Keith Willetts Keith Willetts Founder - TM Forum

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Joining the digital dots

  • Most organisations have challenges in aligning key goals across their departments - the ones that do it best are usually led by visionary founders like Jobs or Musk who’ve grown the organization from scratch. On the other hand, Governments, with ever-changing politicians, and sprawling empires tend to do the worst.


    Pandemic aside, the world is going through some enormous and far reaching shifts, particularly the intertwined digital and green revolutions. Both are multi-faceted, both need clear leadership and with change on this magnitude, has to be led by governments. So, there’s a paradox!


    I’ve spent much of my career working with large corporations trying to transform their organisations but even with excellent leaders it’s still enormously difficult. The digital revolution is vastly bigger, yet the people who need to lead it often lack the ability to orchestrate the many moving parts.


    Nevertheless, the UK government has been saying many of the right things and is investing laudable amounts of money into technology trials and accelerators such as the Catapult Network and the UK5G Test and Trials program.


    But words and trials are easy compared with real delivery. To have a chance of arrival, we need some clarity on the destination. Take the digital revolution - what does the UK actually want from it and what position do we want to occupy in the digital landscape? If we know those answers, we can at least try to steer actions and investments towards making them happen.


    Flip back a couple of centuries to Industrial Revolution. For a time at least, the UK dominated virtually all positions in that revolution, from producing raw materials, through developing machines & tools, to delivering goods and services based on those technologies like clothing, shipbuilding, railways etc. The revolution stimulated the growth of enabling services such as banking, insurance, legal and transport services. All of these moving parts were synergistic, and each was inter-dependent. Which of these positions do we want to dominate in the digital revolution?


    Whatever position we aim for, some ingredients are mandatory. Just as the Industrial Revolution wouldn’t have happened in the UK without investment in an excellent transport network (first canals, then railways) and the legal / financial structure to encourage investment and risk taking, we need a similar bedrock to enable the digital revolution. This means a first-class digital infrastructure, not just fast, reliable and ubiquitous networking, but excellence in the other parts of a digital platform: the edge, cloud, AI and software infrastructure.


    We also need those vital enabling capabilities like an education system delivering the right skills base; immigration policies that attract the best and brightest minds; readily availability risk capital to finance innovation; taxation policies that encourage investment and rewards risk taking. We also need policies that ensure that the UK can’t be held to ransom in the supply of critical raw materials and components.


    We need to harness the demand side of our economy to encourage UK investment in digital innovation in key industry sectors where the UK excels. Areas such as biotech, pharmaceuticals, finance, insurance, green energy and defence all have growing digital technology needs that could and should drive home based innovations. For example, the UK is rare in having a centralised health service that spends countless billions each year - it could and should help drive the UK to be pre-eminent in digital heath care.


    These things span every department of government and many industries, so the orchestration task in aligning our approach is immense. We’re competing in the digital world with far larger and often better equipped players, so the need for a clear digital strategy, leadership and a joined-up approach is essential.


    While we hear tantalising snippets from government that give hope that the UK will emerge as a leading digital player, all too often other priorities emerge for time and money.


    The drive towards major shifts like digital and green are unstoppable. The only question is whether my children and grandchildren with live in a richer or poorer country that the one I’ve lived in.

    Keith Willetts
    About Keith Willetts Keith Willetts works as Founder at TM Forum
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