Can TechUK put UK IT at the heart of economic growth?

The newly rebranded TechUK intends to help the IT sector and IT professionals gain a more prominent role in UK economic policy

What, exactly, is the “UK IT industry”?

It’s a phrase that is happily bandied about, but ask two people from different parts of the sector and you will get two different definitions.

Is it IT suppliers of all shapes and sizes, from multinationals to startups, with operations in the UK? Is it home-grown tech companies only? What about the three-quarters of a million or so IT professionals working in banks, retailers, small businesses and elsewhere who often define themselves first by the business sector in which they are employed, rather than the department they work in?

Even the government is not sure. As business secretary Vince Cable admitted, if you ask the official statisticians, the UK IT industry employs 750,000 people. But if you broaden the definition, it employs 1.5 million.

Perhaps part of the problem is that no one organisation has stood up and said: We represent UK technology; talk to us.

And that is what the UK’s technology trade association, formerly known as Intellect but relaunched this week as TechUK, would like to become.

Note to CIOs: did you even know there was a trade association for IT in the UK? Probably not.

Intellect had represented its 800 IT supplier members since its formation in May 2003, with varying degrees of success. Rohan Silva, formerly a technology adviser to David Cameron and one of the early architects of London’s Tech City startup scene, claimed on Twitter that “Intellect was the most ineffectual lobby group in the UK”.

Government has to get a long-term view and a big vision. There is a temptation in government to go for the poster child and the showcase event with one or two examples of success and make a big fuss of that

Julian David, TechUK

Becoming more representative

Julian David, CEO of TechUK, told Computer Weekly the rebranding was all about making the association far more representative than in the past.

“Our plan is to be the go-to organisation to connect up the whole industry,” he said.

Speaking at the TechUK launch, Cable revealed that the UK is the highest net exporter of technology and associated services in the G7 group of leading economies – and admitted that came as a surprise even to him.

Doesn’t that admission reveal a glaring omission in UK IT’s ability to promote itself?

TechUK’s David said the first challenge is to recognise just how big the technology sector really is.

“We always suspected there were a lot more tech companies in the UK [than official figures suggested]. Recently there was a piece of work done that identified twice as many tech companies than the government realised – about a quarter of a million firms,” he said.

The increased numbers come from looking at the role of digital technologies in different industries.

“It’s about looking at the footprint of what companies do and recognising that every industry is dependent on digital for what they do,” said David.

“If you look at construction, for example, the whole supply chain is subcontracted and virtual and there are companies within that whose products are digital. That’s the definition – if their primary output is digital, that’s what counts.”

Job creation

TechUK has set itself the ambitious target of creating more than 500,000 UK IT jobs by 2020. To achieve that, it is targeting growth in exports, improvements in IT security capabilities, and the perennial problem of skills shortages and the lack of women in IT.

“I went to China earlier this year and the scale out there really came home to me,” said David. “But what also struck me was they are all looking for high value-added innovation. The time is there for what the UK is good at – innovation, science, research, and value-added solutions such as software and design.

“We want to get the industry together to say what to do about infrastructure. We want to look at security, marshalling the industry rather than just talking to a government minister about it. We want to get the industry together to make sure consumers and companies have confidence to use technology. I put my hand up and said the industry is going to design out cyber crime.”

TechUK also aims to improve skills for the future. “Lots of skills initiatives have been short-term solutions," he said. "We want to get behind something that addresses the longer-term situation.”

To that end, TechUK is teaming up with the not-for-profit Code Club, to set up after-school clubs to teach children the basics of software programming, aiming for 25% of primary schools by 2015.

“We are going to measure ourselves against those targets and deliver on them. I see my membership very engaged in all these agenda items, and the government engaged. They want us to start exporting, to produce more, but they don’t have the tech industry united saying what they want to promote,” said David.

Getting a long-term view

The government is slowly starting to take technology seriously as a driver of economic growth and employment. A new Information Economy Strategy was launched by Cable’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills last year – while its mere existence was welcomed, its content was a disappointment for many in the sector because all it did was regurgitate a list of previous policies and promises.

“Government has to get a long-term view and a big vision. There is a temptation in government to go for the poster child and the showcase event with one or two examples of success and make a big fuss of that,” said David.

“We want to see longer-term investment and a focus on the [tech] markets where the UK can lead. It’s been done in the automotive and aerospace sectors, where they have identified where investment is needed and what government will do and what industry can do. We need to do that here.”

Our plan is to be the go-to organisation to connect up the whole industry

Julian David, TechUK

The main vehicle for that drive is the Information Economy Council (IEC), which is co-chaired by universities and science minister David Willetts and TechUK president Victor Chavez, the CEO of Thales UK.

“We plan to work with the IEC to get a real engagement long term, and bring better co-ordination. There are lots of little initiatives – there are something like 47 different apprenticeship schemes, for example. This is not how it’s meant to happen, it should be better co-ordinated. IEC has to look at the business environment, the skills, and the future technologies and markets we should be going for,” said David.

There is no doubt that some government-backed collaborations around technology have made real progress. London’s Tech City has established a community and a brand to attract startups to the area, for example.

And US giants such as Amazon, Facebook and Google are setting up major development centres in London too – even if they are not paying as much corporation tax as the government would like.

But there is much work to do to establish a coherent and co-ordinated voice to promote technology companies and IT professionals across the whole of the UK, and join up numerous regional and sector-focused initiatives.

TechUK wants to break out of its heritage of only representing its members’ narrow interests and work more closely with other organisations, such as the BCS. 

It has work to do in many areas – for example, at TechUK's London launch event, the room was full of supplier executives from every big-name supplier you can think of, but barely a single CIO from a user organisation.

Genuine and positive engagement between IT decision-makers and their suppliers remains a challenge.

But everyone in UK IT – by whatever definition you choose – will agree that technology must be at the heart of the UK’s economic future. And whatever part of UK IT you work in, TechUK’s goals will bring benefit if they are achieved.

The hard work is only just beginning.

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