In a fast-moving global economy, firms will need to show 007’s talent for agile improvisation to chart a path to prosperity…
As Royal Navy commander James Bond shows, being a suave international man of action clearly has enduring appeal. As a recently appointed honorary officer in the navy, I do not want to detract from the idea that suaveness and naval officers are not intrinsically linked, but Bond has tried to do something far more difficult than convey coolness under fire. Ian Fleming wrote at a time when Britain’s influence was still great, but built on an economy and empire that were waning fast. Bond was a beguiling image, allowing us to believe our brains and élan made up for what we actually knew were bad industrial relations and poor products. But Bond is still with us and he, like the UK economy, has changed. There has been much debate recently about productivity and once again we are reminded of Britain’s far from stellar performance. But before we think Bond is facing a renewed challenge, a few more thoughts on where we actually are and how business is positioned for the future.
Agility is the key to success
First of all, where the UK falls down is not on our ultimate level of wealth generation, but that in broad terms British workers have to work longer to achieve the same outcome. This is not ideal, but nor is it as disastrous as some seem to suppose. I read a considerable number of business and economics books, selecting the best authors to visit the IoD and present to members at the Books for Breakfast sessions. One who has been highly influential, but so far unavailable, is Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His book, Antifragile, explores how businesses can at times become “fragile” with bureaucratic mindsets and, for instance, rely on too much debt. He contrasts these with those companies that are highly robust, but ultimately too cautious to really grow into the successes they could be. Taleb explores how businesses must remain as as agile as possible to prosper.
Business must embrace innovation
The IoD believes that it is this agility which will be key to the long-term success of UK businesses and, ultimately, of the British economy (and we all know that Bond is the ultimate agile improviser). But what does this mean in practice? In part, it is down to how entrepreneurial people are, not just in starting their own businesses but also in welcoming new ideas, technologies and approaches into mature companies as well. So while over 10 per cent of people are involved with a new company, it’s equally important that people shift between jobs. Only a third of British workers are employed by the same firm for over a decade, a figure in stark contrast to the rest of Europe.
Keep calm and maintain pragmatism
Such approaches may not yield the highly productive outcomes that deep specialisation tends to deliver, but they do mean that in an era of significant technological change, businesses are not going to be caught long and wrong – having made a big bet on something that subsequently turns out to be sub-optimal. Since at least the Middle Ages, Britain’s advantages have been improvisation, individualism and pragmatism. In an era of big industries, these were not the skills and attributes that seemed to matter most. But the world is changing, and fast. James Bond demonstrated our true strengths and, as luck would have it, these are more often than not going to be the powers required for future prosperity.