What’s Wrong with the UK IT Industry and What we should be doing about it? – Speech to the Chemistry Club

This is the text of a speech I gave last month to the Chemistry Club in London:

I am delighted – and not a little surprised – to be here.  When I received an invitation to speak, I thought it definitely was a mistake! Just look at the list of Ministers, Politicians and CEOs who have come to speak to the Chemistry Club over the years.

So, it’s nice to be invited as someone who practices IT and knows about Technology.  I must confess, however, that I don’t actually know very much about Technology as Technology.  I wouldn’t, for example, recommend anyone to ask me how to code in Java or C++, or to run a test script…

The reason – I imagine – for my being here is that I have experience in running technology in business and as a business:

I was CIO of British Airways for 10 years from 2000 and I am now having a great time as IT Director of John Lewis – a company you all know, and one you all probably know is, uniquely for our size, co-owned by our employee Partners.

I have also been Chairman of SITA – the Societé Internationale de Télécommunications Aeronautique – which is owned by its customers the world’s airlines. I am also privileged to be Chair of the National IT Skills Academy, part of e-skillsUK – of which more later.

I have been asked to talk about my experiences as CIO of BA and IT Director of John Lewis, and to compare and contrast the Travel Industry and Retail.

Well, I am going to take a leaf out of the book of some of the politicians who normally address you at these events and not entirely answer the question I have been asked.

What’s wrong with the UK IT Industry?

What I want to talk about this evening is “what is wrong with the UK IT industry” and – more interestingly – what we should be doing about it.

I understand that this evening’s audience is made up of one-third CIOs and IT Directors from the private sector and one-third from the public sector, and the rest from the IT vendor and consultancy sectors.

Actually, on the face of it, there’s not much wrong with the UK IT Industry – at least if you look at the numbers from one angle.  So the IT and Telecomms industry produced annual Gross Value Added of £81billion or 9% of the UK economy.  It delivers the highest output and productivity growth of all sectors of UK industry – past present and future.  One in 20 of the UK’s working population is employed in the IT and Telecomm sector.

So can we assume we are doing very nicely and there is nothing to worry about?

Absolutely not!  I am concerned that the UK IT industry COULD (and I stress COULD if we don’t act) go the way of other great British industries, either disappear – like Shipbuilding or Motorcycles or becoming an adjunct of Global players with the HQ and product development overseas.

Three malaises in the UK attitude to IT – “3 Dragons to slay”

However if you look closely I see three malaises in the UK’s attitude and support to IT, which we, as the leaders of the UK IT, should address – “3 Dragons to slay”.

Dragon Number 1 is that IT does NOT REALLY MATTER in this country. It does not usually have a seat at the top table and – worse than that – people react defensively or even worse see it as a bit of a joke.

Dragon Number 2 is that IT in schools, universities and colleges of EDUCTION IS NOT DELIVERING the numbers or types of skilled apprentices and graduates we need to sustain the position IT now holds in the Economy.

Dragon Number 3 is that we do NOT WORK TOGETHER EFFECTIVELY as we could as a Technology Sector to raise the importance of IT for the future of our British Economy and Society.

 To be continued…

About paulcoby
I am CIO at the John Lewis Partnership in the UK. I was Chair of SITA - the airline solutions company owned by the Air Transport Community - for 11 years. I am also on the Boards of Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank and Pets at Home. Previously I was Head of BA Services and for 10 years CIO at British Airways. I am interested in Roman and Military History. The views expressed are entirely my own not my employers.

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