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North-West England Regional Strategy

Simon Grant, August 1999

The North-West Development Agency published this draft consultation Strategy Document in July 1999. Sensibly, it emphasises the new opportunities brought by information and communication technologies (ICT) and in particular, electronic commerce (or e-commerce). There are many other valuable points in the document, with which few people would disagree, and one of the strongpoints of the document is that it brings together in one place a variety of considerations.

But it does not go far enough. Many other European regions will be setting similar agenda, because the developments in present economic systems brought about through the Internet are common knowledge through that same Internet. A region will not excel by doing what most other regions are doing: at best it will merely hold its place. Since that place is currently "could do better" it is doubtful whether that will bring much satisfaction.

And though all the important elements are there in the document, it reads like a compilation of different tracks from different interest groups, rather than what it could be: a unifying plan with some core threads running through many different issues, with all the gain in synergy that would come from that.

This paper sets out to outline the radical vision which the current strategy document starts with, but does not carry through, and which will be necessary to make a substantial difference to the ranking of the region in Britain and in Europe over the coming years.

Radical vision

Lord Thomas opens the Strategy Document's Chairman's Message thus:

Arguably, the North West of England led the world into the Industrial Revolution. Today, we are capable of being at the forefront again - in the Information Revolution.
If the information revolution, with its e-commerce techniques and Web interface, is to take proper effect, it needs to reach the majority of the population as quickly as possible, and to reach as many as possible of even the smallest businesses. However, there is still (and may well continue to be) a financial hurdle that is too high for many people, and perhaps also a cultural hurdle, in front of owning the required hardware at home. Hand-in-hand with this, there is insufficient attention given to, and too few resources developed for the natural needs and aspirations of the majority of people, and also many of the smallest businesses.

The political agenda, including many issues relevant to interest groups or pressure groups of one kind or another is much in evidence, but evidence from recent election turnouts suggests that the current political agenda is not the way to capture the attention of the majority, and it is that attention that is, above all, needed.

Common sense suggests that what is needed includes a shift in culture and attitudes, which is neither easy to achieve nor impossible. What this paper suggests is that this is done through

  1. massive support for affordable public access. This means that there should be easily accessible centres where nobody should ever have to wait for access to an Internet-connected machine. The pioneering work of initiatives like Connect, now in several libraries, needs to be rolled out to every library, every community centre, every leisure centre, and possibly many other similar places, or possibly a few places with a very much larger number of places.
  2. quickly developing Web-based applications that are of real and immediate interest to the bulk of the population, as well as small businesses. One very useful start is the interface with local and national government and bureaucracy - see for instance the efforts of Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council. But what is needed even more for the general public is to answer their more common concerns.

Employment is one area of great concern to the majority. Again, trial work has been done on the Web, but the average unemployed person needs far more than the opportunity to browse more job adverts and to create a CV. They need to know what skills are of value in the labour market, both now and in a few years time. They need to appreciate realistically both their level of attainment and their potential, in terms of how much effort on their part, and attending which courses, will result in them having the required skills. And they need all the help and guidance that is possible in going about improving the skills themselves. This may include accurate and timely information about the courses that are available, but it could also include on-line training materials, and the ability and resources to access them, and to work on them in a supportive environment which they feel is not fundamentally alien.

This could be broadened out to encompass the needs of very many people. Not all need to find employment, but the large majority could benefit from a greater level and depth of meaning in their lives, whether through employment, voluntary work, involvement in community groups, or just sports, hobbies, music or whatever. The technology to put people in touch with others who share their interests is present, and has been present for several years. What is needed is to bring this within the reach, practically, of the majority.

The increase in the number of households, without any corresponding increase in the population, is a well-reported current phenomenon. Using the same kind of technology as above, it is possible to envisige helping people who wish to (and many do not) to find other people who would mutually benefit from shared housing.

Returning to small businesses, it is clear that the large majority of the smallest businesses are a long way away from appreciating the potential benefits of ICT and e-commerce, and it is not enough to put on publicity campaigns or day courses with small intakes. Perhaps the most promising approach would be to offer something for nothing, as is so common on the Web at present. Current e-commerce techniques allow extremely efficient services to be offered with minimal human intervention, providing that (as with the general public) there is timely, reliable and convenient access to the Internet. Above all it needs a co-ordinated approach to integrating many of the various benefits at a minimal cost to the user. It may be that the economic growth helped by such an integrated approach would more than pay for the cost of providing the services free. However, if each service is looked at individually, with conservative estimates of the take-up, and emphasis on covering all costs, it may be that it would be difficult for small initiatives to get started.

In both cases, general public and business, there are strong economies of scale for providing Web-based services. There are vast economies of effort to be had from offering services with a common front-end, a common database, and common systems so that individuals can actually reduce the effort they need to make to fill in forms, rather than have it increasing for each new service. It is necessary to think big and to be ambitious for any of these plans to work effectively. Because of the effects of scale, limited trials show little.

How this applies to much of the Regional Strategy

The above considerations apply to many sections of the Regional Strategy, but at it is drafted it is difficult to see the extent of any connections within the strategy itself. The different parts are brought together here in an attempt to reveal the hidden connections and synergies.

Skills

Paragraphs 1.29, 1.88, 1.93, 2.28 and others recognise the need to develop appropriate skills in the regional workforce, but do not make any convincing suggestions about detailed approaches. Though there is every reason to pursue all initiatives to develop skills, a radical change in culture is likely to come about only in conjunction with a radical change, for example in the accessibility of relevant information to the unemployed or under-employed general public, as partly discussed under employment above.

Venture capital

Venture capital is mentioned in a few places in the document. It is not clear whether anyone has investigated the feasibility of inviting the general public to invest in regional venture capital funds. Under past conditions this would perhaps be unlikely, but if much more information about the businesses seeking the investment were freely available, as they would be on the Web, it may be that public interest could be generated.

Small businesses, e-commerce and academic links

E-commerce is mentioned in paragraphs 1.32 and alluded to in many other places. E-commerce is widely and correctly seen as a globalisation of the marketplace, but what is not present in the document is the idea that the stimulus of e-commerce will require many small businesses to transform themselves, to re-engineer themselves (to use a management concept). To do this, small businesses will have to learn about information, handling, storing and working with information in much the same way that they have traditionally had to think about the same issues with money. That is going to need a big cultural change, and the main question is how are small businesses going to be motivated to go through the necessary adjustments in first their outlook and then their processes. There is a lot of work to do here and it would be good if the revised strategy document had much a much stronger line on addressing this.

Small enterprises certainly need a "portal" web site where they can go to find reliable and comprehensive information about e-commerce, and to find it easily and quickly; but beyond this they need to see the reasons and the motivations for changing the way they treat information. Perhaps this might come more quickly if the information about new and best practice was also easily available on the same site, perhaps gathered along with other information about the small businesses themselves?

Academics routinely store information about small numbers of businesses with which they develop relationships. This means that it is not only the businesses who may be able to enter and maintain information about them - they may be able to get help from the academic institutions with which they generally have mutually beneficial synergistic relations.

E-commerce approach within the NWDA?

Perhaps most tellingly, though a thorough and successful approach to e-commerce needs a thorough analysis of the information inside and outside the organisation, there is little evidence of the strategy document picking this up and addressing directly what information will be needed, or will be useful, to drive the initiatives proposed. The trend in large business is towards enterprise-wide ICT systems - often called ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems - and the strategy document would benefit greatly from having that thread running clearly through it.

Although this kind of information systems analysis is often done with an ICT system in mind, this is not at all necessary, and the analysis can significantly aid in the planning and implementation of low-technology solutions. However, if the issue is not addressed, what inevitably emerges is a hotch-potch of unrelated information stores. The information would not be as available as it could be, and inefficiency and lack of effectiveness would be the expected result.

Recommendations

There are two related central recommendations that emerge from this analysis.

  1. That common threads in facilitating infrastructure be considered, particularly in ICT, since it is most of all in ICT that massive economies of scale and of effort emerge. If systems common to many issues are considered and planned together, there is the chance of much greater overall effectiveness for the same input of resource.
  2. That the specific information requirements of all the initiatives be detailed, and leading on from that, consideration be given to regional mechanisms to facilitate the gathering, storage and proper use of that information. A co-ordinated approach is likely to be very many times more effective that an piecemeal one.

page maintained by and © Simon Grant, edition 1999-09-16