The winner takes all

In the global market, competitiveness is vital. Derek Ludlow writes about his new centre designed to help UK firms play the game
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The Independent Online
THE CONCEPT of competitiveness came under the spotlight at the end of last year, when the Government's efforts to help companies become more competitive were supported by a National Centre for Competitiveness (NCC), which is being established at the University of Luton.

The NCC will serve a broad range of organisations and industries - from multinationals to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - helping them to adopt the key factors for business success and to effect a lasting culture of competitiveness in their work.

The importance of competitiveness was brought home to me in the mid-1990s, when a failure to continually review products, prices and services had left one of my companies in danger of collapse.

Strong leadership and close monitoring of staff efficiency at all levels have since helped to turn the Luton-based company's fortunes around and it now looks forward to a prosperous future, but many firms have not been so lucky.

The nation's failure to address the fundamental concepts of competitiveness - continual improvement of the price, quality and innovation of products and services - has already cost many livelihoods and the toll is set to rise.

Competition is likely to get tougher in the global marketplace, where the euro is threatening the future of many British businesses, which must bring their prices and products in line with other countries.

Companies in central and Eastern Europe are already making major inroads into British markets and many of our large firms place orders overseas where labour and production costs are cheaper.

Since our traditional markets have been invaded, we now have to match and outperform some of the best companies across the world. But where do businesses turn for help on an issue that threatens their very existence?

Numerous organisations provide assistance and advice on specific aspects of running a business, such as marketing, finance and law, but no one focuses on competitiveness alone.

At The University of Luton we decided to address this need by establishing a National Centre for Competitiveness in our home town, which boasts the largest concentration of manufacturing in the Southeast, outside London.

The centre has two key aims: to help companies become more competitive and to effect a new culture of competitiveness, which will eventually permeate through the whole of society. The Department of Trade and Industry is a founder member of NCC and we hope to get the Department for Education involved in this initiative as well, to help achieve our long-term aim of spreading the competitive culture to the business leaders of the future.

Competitiveness has overtones of aggression, of winners and losers, but we see it in terms of helping people to identify and use their talents to the best advantage, which is a natural progression that should begin in childhood and be nurtured all our lives.

The NCC, which is due to be launched in April, is being funded by industry with financial backing from well-known companies, such as Ernst & Young, Vauxhall Motors, Unilever and HSBC (formerly Midland Bank) The DTI is also among the funders. Benefits for companies will include accredited educational courses, other training courses and coaching. A benchmarking consultancy service, research on the latest thinking in the field, plus networking seminars and conferences on issues of competitiveness will also be offered.

In some instances, the centre might act as a broker, putting companies in touch with relevant organisations if it is unable to help on a particular issue.

Ultimately, it will serve as a fund of knowledge on which organisations nationwide can call for sound advice and assistance, for applied research and development, and for training needs analysis and education.

Winning new business will be a key topic for the NCC in its first few months. It plans to produce a research paper and to offer specialist advice in this area. The University of Luton aims to work in partnership with other higher education institutions and will make the results of its work with companies available to SMEs to help them become more competitive.

SMEs are the rising stars of the future, but many of them are not growing fast enough and they need extra help if they are to make the most of new opportunities.

The creation of NCC is in line with government thinking on the issue of improving the nation's competitiveness.The University of Luton already has a strong reputation for its work in the business community. In May 1998, for example, it set up free language and cultural awareness training courses for SMEs employing up to 250 people. The pounds 5.5m project is funded by the European Union.

The university also works in partnership with several other organisations to provide individually tailored training programmes for the electronics industry. This project, which aims to help companies meet the demands of working in a fast-changing and highly competitive field, is funded by a European Social Fund award of more than pounds 500,000.

Another initiative, designed to help managers cope with the continued expansion of the global marketplace is a new MSc in Competitiveness. This two-year course aims to help participants understand the key processes and concepts related to competitiveness and to develop the skills required to take their companies into the next millennium.

Developing the imaginative concept of a National Centre for Competitiveness has therefore been a natural process of evolution at the university, arising from these successful partnerships with industry. Achieving competitiveness has never been more important than it is today and although the Government has a vital role to play in providing the necessary infrastructure, there is much that individual companies can do to enhance their own ability to compete.

The National Centre of Competitiveness hopes to play a pivotal role in helping companies meet this challenge - to enable them to improve their prosperity and to effect a lasting culture change in the business world of the future.

Derek Ludlow is Chairman of the National Centre for Competitiveness. To obtain more information on the NCC, please contact Andy Moore at the University of Luton, 01582 489056.