UK needs a 'grown-up conversation' on workplace technology

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A stronger industrial strategy needs to be agreed between business and the government

The UK needs to have a more grown-up conversation about the adoption of advanced technologies that could boost the country's productivity, according to Siemens CEO Jürgen Maier.

Maier said UK business had lost its way in embracing technologies during recent years, partly out of fears around job losses due to automation. He said it was time for companies to form a clearer industrial strategy with the government.

His comments came at the launch of Be the Business, a movement that aims to empower and equip organisations to improve their productivity through collaboration.

The movement, led by Guardian News & Media’s chief strategy officer Tony Danker, provides business of all sizes with examples of best practice and equips them with practical tools to measure the success of their business and how they can improve. If successful, the group predicts it can add £130 billion in value to the UK economy in productivity.

The benchmarking tool will allow business leaders to create their own personalised dashboard and confidentially analyse their own organisation for digital maturity, talent management, leadership and future planning – four key drivers of productivity. This application will allow continuous measurement; benchmarking against other companies by region, sector or size; and enable leaders to see their weaknesses and opportunities.

“One overriding factor is we [UK businesses] have a negative conversation about technology, business and wealth creation in general,” Maier said. “In the UK we identify the problem and then a lot of initiatives spring up that are well-meaning but create an unclear picture so businesses don’t know which to engage with.”

Charlie Mayfield, who is one of the leaders endorsing Be the Business, said embracing technology is essential for businesses to modernise and thrive, adding that any displacement of the workplace by this change would be outweighed by business growth.

“The flip side of this is if you don’t get productivity growth you get decline in business and can lose jobs anyway,” he said. “Many organisations across the country are doing great work but feel they’re isolated. Be the Business gives companies the tools and techniques to enhance productivity output and empower them to go further with their strategy.”

BAE’s chairman Roger Carr agreed that UK business needs to be more competitive, adding that businesses must collaborate more to improve productivity.

“We have to be more competitive if we are to succeed in an increasingly competitive world,” he said. “There may be a potential workforce displacement, but this is about empowerment and is in the interests of both business and workers. You can only get sustained involvement if people feel that it’s ultimately good for them.”

Carr said it was the responsibility of line managers to explain the benefits of embracing technology to workers. This involved retaining staff to do the jobs that are becoming increasingly prevalent in the workplace, such as those around digital technology.

“It is a conundrum as technology comes more into the workplace and affects the workforce,” he said. “However, managers need to have this discussion with staff and we all have a responsibility to make this workplace change.”

Nestlé’s chairman and former CEO Fiona Kendrick highlighted that her company is having to make workforce changes by focusing on how to train new employees. This focus, she said, drove the company to re-examine how it trains staff for present and future occupations.

“We [at Nestlé] are looking at around 100,000 of our 400,000 staff looking to retire in the next five to eight years,” she said, “That drives us to look into having multiple entry routes into the business; whether it’s graduates or apprenticeships. However, the UK must think about how we train staff throughout their career. It’s about lifelong training.”

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