GUEST BLOG: Northern tech industry must recognise weaknesses

In this contributed blog post Katie Gallagher, managing director at the North West’s digital trade association Manchester Digital, claims the Northern tech industry needs to start recognising its mistakes so it can work on fixing them 

Earlier this year we consulted our 500-strong membership base of businesses on the issues that matter to them most in the North’s digital tech sector. This research, teamed with an in-depth SWOT analysis of the industry, led to the creation of our new, five areas of focus strategy – its aim to ensure our upcoming activity is in tune with exactly what the industry wants and needs.

This intervention is much needed. While there has been a will across all political parties to re-balance the geography of the economy through initiatives such as Tech North and the Northern Powerhouse, there’s still work to be done. It’s encouraging that Prime Minister Teresa May has appointed a Northern Powerhouse minister, but we are still to see this translate into any on the ground, meaningful support. Devolution, at least for Manchester, seems to be progressing but we are yet to see the impact of Brexit on the economy as a whole. Despite these setbacks the technology sector continues to grow and thrive. Now, we must not lose pace over removing and addressing the barriers that hinder its growth.

As well as political and economic pressures, the landscape is ever changing. Digital work is increasingly moving in-house which will create further challenges for many service businesses, and there is a constant demand for new skills and faster methods of working. These constant changes mean the way our businesses function are in constant flux.

So what were our members’ key issues?

Infrastructure, the digital ecosystem, skills, leadership, and profile and promotion came out as key concerns of our research – areas we’ll seek to prioritise and support over coming months and years. Numerous points need addressing in each of these areas – all of which, in the essence of brevity, I won’t discuss in this blog post.

Instead, I’ll focus on one area which to some extent underpins the rest, and one we think with some tweaking and support can really create a step-change in the region’s industry: the digital ecosystem. The sector as it stands is fragmented in terms of how the different parts of the community interact. This, in some ways, is symptomatic of an industry that is growing quickly, and could be viewed as a a measure of success. But we believe there is significant growth and benefit to be had from closer collaboration. We have to ensure the ecosystem is properly optimised for businesses of all sizes – an ongoing job, which all parts of the industry need to pull together and work on.

In general, collaboration between different parts of industry, diversification and the ability to adapt, and cohesion between industry and education need to be improved. This is not unique to the North West and most other industries suffer from the same problems – ours just moves so much faster. We also need to work far harder to encourage innovation and knowledge sharing between different sized companies and develop a deeper understanding of their supply chains. To avoid these issues becoming overwhelming and to ensure a healthy ecosystem is created and sustained, we should prioritise:

  • Collaboration between different parts of the industry, to encourage knowledge-sharing and joint working
  • Creating a simplified procurement process and providing help for smaller companies to bid for larger projects
  • Providing quality support for tech businesses and start ups who need advice on growing, diversifying and scaling
  • Fostering better relationships between education and industry and rethinking how we work with academia to make it easier for businesses to get the talent and services they need from higher and further education
  • Better communication of the needs of digital businesses to the agencies and public sector organisations who are charged with supporting our industry

Addressing the above points will prove increasingly crucial if the sector is to grow and evolve as it should, failure to understand and adapt in such a rapidly changing industry landscape could be disastrous. By prioritising the areas where we believe we can make the most impact – growing a healthy ecosystem being one of the core aspects of this – the sector will be able to properly optimise the results of the intense interest currently being focussed on our region. This can’t be done through a singular approach – instead, by working collaboratively with businesses, education, and the public sector to ensure we’re getting it right.