My Biggest Mistake: Steve Shirley

MY big mistake was being too innovative. That might sound odd, but what I mean is that you can be so intrigued by technology that it becomes all-consuming - especially if you are from a science background. What you might miss is that customers are not so interested in it as they are in their own problems.

FI Group started as part of the emancipation of women that was going on in the Sixties. The 'distributed office' techniques we were pioneering then were aimed at women who wanted to be able to pursue active careers at the same time as bringing up children. We were trying to take work to where the people were - particularly women.

From that start we became a company with a particular style. In the 1970s and '80s we established trusts on behalf of our staff, and in November 1991 we sold a controlling interest to the employees. Because the shares held by the workforce carry double the voting power of others, we have a truly empowered organisation.

The company, which now employs 1,000 and has annual turnover of pounds 30m, was also innovative in its organisational structure. For example, we were a pioneer of what is now known as outsourcing - the idea that a company needs only a core of managers, and that the workforce does not have to be directly employed. This meant that labour could be a variable cost; we could have indirect labour and attract skills in order to add value in ways other organisations could not. And there were innovations in computer science, administration, design, sales and marketing.

Because I did not have any training (I left school at 18), nobody told me that there were things you could not do. Sometimes I think ignorance can be quite a management strength. I built up the company after starting out with just pounds 6 in capital, and it has been very successful.

But it would have been easier if we were not ahead of our time. That was a mistake. The idea of the distributed office, based on telecommunications, is only really coming of age today. Thirty years after we started, it is still considered newsworthy that computers and telecommunications are as important to Britain's future as were the resources of the past, such as iron, steel and coal.

I have just spent the past year as master of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, the 100th City livery company, and believe IT is key to the future of London. In an effort to deliver a clear message that telecentres are part of modern working, there will be one on our float in the Lord Mayor's Show on 13 November.

Innovation is going to be vital, and it is not just something for universities. But to innovate too far ahead of the market is difficult - and it can be expensive to try to change market attitudes.

FI Group was viewed as a social phenomenon. Its unique culture delivers exceptional value and long-term commitment, which gave us visibility. People knew us for the way in which we operated, rather than what we did.

The lesson is that sometimes you have to make a leap, but most of the time you have to move steadily and steadfastly to serve your customers. It is a balance between the excitement that the scientific discipline gives you, and the pragmatic approach of business.

(Photograph omitted)

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfordshire - £350 - £360

£350 - £360 per day: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfor...

Chief Financial Officer

120-150k: Accountancy Action: We are looking for an experienced CFO from a min...

IT Systems Business Analyst - Watford - £28k + bonus + benefits

£24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?