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What a buffer-free digital future means for your business

10 December 2018 | By Pip Brooking

Better digital infrastructure will support new technologies and new ways of working, but firms need to open up to the opportunities

“If data is the new oil, then digital connectivity is the pipe that transports it,” says CBI UK Chief Policy Director Matthew Fell. “Seamless connections, from full fibre networks to 5G, offer unprecedented opportunities for businesses and consumers across the UK.”

In its latest report, Ready, Set, Connect, the CBI highlights the steps the government must take to achieve the “buffer-free” digital future firms need to thrive. But once the best possible digital infrastructure is in place, are businesses ready to make the most of the technology on offer?

Two thirds of firms already believe that digital connectivity speeds and reliability are critical for their business to function, according to last year’s CBI/AECOM Infrastructure survey. But the possibilities extend far beyond business as usual.

Today, the fastest growing and most productive businesses are those that have grasped the benefits of digital connectivity and used it to drive technology adoption and new ways of working. And they already have their eye on where improved connectivity can take them.

Better visibility, better customer relationships

For water companies, for example, it is prohibitively expensive to have “boots on the ground” monitoring pipes 24/7. But Wessex Water is using sensors to help improve efficiency, reduce leakage and improve service. This includes sensors on farms and in rivers to assess water quality.

By combining sensor data, with the improved customer service and network efficiency that can also come from reliable digital connectivity, it hopes to build a better relationship with its customers. That in turn could support behaviour change and reduce wastage. 

Better use of low cost tracking technology to manage supply chains can also enhance efficiency and reduce waste – particularly in the NHS, says Alfredo Ramos, Healthcare Director at the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI). He believes such measures would reduce the chance of the recent EpiPen shortage from happening again, for example. On the other side of the picture, he points to devices worn by patients that are already delivering more personalised healthcare.

Sensors are increasingly used in manufacturing facilities to monitor machinery too. And Airbus is passing this benefit onto its customers through its digital platform, Skywise. Airline operators can use it to tap into vast amounts of aircraft operational and performance data – and, using data analytics, Skywise can assess failure probabilities in order to anticipate potential maintenance tasks, saving on both costs and time.

Better planning, better results

The aircraft manufacturer is also using augmented reality and artificial intelligence to model and manage new products and manufacturing processes – rather like the architects and engineers who use Building Information Modelling (BIM) for construction projects.

The UK has been an early adopter of BIM software, which allows architects, engineers and construction professionals to collaboratively plan, design, construct and manage physical infrastructure using a visual 3D model of buildings. At Ryder Architecture, this means its staff can quickly share and test multiple design options. With international offices and clients, seamless digital connectivity is vital to access real-time updates – and to stay competitive with international rivals, says Peter Barker, a partner at the firm.

Rob May, Director at Buro Happold, agrees. As projects get more complicated, procurement requirements get tougher, the amount of collaboration increases, and the time in which to deliver them gets shorter, the volume of data involved increases – as do pressures on current digital infrastructure, he adds. “Those trends are only going to continue.”

The drive for greater efficiency is also leading the engineering consultancy to invest in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and to develop software that can run complicated calculations in the cloud, for its staff in the field.

Better communication, better use of time

But even for more simple tasks, connectivity while on the move – and particularly on trains – is a top concern among firms outside of London.

“Like it or not, a two-hour train journey is two hours of productivity, and for an hour of that, you have to deal with no connectivity,” says Patrick Furse, Digital Director at Bristol headquartered communications agency Bray Leino.

But improvement on that front – and in connectivity in the home – will continue to fuel new ways of working.

Travel Counsellors is a good example of a business model that fully embraces remote, flexible working, which could soon become far more common. The company has a global head office in Manchester, with over 1,800 franchises and seven offices worldwide. The franchises are home-working entrepreneurs who use Travel Counsellors’ software system to create bespoke holiday experiences or business travel plans. 

“Having the communication technology to enable us to connect, share, motivate and collaborate is imperative,” says Waseem Haq, the company’s Digital and Innovation Director. “It’s essential that the modern workplace is supported by fast and efficient connectivity, as more businesses adopt remote working practices.”

So what can firms do to realise opportunities like these?

It’s down to government to accelerate and facilitate many of the improvements in digital infrastructure. In its Ready, Set, Connect report, the CBI’s recommendations include ways in which it can unlock investment, update the law to help everyone get access to Gigabit broadband and spur businesses to adopt new technologies.

But businesses can already take some relatively simple steps to make the most of the UK’s digital connectivity. SMEs, for example, can access the government’s £2,500 Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme. Businesses can also look to their supply chain for best practice on adopting digital connectivity improvements.

Other steps will take more planning.

At Buro Happold, Rob May, like many tech savvy workers, is desperate to realise the full potential of new technology, but he warns that internal education is often needed around the importance of having the right digital infrastructure to make it happen. And the CBI’s report suggests businesses need to identify how their digital adoption plans affect their current and future connectivity requirements. This needs to be built into investment plans and discussed at board level. 

Dealing with data

For Bray Leino’s Patrick Furse and CPI’s Alfredo Ramos, the biggest issue is how firms handle data.

Despite all the positive examples of how access to data can help improve services and create new products that benefit consumers, many firms still aren’t confident in using it, says Furse.

“To make the most of machine learning, we need to promote more positive attitudes to open data,” he explains. 

And talking from experience, he adds that it takes far longer to collect useful, actionable data than firms might think. “We’re looking at a project right now where we have a 18-24 month window to drive enough volume,” he says. “You need to be thinking already about what data you need to solve problems you have in your business or that your customers have.”

CPI’s Ramos says even some of the most enlightened firms are still taking too manual an approach to analysing data.

“Firms generate a huge amount of data but, at the end of the day, there’s a person sitting in front of an Excel spreadsheet, copying and pasting for 80 percent of their time. Once they’ve managed to pull it in a shape they can look at, they only have 20 percent of their time left to draw any insights and conclusions,” he explains.

When the technology already exists, not least within Excel itself, to automate some of those processes, it becomes a question of having the right skills within the business to use such programmes effectively. 

“Imagine what you can achieve if you shift the needle from having 80 per cent of your time doing clerical work to 80 per cent of your time looking for solutions,” he says.

So businesses can get ready for the introduction of for the digital infrastructure of the future by building the skills and the appetite for new technology and new ways of working. Then, once it’s in place, the UK will be sitting on a massive opportunity to supercharge productivity, prosperity and its international competitiveness.

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