Technology offers endless opportunities to business, but if we’re going to realise its full potential, we need closer links between business and education as well as more government help, and a vision for the future.
These were the key messages that came out of the most recent Round Table event, organised by All Things Business in association with MHA at Red Bull Racing’s unique venue, MK-7, and bringing together thought leaders from across the spectrum, including the technology sector itself, higher education, manufacturing and local government.
With Adrian Pryce DL, Associated Professor, Strategy and Society, CBCP at the University of Northampton, leading the discussion, the guests included representatives from event sponsors MHA; communications company dbfb; French-owned Milton Keynes bakery goods company Brioche Pasquier; Sign In App, Aiimi and AZTech IT Systems from the IT and technology sector; MK:U; property company RO Group and Milton Keynes City Council.
The idea behind the series of Round Table events is to bring together larger companies and organisations to share ideas and best practice that smaller companies could learn from.
Opening the discussion, Adrian Pryce asked: “One thing that has become clear is that we in education very much need to find out what businesses are doing and what their needs are and take it back into our colleges and universities. We need to know what technology you use, what it means to you and where you see it taking you.”
Two of the main topics were the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) and the way AI might change the face of employment, which in turn led into an analysis of how education can meet the needs of employers who find they need fewer people in some roles, and additional skills for those in others.
Simon Pickering, Managing Director of dbfb, said: “For us it’s about bringing products together to create what our customers are looking for, looking at how we improve their productivity and help them reach their goals.
“A lot of people are talking about AI and I’m interested in what’s going to happen with that. Do people want to talk to a bot? What impact is AI going to have? What are the implications in terms of what will happen to the data?”
Dan Harding from Sign In App, a visitor and employee sign in system, said: “We started with a really intuitive solution to a need, to target front desk management. Now we are talking about the future, and our perspective is what is the future of visitor management, how we mitigate risk and improve the environment for visitors. With the increase in hybrid working, what we are spending on is utilising technology to develop the next generation of visitor management. To make technology an enabler, with systems that help business solve those stresses and strains.”
Adrian Pryce asked the group to consider how developing technology and the growing presence of AI would affect the way businesses are structured.
Steve Salvin, CEO of creative tech company Aiimi, said: “I see it as a similar shift as that between horses and cars – it will take time and there will be casualties, but there will be gains for everyone, also.”
Ed Davidson, Asset Management Director at real estate specialist RO Group, said: “I think it is about trying to use technology in the most efficient way. We can see core areas in construction techniques, architecturally for instance, where it is valuable. And in finding out more about how buildings are being occupied, what the efficiencies are, storage and distribution in warehouses, etc.
“And if you flip ideas about AI on their head, if everyone harnesses it to its full potential, it’s as if everyone suddenly has access to an assistant that would otherwise have to be paid thousands a year, so the potential for allowing people to be more creative and increasing efficiency is enormous.
“When we talk about social media, for instance, it’s interesting that it is often seen as a bad thing. My response to that is to ask whether a knife is a bad thing or a good thing. If you use it to prepare a meal, it’s a good thing, if you use it to stab someone, it’s a bad thing. What matters is how it is used and how we find opportunities and use something in the most positive way.”
Sean Houghton, Commercial and Operations Director at AZTech IT Solutions in Milton Keynes, said: “One of the key challenges is how to keep up with the rate of change. One of our aims is to help people adopt technology into their business. From our point of view, we have to figure out our priorities and we are always looking at ways to help increase productivity. On our service desk, for instance, leveraging AI to find information and try to solve a problem that way, before we decide whether we need to actually go in and fix it, is an opportunity to reduce head count, and maybe decide we don’t need to grow as much as we thought we would, but still be more efficient.”
Kristian Mackie, Innovation Hub Manager at MK:U, which focuses on degree-level apprenticeships that provide technical, creative and commercial skills for the future digital workforce, said he was keen to know from businesses what they needed.
He said: “What we need is more companies coming and telling us what they want and what we should be teaching. We have a B2B team going out to talk to business as much as possible, and we have an open coworking space that businesses can use, but we are still struggling to get the students we need on the right courses because businesses don’t always know it’s an option to offer a degree apprenticeship.
“We have changed the traditional degree model. We go to students and give them something to research and they do that using technology and come back to us with what they have found out, to discuss what they have learnt. That’s quite mind-blowing for them, when they have come through a school system where phones had to be in your pocket. We need to change the way people learn throughout their lives. If staff are going to be lost in one area, how can we adopt an attitude to lifelong learning that encourages them retrain for something else.
“It needs a new approach and we have to start thinking about that.”
In terms of how to manage the changes that technology inevitably brings, Andrew Fairhurst, Director of Tax and Technology at MHA, explained how, as advisers, MHA has become early adopters in order to facilitate new technology solutions for its clients – including the wider implications of introducing new ideas.
“We don’t see it as necessarily being about people losing jobs, it’s more of an enabler. If people can spend less time crunching numbers and more time being creative in finding solutions for clients, then we can be more efficient and profitable. For us it’s about how we build a unified data strategy and help our clients align to that. I’ve been speaking to different leaders and clients to understand what they see as opportunities in technology and where they want to invest.”
For a local authority, getting the balance between dealing with people and building a more sustainable future is key.
Robin Bradburn, Deputy Leader of Milton Keynes City Council said: “There’s very much a place for technology and we have our zero 2030 target and Milton Keynes is a growing SMART city so it is encouraging to see the number of businesses that are embracing technology. But there are also a lot of vulnerable people out there that local authorities come into contact with that demand a certain service. It’s difficult to tell people that they don’t need to interact with their local authority.”
Ryan Peters, Managing Director at Brioche Pasquier, where software for the firm’s factories and production lines are all designed in house to meet the bespoke needs of the baked goods manufacturer saw another potential issue: “One scary thing about technology in manufacturing is that we are increasingly finding people don’t want to work in production. They want to work on a laptop, using tech rather than getting down onto the floor and producing actual goods.
“We have, however, due to the increasing threat of cyber security, started looking at how we used to make things manually before technology took over, so that we are confident we would still be able to get our products out, should we be hacked.”
Steve Salvin said: “After 16 years of building a business, we know that a cyber security breach is something that could destroy everything all at once. As a company that works to implement tech solutions, we have access to customers’ protection systems, rolling out new data capabilities and AI.
“For every company these days, I think cyber security needs to be discussed at board level and not just left to the IT department. Does the board understand and buy into it? Cyber attacks happen every week, and you have to take it seriously.”
Whether the government is doing enough to encourage businesses to adapt, though, prompted a warning from Scott London-Hill, Research and Development Tax expert with MHA: “My concern is, are we putting things in place to allow this technology to be harnessed? Regarding R&D Tax credits, I do feel central government has gone too far. R&D rates are coming down and the rationale is that it was such a good incentive, it was a lightning rod for fraud. They say they want to enhance research and development, but then they are also saying we are not really going to help you out that much. It’s going to be especially bad if you are a loss making company or just about breaking even, as you are going to get a lot less back – money that could make all the difference to the future of the company.
“There’s no certainty in what will happen to R&D rates and people want to know what’s happening. Large companies don’t want uncertainty, it is deeply unhelpful. They want to make plans based on knowing what reliefs are available over the time they invest. If those forecasts are affected by constant changes to rates, then that’s not an attractive proposition for them.”
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