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Skills Summit 2005: Putting Skills onto the Business Agenda


At last week's Skills Summit 2005, Senior VP & MD for Oracle UK, Ireland and South Africa Ian Smith spoke about the importance of investing in skills for business and the UK's competitiveness. Below is an abridged version of what he said.

I've been in business for many years and I am convinced that building the right skills for your workforce is integral to that success. However, to compete in the 21st Century global economy there is a new challenge we must all acknowledge.

In a global economy, companies will need staff with a range of expertise, which give them the flexibility to react to evolving markets and trends. UK companies are increasingly 'knowledge-dependent' in order to position themselves to counter the low value, generic products and services being provided by developing nations such as China and India.

By that I mean companies require a highly knowledgeable workforce in order to develop high value products and services. They are dependent on the knowledge of their workforce to differentiate themselves.

Career path
There has also been an impact on the traditional career path, because the global economy has physcially shifted the location of certain jobs. The shifting of jobs to the Far East has left some of our workforce with a dilemma - if an engineer should be spending time on the factory floor to learn their trade, but the factory is in the Far East, how do they qualify as an engineer?

Consequently, business and educational institutions should not be looking at career development as a logical, stepped process, but as a 'package' of skills that our workforce accrue over time, which become the ingredients for each company's successful recipe. That way our workforce will be able to continually contribute to the development of innovative new products and services. We need to help create the next enterpreneurs, encourage brave leadership and develop specialist skills that cannot be easily replicated.

Knowledge dependent
Nearly 30 years ago Oracle was a start-up. Unlike many start-ups it has survived and grown. Now it didn't happen overnight, but today Oracle is the world's largest enterprise software company, and employs over 40,000 staff globally. Key to our success is the recognition that a mix of entrepreneurship, strong leadership and an early recognition of talented people with specialist skills, drives the company's success.

Our business is about information, so we are a prime example of a company that is 'knowledge-dependent' rather than simply 'knowledge driven.' At Oracle, we are constantly developing our staff, because we believe it is critical to our business success. That way we can encourage them to stay with Oracle, encourage loyalty and ensure my company has the right skills to compete in the 21st Century.

In fact, it is no coincidence that 'continuous learning' has been recognised as one of the key drivers of our business, and we have made a huge investment in our Organisation and Talent Development Programme, which has built a series of tools, programmes and learning solutions around what we call 'Road Maps,' which we use to help our staff chart their development from the beginning to the end of their Oracle careers.

Every business in the UK needs to continually think about the skills of its workforce. Businesses need to ask: "How do I develop the skills of my workforce, so that those skills can continually evolve and move with the needs of my business?"

The global challenge
If I had said 10 years ago that someone was going to re-invent the vacuum cleaner many would have yawned and ignored me. James Dyson was recently quoted in a US newspaper saying:

"Every manufacturer, every retailer we went to, said you will never sell a vacuum cleaner where you can see the dirt. Nobody wants to see the dirt. It's disgusting. We got quite unnerved just before the launch and we did some market research. And the market research said that nobody wants to see the dirt. But we decided to ignore it because we liked seeing the dirt."

James Dyson was determined to see how technology could improve performance and now the company owns 20% of the US market - the home of Hoover. His achievements required a highly skilled workforce and his management team taking some very tough decisions.

When Dyson moved some manufacturing operations to the Far East, there was consternation in the UK, but the management at Dyson understood how the global economy was changing their supply-chain with manufacturing only a small, non-core element of their business.

It was more critical to continue to invent hence the concentration on highly skilled staff. And where is that staff based? In the UK. Any savings made are reinvested - did you know, for example that in a two year period they invested £32 million in R&D.

We should not be afraid of change, but we should understand its benefits and what it means terms of the type of skills companies need.

The right skills
I don't think Britain is doomed and I don't think India and China will leave us in their dust, as long as we recognise the importance of the 'Skills Agenda'.

Business needs to work with the educators and support the DfES and organisations like the Learning and Skills Council and the Sector Skills Councils (in particular e-Skills Ltd) to ensure our workforce are ready with the right skills.

At Oracle we welcome initiatives such as the Sector Skills Agreement for IT and I would encourage companies to engage in this process, because as the old adage goes: "You've gotta be in it to win it!" If we make the investment now in helping to build the workforce of the future, we will help to make British business more successful in the future

Within my industry - IT - I am very encouraged by the work around the Sector Skills Agreement for IT and I can see significant opportunities for Oracle to integrate its education programmes within this framework.


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