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Productivity? Competitiveness? Both require a (Determined) agenda!

20170927_Sykes-5336Triggered by the Chancellor in his recent Budget speech, the issue of the low productivity of the UK economy is back on the political agenda. A genuine issue, as international comparisons all point to this as a serious reality. The Government has now launched a series of initiatives designed to help deliver the necessary changes to our national competitiveness – over time.   

In my initial (September) column for the Horizon CIO podcast I pointed out the diversity of new business capabilities spawned from the speedy arrival of cloud computing this last decade. Consider the Internet, Social Media, Machine Learning, the Internet of Things (IoT), Robots, Big Data, Big Analytics, and Artificial Intelligence (AI)….. The Government recognises that effective exploitation of all of these new capabilities will be vital if the productivity battle is to be won.

I went on to say that, while cloud computing might be the common underlying enabler here, these are not technical capabilities – they are business capabilities. The contemporary Board, I argued, now needs to focus on this diversity of new capabilities that are transforming how business can be made more productive, more competitive.

In my subsequent November column I described my experience working with two change enablers relevant to the exploitation of these new capabilities: mentoring/reverse mentoring – and Gerry Johnson’s work with the Cultural Web.

Let me now introduce a third change enabler – Agenda! In the mid-1990’s I was challenged (as ICI’s Global Group CIO) by Charles Miller Smith, the new CEO, to help the Board understand how the capabilities of IT could improve ICI’s competitiveness. Working with Peter O’Sullivan of KPMG a network of younger managers was identified – from across ICI businesses, across the business functions, and international in its mix – and given the task! This was the Agenda Network, They developed an identity and elan – all carried special Agenda business cards. [Many remain good personal friends to this day.]

Mid-1990’s ICI was still a global chemical major. It had divested its pharma business (now AstraZeneca) and acquired the speciality chemical businesses of Unilever. Its turnover was £4.85 billion, operating income £0.5 billion, net income £0.3 billion, and it employed, globally, some 29,000 staff. There was extensive business and operational experience to draw on, across the globe.

Over six months, in a series of workshops, this younger generation of managers was given a real understanding of the then-current new capabilities of information and communications technology (ICT) – with which they challenged and reworked their own experience in their diversity of functional & business responsibilities across ICI. A powerful surge of creative learning resulted!

20150908_LBU prospectus_063
ICI Agenda committee created a FT edition to story tell the productivity challenge ahead

They did not write a report. Rather, on the day set for them to meet with Charles Miller Smith, he found in his in-tray a facsimile of an issue of the FT of late January 2009 (four years in the future) reporting the company’s 2008 annual results and headlining the major shift in performance being achieved. The Boardroom, stripped of all its furniture, was a mass of hand-written flip charts, and at each one members of the Agenda Network role played, as if in 2009, to Miller Smith as he progressed around the room. ‘’Greetings, Mr Miller Smith, I am an ICI client in Germany – let me explain the improvements I have seen in your company’s service to my company”. “Hello, Charles, I am the Wilton Polyethylene Plant manager – let me explain how we have been able to sharply raise our capital productivity.” And so on, around the room, flip chart by flip chart.  He listened, he questioned, he challenged, he debated and he learnt. He was delighted.

The exercise was repeated several months later for the whole Board. It answered Miller Smith’s original request to help the Board understand how the better exploitation of the capabilities of ICT could improve ICI’s competitiveness. But, more importantly, it developed and embedded, across the company, innovative learning at the sharp end (in the diversity of its businesses and operations) how IT could be better exploited.

Borrowing the insight from a former Editor of The Economist, I have written of the importance of a Board culture of paranoid optimism in this day and age – paranoia as there will be (new?) competition out to ‘have your breakfast’ – optimism that with your deeper knowledge of your business, its markets & customers, you can win the competitive battle. ‘Agenda’ suggests a way to mobilise the resources of your business to exploit its knowledge of the business into exploring the competitive exploitation of the new capabilities and their potential business impact.         

In my November column I concluded that effective story tellers are the real change resource we all now need.  In my experience, those twenty years back, the Agenda Network succeeded above all because they became powerful story tellers!

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About Richard Sykes 6 Articles
I am a businessman with over forty years' experience that spans the chemical & IT industries, and the world of visual & performing arts. I have held senior executive roles in a major global multinational, and non-executive chairmanships of smaller ventures & not-for-profits. I have lived & managed businesses internationally.
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