By Andy Haldane, chair of the Industrial Strategy Council, and Sir Charlie Mayfield, chair of Be The Business
UK GDP had, by July, recovered around half of its Covid-related losses, rebounding further and faster than anyone expected. That’s the good news. The bad is that the economy remains 12 per cent smaller than at the start of the year. So how do Governments and businesses ensure this bounce-back continues and that the opportunities, as well as the obvious challenges, of Covid are seized?
A large part of the answer lies in improving levels of technology adoption among businesses. While the UK plays a leading role in developing new technology and innovation, it is a laggard when it comes to its wider adoption across companies. That is particularly true among the smaller and mid-sized businesses which employ nearly two thirds of people working in the UK. This explains why, despite rapid innovation, aggregate productivity among UK companies has flat-lined for more than a decade.
Yet, for all its challenges, Covid has shown what is possible on this front. With their normal business models disrupted so significantly, rapid and radical technological adoption has been essential to the survival of many firms. Even among the more mature aspects of technology, such as e-commerce, the pace of adoption has been rapid. Data from Be the Business shows tech adoption was four times faster during the crisis than the whole of 2019.
It is good news that many more businesses now have the appetite and experience to upgrade their technologies. The less good news is that many of the barriers to that wider adoption are long-standing and remain deep-seated. Understanding those barriers, and removing them, is crucial if the benefits of technology – for productivity, skills and jobs across every region – are to be unleashed.
Be the Business, with support from McKinsey, has just completed the largest-ever study of these barriers and opportunities to widespread adoption of technologies. Some of these blockages sit in firms themselves, through a lack of information or appetite for change. Others exist among the suppliers of technology, in particular to smaller companies. Both the demand and supply sides need fixing, at source and at speed, if the opportunity is to be seized.
To do so, we believe three things are essential.
First, businesses need access to independent advice and resources to guide them towards the right technology choices. At present, in particular for smaller companies, this is daunting. There are mountains of information and training available on how to use specific software and tools. But there is no one-stop-shop for this information and no clear guidance to help businesses understand what kit would best meet their needs – until now.
On the new website, Be the Business Digital, businesses have all the answers they need. It is full of real world experience of business leaders who have learnt the hard way about tech adoption – where they went wrong, why they persevered, and what it did for their businesses. It’s constantly being updated and developed, providing a guide to the many business leaders up and down the country who know they need more tech but aren’t sure where to start.
Second, business leaders themselves need access to expertise and training. Only big firms have Chief Technology Officers. Most businesses can’t afford them and nor can they afford the fees of professional service firms who might fill the gap. We need, in every region and major town or city, a place where businesses can come for help when they need it – local hubs for business support. This should not just be government provided support. The private sector must play a role here. More than 100 of the UK’s best firms, including our best tech companies, have already committed to supporting Be the Business’ efforts.
Finally, there is the role of policy. Technology adoption needs to be at the heart of industrial policy. Levelling-up the UK’s companies, through improved tech adoption, is an essential element of levelling-up our regions. That means creating incentives for companies to make the right investment choices – for example, with a level playing field between investing in machinery versus software.
It also means making it easier for businesses to access finance to fund this investment. The UK has led the world with its Open Banking initiative to make personal bank account data portable, enabling people to switch their accounts cheaply and easily to improve innovation and competition. There is a strong case for doing the same with business data, making this fully portable and thereby enabling companies to switch vendors easily and cheaply to unleash finance and innovation.
The Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Solow famously asked: if technology is so ubiquitous, why doesn’t it show up in productivity statistics? We now know why: much of that technology simply isn’t found in many British businesses. Now is the time to technologically upgrade our businesses and our economy, building back not just better, but faster and smarter.