The role technology start-ups will play in the regeneration of the UK economy was a major theme at this week’s annual CBI Conference in London.
In a panel session involving new Thomas Cook chief executive Harriet Green, business leaders stressed the importance of technology, data and employees qualified to work in the digital economy.
Ronan Dunne, chief executive of Telefonica O2 UK, said: “There is a real danger that large business could be a part of the problem in the regeneration of the economy, not the solution.
“We have to address three key problems: How do we find growth in new places, how do we innovate our business models and how do we give our customers a reason to engage and bring them on that journey.
“One of the things this [UK] government has identified is that data is the raw material for the next generation of our economy.”
Dunne said his firm has contributed to the debate on how the exchange of data can be done securely and for mutual benefit through a Demos think tank report.
He said it was vital that the UK addressed the high levels of unemployment and that Telefonica O2 has itself established a small business incubator arm to support start-ups.
This has been supporting 18 firms based around Tottenham Court Road in London in the last 12 months having had over 1,000 propositions in the four days after it launched.
“Young people are better qualified for the digital economy than anyone and yet they are the least engaged for many generations in the real economy.
“We need to help them understand the roles that their skills can play – bridge the gap between their digital capability and the needs of the economy.”
Dunne claimed the environment for entrepreneurialism in Britain has “never been better”, describing the UK’s digital media sector as the “best in the world”.
“We need to get more on the front foot,” he said. “It will present us in a much better light. We need to create role models of businesses that are going forward.”
Cook’s new chief Green, who has only been in the job 16 weeks, revealed technology would play a key role in the turnaround she is engineering at the travel giant.
Declaring that customers were her obsession she said “all roads lead to technology”.
She said success stemmed from “how you make the customer feel in terms of what you have committed to do, in igniting their passions and creating their dreams”.
Green gave a simple example of what she meant, telling the audience that when she came in to her role she was told that Cook’s customer base was split evenly between men and women.
But she said a deeper analysis of the data found that 72% of the customers who make the travel buying decision were actually women.
“Is that important for our business? I do not know, but I know that knowing the customer is key,” she said.
Green said Cook’s mission was to open up possibilities to customers.
She pointed out that despite the downturn seeing disposable incomes drop 5% in the last 18 months, 46% of British customers intend to take some form of foreign holiday in the next year.
This equates to 22 million potential customers. “It would seem it’s absolutely critical to bring the world to people on their phones, on their TVs, on the web.
“We have to bring the world of possibilities, affordably and powerfully, to them.
“It’s bringing this information, this world absolutely to their fingertips and efficiently providing them with the opportunity to travel, explore and adventure, as Thomas Cook originally intended them to do.”
Dunne added: “Every existing customer wants to know you treat them just as importantly as every new customer that comes through the door. The key thing is retaining consumer relevancy.
Referring to O2’s Priority Moment campaign he said: “Part of the resonance of the brand is that it enables consumers to gain more value from their relationship with us.”
Jeremy Darrock, chief executive of BSkyB, said: “You have to control your own destiny.
“You need to do more and at the heart of that is being really clear as to why consumers choose you and putting more value into those services each and every day, rejecting the status quo and being pretty ruthless on everything else.
“I would urge you not to hunker down. It’s easy to be seduced by the language of battening down the hatches.
“Consumers today are using technology in all its forms to change the way they interact with your businesses. Successful businesses will understand and embrace that, they will position their businesses for those long term trends not try to resist them.
“You have to drive efficiency of your business model because that’s the way you create the capacity and the capital to continue to invest. It’s a ruthless focus on business efficiency that allows you to invest.”