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Chartered Directors see Brexit challenges but fear digital disruption more

07 Nov 2016


“What kind of future awaits British business following Brexit...?” 

Perhaps surprisingly, given the strength of feeling surrounding the results of the referendum, the answer to the question above from IoD West Midlands Chartered Directors gathered at MalMaison in Birmingham for a round-table discussion on the key business issues of the day, was by and large a rosy one. 

While currency fluctuations means the cost of imports have risen, net exporters have been notable beneficiaries, and this is likely to continue in a global market that (in size and scale) far exceeds that of Europe. There was praise too for the UKTI for its “Great Britain” Campaign that aims to promote the innate strengths of British brands overseas. Rachel Eade MBE encouraged all businesses to link with the #GREATBritain campaign. Dr Jason Wouhra said that exporting was the way ahead for East End Foods: “We see exporting as the way to grow the business. We aim to grow the business five-fold.”

Even where British brands now fall under foreign ownership, provided manufacturing remains on home soil, consumer confidence remains undented. 

Steve Boswell of S3 Process said brand strength is a powerful weapon in exporting. “It is critical and can bring success in a niche market.” 

However, that’s not to say the discussion didn’t reveal challenges post-Brexit. The need for skilled workers has led to many British companies recruiting abroad, and there is growing concern among European workers about their future job security following Britain’s exit from the EU. Some sectors, particularly healthcare, were highlighted as particularly vulnerable and these concerns were seen as pressing. 

It was a concern Bal Dhanoa of Progress Care was particularly keen to stress. 

There is also the wider issue of falling business confidence – as evidenced by the determination of many to build their balance sheets and keep investment to a minimum – that needs to be urgently addressed in the immediate aftermath. The reasons are wide ranging, but the ongoing political fall-out, a lack of leadership and the Bank of England’s determination to drop interest rates were seen as particularly significant. The Government, it was felt, needs to act to help bring stability as soon as possible.

Stuart Laight, Aspray24, said his principal fear was over volatility in the market, and stability had to be established as soon as possible. 

But it seems the fall-out from Brexit is far from the biggest challenge we, as a society, face. The advent of the digital revolution and advance of technology across the globe will, it was agreed, create far greater disruption for British businesses than any restrictions around access to the Single Market. 

Described as a ‘quantum change’ within the debate, the scale of the challenge here and its impact on business is already becoming apparent. One analyst at the recent IoD Convention claimed there will be 650,000 UK digital job vacancies by 2020. Added to which, around half of the current job stock will be changed by technology in the next 20 years, making it imperative all employers are ready to reskill their workforce. The progress in robotics and demand for cyber security could revolutionise employment – all of which means that the job market could change beyond all recognition in the space of a generation. 

Despite this, digital advancement in Britain is believed to lag behind many parts of the world, notably the Far East. Countries which weren’t able to put the infrastructure in place following the last industrial revolution have advanced at a far greater rate, unencumbered by the past. Instead they have embraced digital with all its efficiencies and service benefits. Britain, it was generally agreed, needs to be sure it doesn’t get left behind. As BHSF Employee Benefit’s Brian Hall put it, “Technology is the game changer, not Brexit.”

For more on the IoD's view on future employment trends, see our Lifelong Learning paper.

To find out more about the Chartered Director programme visit iod.com/chartered.

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