driving forces to achieve sustainable IT enabled competitiveness in the UK economy?
  • What must policy makers, industry leaders and the professions do to address the restraining forces?

In his introduction John Leighfield said that the UK has a lot of things going for it.

The City of London is a shining example of a British industry leading the world. Business people from many other countries come to the square mile to learn from the way it works. Added to this in the UK we have some of the best universities in Europe, perhaps the world.

However, in order to maintain competitiveness he suggested that universities and businesses need to work more closely together.

He also said that in the nineteenth century engineering was seen as a glamorous profession, this is a position he feels we need to get back to. In order to emphasise this point he recalled the situation with the British Leyland in the 1970s when it could no longer design its own gearboxes a situation that effectively killed the company.

David Butler referred to the book by Nicholas Carr, based on his Harvard Business Review article entitled 'IT doesn’t matter'.

Carr argues that though IT may still be a necessary business tool, it can no longer provide competitive advantage. He uses the analogy of the railways and electricity, once leading edge technologies but now just commodities. And if IT is just a commodity, it's not worth spending much money on it. Carr's chapter on IT budgets refers to 'the money pit'.

In Butler's opinion Carr's argument rests upon a misinterpretation of what IT is. This weakness is not just semantic, but undermines Carr's whole case.

However, the importance of Carr is that CEOs and CFOs are reading about this book and taking it seriously. Ever since IT first appeared, there have been critics who doubted its value. Now they think they have a heavyweight intellectual champion in the pages of the HBR.

When management or political decisions create problems, the culprits often find a way to blame IT. IT is a natural scapegoat. There is a propaganda war and we are losing it.

Unless the IT community fights back there will be under-investment, under-achievement and needless damage to the UK economy. 

He had a suggestion for how this could be addressed and that was for IT vendors to work more closely with users - after all they both want ostensibly the same thing. If they don't then it's the CIOs of companies that will lose out, and if companies lose out then so could UK Plc.

The evening was chaired under the Chatham House rule by Gill Ringland. The invited guests discussed the topic and then each table's rapporteur then read out their findings.

One of the most common points from all tables was that this current generation of IT professionals will be the last.

What was meant by this is that as IT is such a major part in everything that businesses do, IT isn't really separate anymore. For example if you want to be an animator you not only need to a talented artist but you also need to be able to work with computers. It was also felt that we should concentrate on developing the effective use of IT not necessarily IT as a profession.

The younger generation, who have grown up with easy access to IT, don't see that IT is separate at all. IT is all around them and forms an integral part of all businesses.

It was also agreed that this problem isn't unique to the UK, it's affecting all countries. Added to this it was widely felt that the government should, and could, do more to encourage and support IT.

Some of the attendees felt that in order to do this government needed to show a willingness to adopt IT and embrace it. Only then, by taking the lead would more businesses do the same. Government also needs to show that it can make IT succeed instead of failing and going over budget.

When it comes to the UK having an advantage over the rest of the world, it was suggested that we should make best use of what we are good at. These are in areas such as banking, the arts, media and culture.

There are already some clusters of excellence, the City of London for banking and the area around Oxford with its Formula One racing industry for example, these need to be encouraged.

In the US they have silicon valley that is a breeding ground for IT innovation because all the rights parts for success are there. It's this sort of area that we need to develop in the UK to enable the right sort of networking and development.

London is one of the biggest and most vibrant cities in the world, which led to the thought, why can't it be a centre for innovation if so many people from all over the world come there? London is one of the best things that the UK has, so we should make more of it.

The opinion was expressed that perhaps our culture holds us back from being innovative and taking risks. This is opposed to that in the US where entrepreneurial flair is encouraged. It was also said that in the UK we need to support innovators more than we currently do.

Most delegates felt that the biggest issue though was regarding schools and how IT is taught and addressed. Although some people believe that the managers of 2025 may have already been through the majority of the education system already, there is a lot that can be done to improve the way in which IT is taught.

There was a general feeling amongst all the guests that teachers don't know much about the IT industry. Also, IT is taught as a skill for when things go wrong.

The feeling was that IT needs to be shown to be useful and also appealing and perhaps even sexy. Being interested in IT is seen in a negative way and people are labelled as 'techies', but IT skills are increasingly important.

In terms of how IT is taught, it should be shown to cross-over into many different areas rather than being isolated. In the future IT will be more of a part of other industries so everyone will need to be able to use it.

As the government is planning to raise the school leaving age to 18, many people felt that when this happens that there should be vocational courses in IT.

The approach needs to be taken into our universities as well as our schools. In the UK we have some of the best in the world and this needs to be harnessed. One thought is that businesses should work more closely with all levels of education from schools to higher education.

As an offshoot from this some felt that there isn't enough investment in research and that it's essential for future success in the UK. With a drop in investment fewer people are going into the research occupations and also businesses tend to be reactive rather than proactive which puts them on the back foot compared to others from other nations.

Another area where the some degree of consensus was surrounding the proficiency of CEOs and CIOs. It was felt that quality in these two positions is paramount but that CEOs need to have a better understanding of IT and that CIOs need to have a healthier grounding in business practices.

In fact some of the guests actually felt that CIOs can be the biggest obstacle to business competitiveness and that they need to change the most.

Another opinion that was expressed was that there needs to be better training for CIOs. Many have come into their role without any specific training but simply through a love of technology. They, and other IT people, can be poor at forming relationships and may lack inter-personal skills. Social skills, networking skills and information skills are all highly important.

In response to the point that IT has a negative image one guest stated that many people say that in the UK we no longer manufacture anything. They said that surely the production of software is a manufacturing process. They added that just because a building doesn't have a big chimney belching out smoke it doesn't mean that you're not making something.

In terms of raising the profile of IT everyone who attended the evening were critical of the government's decision to stop the home computer initiative. They felt that not only was the initiative a good idea but also that BCS should lobby the government to change its mind.

Another suggestion for improving the profile of IT is to try and change the perception most people have of the profession. One idea was for BCS to have a column in The Sun newspaper.

Overall, it was felt that in order for the UK and businesses to maintain competitiveness the following need to be addressed:

  • The way IT is taught in schools needs to be looked at with more of an emphasis on it being a business skill and also crossover into other areas.
  • Government should be influenced to embrace IT and promote it by showing leadership, as well as proving IT can work.
  • We need to show that IT skills are important in all areas of business, regardless of what people do.
  • CEOs need to understand the importance of IT for business and CIOs need to understand the demands of business when working with IT systems.
  • The Home Computer Initiative should be reinstated to encourage people at home to use IT.
  • People's perceptions of IT need to be changed to remove the stigma associated with IT and the profession.
  • Vocational IT courses for 16-18 year olds should be implemented when the school leaving age is raised.
  • More areas of excellence along the lines of silicon valley in the US and the City of London should be created.

BCS Thought Leadership Debates

This report was first published 7 February 2007