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How to be more magpie

28 June 2018

The CBI’s 5th MSB Business Insight Conference focused on the topic of productivity and offered companies some practical advice for boosting performance

“Magpies are the best kept secret solution to the UK’s productivity problem,” said CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn, kicking off this year’s MSB Business Insight Conference.

“Magpies are the firms that adopt the technologies and best practices that are proven to lift productivity and pay. They find and take on board the best CRM, find cloud computing that works for them, and e-invoicing that saves time for the important things.”

“We’re not talking about blockchain and bleeding-edge here,” she continued. “We’re talking about the basics on which the cutting-edge can then be built.”

Simple steps, big results

Throughout the day, reference was made to the CBI’s Be more magpie report, which makes it clear why the issue of adopting technology is such an important part of the productivity debate.

Putting it simply, the UK lags behind others on the take up of digital technology.

In 2015, the proportion of UK firms adopting cloud computing was nearly 30 percentage points below the EU’s best performers. And the proportion of businesses with websites, internet trading capabilities, CRM and ERP systems in the UK today is still below levels in Denmark in 2009.

Get it right, and businesses can save thousands of hours on admin every year

Get it right, and businesses can save thousands of hours on admin every year – and the economy gets a boost of £100bn. 

The report shares five simple tips for businesses to follow to help them adopt the technology that’s right for them:

  1. Diagnose the problems and opportunities so you know what you want technology to deliver
  2. Engage your suppliers to help you solve the problem
  3. Be cautious about customisation – you can often achieve 80 per cent of what you want, more efficiently, with an off-the-shelf solution
  4. Involve your people in the process
  5. Tap into your networks and talk to others about how they’ve addressed the challenge

Back at the MSB Conference, Sage UK hosted a breakout session featuring a case study with City Cruises, which showed many of these suggestions in action.

Government support

Small Business Minister Andrew Griffiths used his speech at the event to launch the £8m Business Basics Fund to help small businesses with this challenge. Run in partnership with Innovate UK, it is designed to support projects run by businesses, charities, trade- and public sector organisations to boost take up of tried and tested technologies and management techniques among SMEs. By evaluating the effectiveness of each project, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy hopes the fund will help to inform future policies.

“We need to make the most of our country’s great potential,” Griffiths said, pointing to the fact that more than 1,000 businesses start up every day in Britain, and that between 2012 and 2016 London attracted more tech investment than Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam combined.

Questioned on what he thought was behind the UK’s productivity problem, Griffiths highlighted continued reluctance to borrow and late payments as two important factors behind the lack of investment. He also nodded to the importance of initiatives around improving skills and support for R&D. 

“A variety of things affect productivity, so we need a variety of solutions,” he said.

He also urged more firms to feed into the government’s productivity review to uncover further answers. “This is very much about working with business,” he added.

Businesses need to act now

But speaking as part of a panel discussion, Tony Danker, Chief Executive at Be the Business – an industry-led initiative backed by government to benchmark and improve productivity – warned that government strategy might take years to kick in. “Businesses can start to influence change today,” he said.

Four out of five SME leaders believe that their business is as or more productive than their peers - but the UK's productivity performance suggests a different reality

Four out of five SME leaders believe that their business is as or more productive than their peers – but the UK’s productivity performance suggests a different reality. Being more humble and ready to learn from others is an important first step to take, said Danker. Best practice is within easy reach, he added – you just need to look at what other firms are already doing successfully.

“It’s not the strongest or the fittest firms that will survive, but the most adaptable,” said Dr Andy Wood, CEO at Suffolk brewer Adnams. “Business leaders have got to feel comfortable with the idea of constant change.”  

A shift in culture

Business leaders’ humility should extend to the workplace, said the CBI’s Fairbairn, who argued that “what it means to be a leader has changed”.

Speaking as part of a panel discussion on employee engagement, she emphasised the importance of listening to ideas within the business in order to drive better performance.

Karl Tucker, Managing Director of Yeo Valley, highlighted how important employee engagement has been as part of its shift from a family-owned to a family-managed business. “People must understand their role and how it’s relevant to the company purpose,” he said. Communication was key, he added.

Scott Barton, Managing Director, Mid Markets – Commercial Banking, at Lloyds Banking Group, agreed, pointing to the importance of employee networks and training. He also highlighted the role effective health and wellbeing strategies can play in boosting productivity – a topic that was picked up by his colleague, People Director Rebecca Priestly, in a breakout session.

Technology is also driving the rise in flexible working and the end to the “slavish commute”, said Richard Morris, CEO of International Workplace Group – and that in turn is promoting greater creativity. He added that firms now had the ability to “access pockets of talent” without needing to set up formal office space.

Doing things differently

The idea of doing things differently was picked up by the last keynote speaker of the day: Richard Laughton, CEO of Easy Car and Chair of Sharing Economy UK. The sharing economy is growing in the UK as trust in new platforms is improving, and whether business adopt new business models themselves – or use suppliers that do – there are plenty of efficiencies to be gained, he explained.

And if by now you’re switched on to the idea of broadening your horizons, the final breakout session of the day, hosted by law firm Blake Morgan and export adviser Newable, focused on driving growth through international trade.

By adopting technology, more businesses will have more time to focus on the opportunities both at home and abroad – and if a one-day summit is anything to go by, there are plenty of companies willing to share their experiences to help you do it.

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