by Mike Altendorf

In praise of local knowledge

Oct 29, 20124 mins
Construction and Engineering IndustryIT LeadershipIT Strategy

According to Simon Cowell and, technology innovation is finally sexy with the announcement of an X Factor-style TV show for techies.

The sexiness of Cowell aside, what this demonstrates is a big appetite for, and interest in, new technology here in the UK, rather more than just short-lived entertainment.

The buzz around tech innovation is further evidenced by Amazon’s investment in London.

Last year Google also announced a big investment in a technology community centre, designed to nurture innovation, and part of the government’s £400m initiative to create the UK’s Silicon Valley.

In the Valley £400m would barely buy you a parking space, but that’s another story.

All good news you might think, and you would be right. Sort of.

It is fantastic that people and companies as high profile as the above are recognising the talent potential we have in the UK.

What is less fantastic is that many of our flagship UK companies seem far less inclined to support and nurture UK business, talent and ideas.

Recently I attended the CIO Summit. These are always fascinating events to attend as it gives you a great insight into what is keeping CIOs up at night.

There were some fascinating presentations. Richard Hodkinson from law firm DWF LLP on how he had rolled out Yammer internally to help increase collaboration, and Shaun Mundy from engineers Buro Happold on Agile.

The above two were great examples of innovation led by UK CIOs with predominantly UK IT teams.

Although there is a considerable difference in scale between them and the multinationals that emanate from our shores, the intentions of their strategies are beneficial to our economy.

Within Britain there are companies whose IT strategies follow a different line: outsource as much as you can overseas, consolidate all your systems with one big vendor and ensure that cost reduction and operational efficiency are the first things you think of when you wake up every morning.

Great. But where does this leave customers or employees?

Now I appreciate that being a business is not to be a charity. But it’s interesting that of the big companies that backed Cameron’s Silicon Parking Space only one of them was British.

You could argue that most of the technology companies out there are American and you would be right, but why do you have to be a tech company to back innovation?

Look at what Sky and GSK are doing with startups, for example.

The fact is that investing in innovation is not just good for the economy, it’s good for business too. Equally importantly, it could also be actually damaging for both if we don’t invest in it.

In America there is a greater understanding of the importance of harnessing innovation and if we don’t invest in our startups then US companies will.

It isn’t about not being global. You can be global and still act local.

What also struck me about the progressive and forward thinking speakers I saw was how many of them worked for companies based outside London.

This country is London-obsessed. We don’t see what is happening elsewhere. There is also an arrogant belief that London is best and that there is nothing we can learn from our regions.

That kind of thinking drives me mad. Our inability to find and harness the talent that exists in Belfast, Sunderland, Leeds or Aberdeen means good ideas and smart businesses are struggling to survive.

If you are going to outsource then these are the places you should be outsourcing (or insourcing) to, especially when it comes to software development.

The Halifax was doing this in the 1990s and I assumed everyone else would catch on. I’m still waiting.

I have just realised that I am writing this on what is the first anniversary of the death of Steve Jobs. If there is any man that symbolises innovation (together with brilliant customer empathy and cool marketing) it was he.

And there is no reason at all why the next Steve Jobs shouldn’t be British (ironically of course Sir Jony Ive, Apple design god, is of course British) or why the next Facebook shouldn’t be born in a student’s bedroom in Birmingham or Newcastle.

This country is great at ideas but generally not so great at turning them into successful companies.

If those companies that have already made it could offer a little more back to those still on the first rungs of the ladder, then a few of those ideas could actually get to change the world.