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Britain’s language failure set to repeat past business mistakes


It was sad to hear in our recent discussion and podcast with Richard Sykes that the inability of the UK to grasp the importance of learning a foreign language is damaging national opportunities to export its technological abilities.

Dr Richard Sykes, a former CIO with ICI, itself a once great British company acquired by a European rival, is well placed to observe this sad trend. Sykes is chair of the Cloud Industry Forum and a director at Eurocloud, the industry body for cloud service providers. As such Sykes sits with a helicopter view staring down at all the clouds across the continent of Europe. 

For a number of years now Sykes has been advocating and highlighting to the CIO and CTO community the excitement and opportunities emanating from cloud born businesses, especially from the Shoreditch area of London, a short walk from Syke’s office.  The former CIO advises peers to read The flat white economy, and be aware of the technology and business services being developed.  A wealth of technologies and business models are being developed in the UK using the flexibility and power of the cloud to challenge the doctrines of business and technology that have existed for the last two decades. 

So to hear that we continue to be unable to scale these technology businesses because of our lazy culture towards languages is frightening and demonstrates an inability to learn from mistakes of the past.  The technology boom in the 80s from Cambridge produced only one remaining leader, ARM and that was recently acquired due to the tumbling value of the pound post referendum.  Many of us were inspired into technology as a result of the Sinclair and BBC computer boom of the 80s, but have since spent our entire careers using or implementing systems that originate from across the Atlantic.

There were a myriad of problems within the heavy industries that the UK fostered out of the industrial revolution, but I believe that an inability to learn from, negotiate with and therefore sell effectively to our nearest and most profitable market played a part. Having sellers who speak your language is a luxury, but if you do not speak their language and want to sell to them, the luxury becomes of limited value.European business leaders speak excellent English, which of course helps them when exporting to English speakers.  

To hear from an industry expert that our cloud born technology leaders face the same fate – that of sell to America or wither – when this has been a recurring part of our national business history is saddening.  It is especially saddening when the economic future of the UK is in such a dangerous position as it is today.

As a community it is critical that we in business technology leadership encourage the current and the next generation  to discover and embrace foreign languages.

Disclosure: The author cannot speak any foreign languages and is a frustrated failed Frenchman!

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About Mark Chillingworth 227 Articles
Mark Chillingworth has over 20 years of journalism and editing experience across all media platforms including online, live events, print magazines and television.
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