Holding out for the right kind of hero

Before joining the Technology Strategy Board, I worked for quite a while in industry, both in corporations and the business units that made them up.  I have worked for managers who ran a “tight ship”, where the budgets were always met and things delivered on time.  I have worked for leaders who could paint a picture of a future for the business that was exciting, (potentially) fun and so compelling that the large amount of extra work required to deliver it was considered a price worth paying.  I have also worked (a look at my CV shows Courtaulds and ICI) for leaders whose vision was flawed and whose delivery was such that the businesses died.  There seems to be a ceiling of company size that is difficult to breach.  Only once have I worked in a corporation whose leader was both visionary and capable of motivating the organisation to deliver, but have found those traits more common at the “strategic business unit” level.  That ability to span the future and the present seamlessly is a vital skill in these testing times.  Even attempting it requires some nerve; I have watched a good few examples of the attempt over the last few weeks and then saw what may be the real thing!

I have mentioned before the question of food security.  This has been bouncing around as an issue since my days at university, but it has acquired a new immediacy over the last few years as population growth, climate change, biofuels and genetically modified organisms have all become issues in their own right and the link to food has become more apparent.  There are many good documents and presentations on the details of the issue, but that is not what I want to think about.  I have been to meetings recently where a variety of government departments and organisations have considered the issue in their terms.  These are good and worthy meetings, but when you go to several, you do question the added value of segmentation.  Last week, I was invited to join one group that is seeking to join it all up – initially they are tackling Government, but the plan is to engage with business and get a joined-up approach to the problem.  The Technology Strategy Board is looking to support work in this important area, but needs this level of co-ordination if it isn’t to squander its support in general funding chaos.  I hope this new group works, but the attempt is worth recording.

Last week was also a chance to watch Lord Carter give his first public talk since the publication of the interim review that bears his name – although he was at pains to point out the difference between a report commissioned by someone outside Government, that is necessarily aspirational, and one carried out by someone within Government that has to be more circumspect in its recommendations.  That difference does, to an extent, explain the widespread response to the review – that it doesn’t go far enough!  It covers off the infrastructure question, but appears scared of the scale of investment needed to get us to the bandwidth thought to be necessary to compete in the near future, let alone trying to “future-proof” the things we put in the ground.  It addresses the content issue, but arguably in a more retrospective way than is necessary in this fast moving industry.  It needs, he admitted, to address the inclusion and skills issues better, but this was an interim report and if it sparks the debate we need in this area, and the Government listen and act, then it will have done its job.   The Technology Strategy Board is looking to support various strands of activity that address the challenges in this area and, again, an overall plan will increase our chances of supporting the right things.  More a “vision under development” then, but none the less worthy for that status.

The New Automotive Innovation and Growth Team is also an example of valiant effort.  Innovation and Growth Teams do not usually start at the same time as a global economic downturn that hits their area of activity for six, but this has happened here.  Members of the Steering Group are likely to be called away to deal with sizable redundancies in their business, or a meeting with a Minister, but they are working towards a vision for their industry that stretches out to 2030, that addresses their societal responsibility to provide lower carbon personal transport, builds a largely new supply chain within the UK and does so to a reasonable budget.  Our part in the overall picture is to support those companies in the UK whose innovative ideas will provide the bedrock of the new supply chains, but the overall vision this group are trying to articulate is vital if we are to do the right job.

So, I could find plenty of examples of leadership and vision at the sector and subsector level, all working towards a part of the solution to the current situation, but I had not yet seen an overarching plan that will make the choices between these components and bring together the best of them to make the maximum total progress.  Then, on Friday, I got a chance to take part in the Government’s Low Carbon Industrial Summit.  We were involved in one of the workshops that formed part of the event, but it was the plenary that gave me hope.  There were five ministers showing their full support (including the Prime one), there was a real push from officials in at least three departments to produce a single, integrated plan for action, there was a realisation that starting new things wasn’t necessarily the answer and that building on existing activities could produce a faster result (and that building on activities from another department might do even more!) and there was articulation of a single vision for this country from those who spoke.  It was a shame that the news reporting was more about the manner of Lord Mandelson’s arrival than what he said in the meeting, but that’s more to do with news than the reality I see.

A few weeks ago, I met someone from General Motors who had an integrated vision of personal transport, and I see it reflected in what the new US Administration is talking about.  I can now say the same about the UK!


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:32

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