Digital Leaders North West: how digital helps business grow

The Digital Leaders North West monthly salon took place in Manchester this week. Laurie Cooper, DLNW Steering Group member and self-confessed 'Collaborator', updates us on a really interesting meeting...

How Can Digital Help Your Business Grow?
Digital Leaders North West is getting started again and has chosen Manchester as its new home. We'll be meeting at MMU's Shed for the foreseeable future. It gives us much better opportunities to reach out into the North's de-facto tech hub and use its insight to inform across our region.

Kicking off, the meeting's chair, Kevin Harrington of Results Through Digital, introduced the speakers:

Katie Gallagher is the Managing Director of Manchester Digital, the independent trade association for digital business in the North West of England. This association brings together organisations and individuals from all parts of the industry - from creative to technical. Katie is a vocal commentator, and can be relied upon to dig into government and industry announcements and press releases to deliver a balanced perception of their likely impact. Most recently, she was behind the Manchester Digital Skills Festival, and its Digital Skills Audit, compiled annually. Katie contributes to the Huffington Post.

Carlos Oliveira is the Founder and CEO of Shaping Cloud. His company offers a set of capabilities to public sector organisations. As users become more informed by their experiences with cutting-edge consumer websites, they are demanding more from all the services they come into contact with.  Organisations responding to these demands find it's often prohibitively expensive to upgrade their infrastructure to match. Shaping cloud offers an alternative by migrating data and services into a cloud infrastructure, topping them off with an interface which encourages development by 3rd parties. Carlos advocates the use of cloud services by SMEs: their ease of use, zero maintenance, scalability and low cost means a business can be run using the same services right thoughout its development.

Carlos exhorted business to utilise cloud services.

Carlos gave a review of the IT resources available to a small business a few years ago; the business would have been responsible for at least on-site email, documentation, accounting and back-up, in addition to business-specific software applications. Aside from the headache of maintaining computer hardware, it would need to ensure that their applications scaled properly with growth.
Today, cloud services take away these responsibilites, while providing synergies of their own: firstly, vendors of cloud applications use economies of scale to provide users with very low-cost access to highly sophisticated systems. Second, cloud applications often expose mechanisms to integrators, meaning that businesses can benefit from a number of best-of-breed specialist applications, working in concert. Carlos gave the example of Xero and xpenditure providing an integrated accounting facility.

Carlos went a little further to describe the problems which beset local government IT organisations, as they attempt to respond to the Digital by Default initiative, and provide citizens with transparency onto their services. The cost of providing access to data held by local government IT systems can be dramatically reduced if a standardised mechanism can be provided, and the developer community engaged, to produce applications useful to the end-user. This 'City API' is under development. If successful for one city, there is every reason to expect that a standard method to query local government data in all cities will eventually exist. This has big implications.

(By the way, API here means Application Programmer's Interface and represents the access to the controls of a system specific to its clients, hiding anything else)

Katie Gallager wanted to emphasise skills: it's understanding which digital technologies can help and how to get the best from them, which gives businesses a sharper competitive edge; ultimately, the market will decide which businesses are fit enough. Katie gave us a review of how Manchester is shaping up to provide its local businesses with the resources required.

Strengths:
History - Manchester has a great technological and industrial legacy, which has been shaping its culture for 200 years.

Media - Manchester is a huge braodcasting hub, with the BBC and Granada providing a focus for a great number of media and creative suppliers.

Ecommerce -  is a sector well-served by the city, with AA.com and Autotrader.co.uk, just two.

Activism -  a remarkable number of special interest tech groups - inside venues such as MADLab, SpaceportX, Shed - host regular gatherings right across the city.

Culture - anecdotally, Manchester has a highly collaborative culture - possibly supported by its tech user groups - which sees businesses helping each other.

Location - wage demands are far lower than London, causing many firms to relocate.

Services - a great number of service providers are available.

Weaknesses:

Patchy Infrastructure - communications aren't as reliable and fast as they could be.

Lack of business wisdom - A high proportion of business owners are under 35. It would help greatly if mentors were made available to help them.

Lack of specialists - businesses have a good spread of understanding, but having access to really good specialists is what will set them apart.

Not much product development - with so many services available, it's suprising that there are not more startup businesses taking advantage.

Reputation - the recent Tech Nation review relied on stats which misrepresented Manchester on a number of key indicators.

Demand is outstripping supply - salary demand for basic developers is too high.

Education - still waiting for a workforce which can supply specialist talent in a number of areas.

Opportunities:

Universities - we have 3 highly regarded technical universities within the region, which are already taking steps to to inform themselves as to the needs of business. Start-ups- we have a thriving community of start-ups and places for them to co-work.

Outreach - our community of special interest groups can be utilised inform our students and startups. Our larger companies are already performing outreach activities.

Discussion - here are main themes we explored in the session.

First up was a question to the audience - How are businesses using digital to get going? Most in the audience were aware of digital cloud services, and gave instances of how they have helped. Of key importance was the low cost to start-up - running your businesss from your laptop -  followed by ease of use: many applications are benefitting from advances in UI design - and the effect that has on productivity. Data Security and the ability to shift data between applications was considered a pre-requisite for an application to be even considered, and cloud services running on Infrastructure As A Service providers excel at this.

A recent report asserted that 75% of businesses had 6 employees or less and that 40% of businesses don't have a website. Should we push more energy and funds towards educating and bringing these businesses on board? The panel responded; generally, yes - but it's more about how to connect the relevent services into your business. It's a lot more complicated than simply outfitting a business with an online brochure. It's about showing SMEs how digital services can actually free time up to pursue further business activities, rather than administration. There are now a number of organisations who are reaching out to SMEs and providing advice: Business Growth Hub, Barclays, and GO ON

That's just it - either the advice is pitched at too low a level, or there is a vested interest. Is there anything out there which is capable of supplying impartial digital advice and mentoring? That is, the services which can be used and the methods by which they can be integrated into a business? Like a Kite Mark? Manchester Digital provides a roster of businesses, based on references and reputation for example, but no, there is no equivelent of the Citizen's Advice Bureau for digital B2B advice.

The discussion progressed towards business hiring talent to make better use of digital services. The consensus persists that universities still lag behind when it comes to providing graduates having ready skills which can be applied from day one. The flip-side of this is the retort that businesses need to be informed enough about what their requirement is, in order to hire the right person to meet it. Is the educational establishment not providing the right talent, or are businesses not deploying them correctly?
Correct application of technology can make it easier for both sides. The 'City API'  is a good illustration of how digital technologies can be designed to make most effective use of a talent pool: the skillset required to build an app to use the City API needs much less depth than that required for working behind the API (implementing the service). There is a clear distinction here for recruiters and educators.


Where work has not been done to create an API  over a technology, developers are required to work on all parts of the system and frustration arises when trying to prepare a workforce for this situation. In trying to provide jacks of all trades, we get masters of none. There are developers from apprentice / self taught backgrounds, and developers from computer science backgrounds. It's within our gift to architect our systems to utilise both.

From a schools perspective, the curriculum has changed yet again and yet still seems to lag. The strategies we have in schools need to be led by people who are digitally literate - that is, people who are informed enough to be able to plan and execute a learning regimen which will prepare students robustly, in the certain knowledge that any specific knowledge they impart is likely to be irrelevent by the time students are looking for a job.

Is it fair to say that Britain has an anti-tech culture? Are we still preoccupied with a stereotypical image of a geek, making software to suit himself? Is that a fair reflection of the digital industry today? Maybe, but we are taking steps to encourage and benefit from more diversity in our digital workforce and are working harder at empathy with our customers. But we still have a very long way to go. In any endeavour, we find ourselves within a shared narrative with our collaborators and we are finally begining to realise that, with pervasive digital technologies, everybody is a collaborator and the narrative belongs to everyone: we are begining to see people from many different backgrounds and professions embracing digital, as ways are found to reduce the complexity of the services available until they are nearly transparent. Utility may finally triumph over technology.

Wrap-up

The speakers were asked to leave the audience with a final thought.

Carlos said that Manchester has everything going for it. It could be a truly great tech city. But there is something missing. Its business leaders have got to want to go digital. Only then can we benefit from the synergies digital services can bring. We need to evangelise and reach out much more.

Katie left it clear that we have an enormous amount of work to do in bringing to bear relevent talent and skills. Public sector organisations need to be given the mandate - and funding - to embrace digital services. For private business, ultimately it will be the market which decides who sinks and who swims and it seems that only those with the most proactive leaders will do that.

I took from this meeting a widening of my perspective; the software engineering principle of abstraction is helping to hide away the complexity of large systems. Could this help pave the way to better tailoring an education for our workforce? Businesses using intuitive simplified tools stitched together in innovative and low-cost ways by app developers, working with APIs provided by integrators, with application specialists working with cloud infrastructure, provided by specialists in high-performance computing. Can we get to this by market force alone, or does it need orchestration? I'm not sure. Orchestration seems to require an understanding of where to get to. And I'm not sure anyone can predict where that might be.

If you'd like to know more about Digital Leaders North West, get involved in the DLNW Knowledge Hub group. And come and join the next Salon on Digital Talent on Tuesday 19 May.

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