We need to sharpen skills and develop greater enthusiasm for innovation to create a climate suitable for job growth, Jeremy Thorn believes.
Here is a frightening thought, but it is official. Significant growth in new job opportunities is least likely to come from existing larger companies.
We shouldn't be too surprised: most large employers across the world have had to downsize, restructure and rationalise. Only the leanest and meanest can hope to survive in the face of ever greater international competition. No wonder that policies of 'sticking close to the knitting' and hiving off non-core businesses have now become so popular, most especially among the larger companies.
But if you care greatly for the prosperity of this nation, you might just pause to wonder where new jobs are going to come from. The UK must certainly aim to continue to attract more than its fair share of new employers through inward investment but, if high unemployment is not going to blight the rest of the 1990s, there are many other areas that need close attention.
For example, workforces must be better educated and trained to real world-class standards. Everything else springs from there, and we still have far to go. And at the top of the academic ladder, state-funded research must become much more closely linked to industrial effort. Despite great cultural changes in recent years, many academics in universities still seem to have objectives which are far removed from business needs.
Smaller companies must be encouraged and stimulated to grow much more quickly. Expert guidance and mentoring can help, but somehow we must develop sharper skills and greater enthusiasm for enterprise and innovation, perhaps from as early as school age. It is also vital to do something practical about easing funding problems and reducing red tape. We have heard a lot about it but have seen little action.
We also need more new businesses. There are many middle and senior managers now having to reappraise their career options, but how rare it is to find an enthusiasm for starting one's own business. The burdens of failure must surely be reduced and the successes more roundly trumpeted - perhaps more in the style of the Americans?
Now, government can help in all this and would no doubt say that it is trying hard to do so, often in partnership with business-led agencies such as the Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) and the new Business Links (originally called One-Stop Shops), located in major towns and cities to enable businesses to get advice, assistance and information in one place. Clearly, many excellent things are already happening, though many of them may be unsung in the Press. Huge advances are being made in many sectors, with increasing attention being given, for example, to world-class manufacturing, Total Quality, Investors in People and national education and training targets. Several regions are looking hard at import substitution and local positive purchasing. But many of the solutions lie directly with business and its managers.
Here are just a few. Companies must accelerate further the empowerment of their workforce, to release their full talents to boost quality, performance and customer satisfaction. It is sadly still a soft option for far too many, especially those employed in larger companies where some degree of anonymity is possible, to keep a low profile, to stay uninvolved and carry on exactly as before. What a waste, for them, their employers and their customers.
Then we must also further stimulate and reward innovation and creativity, as part of the ruthless search for continuous improvement and strategic competitive advantage. For example, how many new products did you help your company to develop or launch last year - and were your efforts properly rewarded? How much were your delivery lead-times and reliability improved last year? In slack markets, collapsing lead-times are not so difficult, but how well can your company respond to an upturn? And what about your suppliers?
There is also so much more we could do in co-ordinating technology transfer and strategic partnerships to benefit from the ideas of others. This should include not just innovative product and process-technology, but also 'world-class' management techniques. In this way we would find out what works well elsewhere and how best to realise these new opportunities.
And what about all those companies who are still 'flying blind'? For some, the problem is inadequate management information, for others it is too much or too late. Quite often, it is just wrong information. Take costing systems as an example. Across the world, one sees companies small and large trading at prices out of line with the market, not because they are so much more efficient, but because they do not truly know their costs. And even those who do know their costs, how many have a carefully established pricing policy, other than cost plus, or 'what we think the market will stand' (never enough), 'and then a little bit less for luck'?
But, above all, don't managers need to develop a far greater spirit of entrepreneurial flair throughout their business, to encourage a willingness to challenge and then rewrite the rules, to innovate and then to rescore the strategy if the present one is not working? If they do not do these things, where are those much needed new jobs going to come from?