Britain has a long history of innovation. Nearly as long is its history of innovation envy. When Management Today launched in 1966, it was American heavy engineering and pharmaceutical companies; now it’s Californian and Chinese tech platforms, but the anxiety is much the same: we’re scared of being left behind.
There is one major difference, however. In the 1960s, we were troubled by the post-war brain drain of British tech talent to the USA. Now, the main fear is that we’re just not producing enough brains to get drained in the first place.
To find out whether that’s true and what we can do about it – Brexit labour market implications notwithstanding – MT spoke with Anita Chandraker, head of innovation services at PA Consulting. She recently finished judging the Raspberry Pi Competition, which is designed to encourage school children not only to tinker with tech, but also to find practical uses for it.
MT: Whenever we speak to people in the UK tech industry, the message is quite consistent: there’s not enough home-grown talent. Is there something wrong with our education system?
Chandraker: Access to talent is a big challenge to solve, but we can’t expect schools and universities to understand the needs of business because things are changing so fast. That’s why I really believe businesses have a strong role to play in partnership with formal education.
We recognised there weren’t enough children learning coding and programming, which was the catalyst for setting up the Raspberry Pi Competition. Seeing the kids get together to solve problems in multi-disciplinary teams has been a great success, but we need more.
MT: You’ve seen inside a lot of companies. What’s the biggest difference between an innovative firm and one that struggles to innovate?
Chandraker: Is there clarity about what needs to change? Is there urgency? Because that sets the tone. If it’s innovation for innovation’s sake it’s a waste. A culture of failing fast and learning is critical, and it’s also important to be customer-centric, thinking outside-in.
MT: Are we all tech companies now?
Chandraker: Yes, we all have to become organisations with technology at their hearts. But tech isn’t the only answer. Tech has never been successful unless it’s considered the human aspect.
MT: So there’s hope for arts and humanities graduates yet?
Chandraker: Absolutely. Some of my best digital consultants have degrees in subjects like classics, theatre and drama studies. You need people who can understand customers’ point of view, who can communicate and be the translation between the tech and the business.
I studied maths and computer science but realised very early on in my career that my strength wasn’t the technical aspect – I was only interested in solving problems, in how this could be applied to real life.
MT: There’s a famous shortage of women in tech. Do you consider yourself a role model?
Chandraker: I hadn’t consciously realised until it happened to me, the power of looking around you and seeing someone you relate to. It’s hugely important for young girls to see what’s possible and that others are doing it too.
I don’t think of myself as a role model, but I know that people see me as one. It’s hugely important to be open and honest about your career, and to tell stories. I had two children while at PA and worked part-time for many years, which is a huge reason I’m still here. It’s just making sure people hear that and feel they can ask the questions and see there might be a path for them too.
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