Next CBI boss finds ray of hope in coronavirus crisis

A dash of optimism from NEIL CRAVEN for the MAIL ON SUNDAY – however, given the track record of the CBI and ‘Be the Business’ summarised below and their evident failure to date to improve UK productivity, we note the lack of practical support and ideas for UK managers in the following piece- but nevertheless wish the new man every success



Danker, who joins the CBI in November replacing Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, has spent the past three years spearheading an organisation charged with solving Britain’s productivity crisis ‘from the bottom up’ – he admits that this is an issue on which ‘Britain hasn’t done very well for the past 12 years’ since the 2008 financial crash.

‘Most of the policy levers weren’t fixing the problem, or would take a generation to take effect,’ says Belfast-born Danker, currently chief executive of Be The Business, a Government and industry-funded body, with a mandate to improve productivity – he names infrastructure spending and improving skills as two important, but slow-burning, boosters for productivity.
His conclusion? ‘Government can’t fix the productivity problem; business has to.’
The figures are stark – a report in February detailed how the slowdown in productivity over the past decade – measured as economic output per worker per hour – has been the worst since the industrial revolution began 250 years ago. Economists worry that sluggish productivity growth, barely above zero and more pitiful even than in the 1970s, has held back improvement in living standards in the UK.

Two thirds of firms have changed their approach to technology since March, according to a Be The Business study – a third have adopted new technologies or intend to ‘soon’. As well as video conferencing, that includes project management and customer relationship management systems, e-commerce, cloud-based HR and data analysis software.


Any gains are likely to be masked by huge drops in overall economic output. But Danker wants to turbocharge the revolution, tying up with Facebook to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to learn from each other. A regional roadshow – digital, of course – targeting 11 big cities is to follow soon.


‘What’s really interesting about the last three months, talking to business owners, is that they have exerted more leadership in decision making than in years – they are also ferocious about finding productivity gains – cutting costs, being smarter about the use of premises, thinking about tech. I think that’s the low hanging fruit – and there’s a lot of money in it.’


But he says: ‘Now there is a set of really complicated decisions for each of these firms as we restart – harder than lockdown – don’t underestimate what a big deal this is – there are 1.4million small business owners with some big calls. I think they are going to make the decisions that affect employment and they are going to be the judge of whether or not anything the Chancellor does has worked.’


Danker reels off anecdotes from small firms he’s spoken with – a Cornish pub, a Cumbrian manufacturer, an HR consultancy – with myriad conundrums. But he suggests: ‘There’s a realisation now how much SMEs are the backbone of the economy – 60% of private sector employment and even greater outside the South East.’

He says a 10% rise in productivity in the smallest 75% of all firms – the ‘long tail’ – could add £130 billion to the economy. ‘I’m not pretending that’s easy but you just need tar manufacturers to be better tar manufacturers. We need to help hospitality businesses find a path back to growth. ‘Three years ago we were talking of the importance of high growth sectors – life sciences, high tech – now I think we’ve realised that the high employment sectors of retail, construction, hospitality – these are vitally important sectors to the economy, to recovery, to jobs.’


With a cautious nod to his agenda in his next role, which he joins at a pivotal time, he suggests Government needs to be sensitive to the slow awakening from lockdown many small firms face. He says: ‘It’s why organisations will talk of a tapered end to support rather than a sudden end to lockdown. Restarting is complicated – cost comes back straight away but demand doesn’t – if the Chancellor is to proceed with a levelling-up agenda that’s only about public investment it won’t be enough.’


He says business sector recovery needs to reach those parts of the country which have the lowest productivity and high unemployment, adding: ‘London has superb levels of productivity but it’s the regional economies that have fallen behind – the risk is they fall behind more.’

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