Productivity — the UK wake-up call

Opinion is divided. Some simply don’t believe the stats. Some are horrified. Others scratch their heads. The frequently reported low productivity rate seems to be a particularly British puzzle.

Some bemoan the advent of email. “Excessive emails damaging UK office workers’ productivity” (Independent, November 2017) while others abhor lack of digital investment — “major digital talent shortage” (CityA.M. 26 Jan 2018).

The national picture certainly looks dire. But national metrics are often made that way — aggregations that, by design, disguise a wide range of results.

Business leaders of major corporations might claim that the reportedly lazy state of the nation is skewed by the 98% of enterprises — the UK’s micro, small and medium sized firms — where the rigours of everyday survival trump efficiency, particularly in service sectors. Advocates for smaller firms point to their vital roles lubricating local money flows and generating new ideas.

The government’s Industrial Strategy places productivity improvement at its heart. “As well as setting a path to improved productivity, our Industrial Strategy sets out four areas where Britain can lead the global technological revolution.”( Rt. Hon Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

That may be the ‘top down’ national perspective, but one of the ‘four areas’ identified for action is ‘Place’ — where central policy levers are limited. That is why the role of local leaders — Metro Mayors, Local Economic Partners, Local Learning Directors and Community Developers — assumes renewed relevance.

And nowhere is this newfound local leadership needed more than in raising the sights of smaller businesses with vigorous promotion of creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and skills development through local technology colleges, local schools and locally-relevant study projects in local universities.

That, at least, is the view of Dr. Colin Coulson-Thomas — announced today as the new President of the Institute for Management Services (IMS). The Institute has ploughed the productivity furrow ever since the dark days of WWII when monitors with clipboards and stopwatches were part of the war effort. Some of that old ‘time and motion’ culture lingers, but today IMS does far more in the field of education, analysis and encouragement across all economic sectors.

Coulson-Thomas follows a long list of distinguished former and IMS Presidents[1]. He has long championed new ways of organising, working, learning and leading but would be first to acknowledge that in this field no one leader or champion (or government minister) can have much impact on deep-rooted issues like productivity.

The UK has”, he says, “a golden opportunity to make local city and community agendas far more alert to productivity challenges. In raising local economic performance, we will stand a chance of succeeding where decades of wishful central policy thinking has had little effect.”

Dr Coulson-Thomas specifically identifies local opportunities to:

  • Attract greater investment,
  • Grow local employment by embracing disruptive technologies, new business models and performance support tools,
  • Build the skills that local businesses need,
  • Utilise local data to identify and inform opportunities, and,
  • Ensure that digital infrastructure investments are of the highest ‘future proofed’ quality.

From his personal perspective, that last bullet point is both key and urgent.

Contemplating the workload ahead as the new IMS President he reflected, “The biggest impact on my own productivity would be faster broadband.”

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Note 1. Former IMS Presidents: Lord Beeching, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, Sir Monty Finniston, Lord Chilver and Viscount Thurso.

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