My Biggest Mistake: Steve Shirley

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The Independent Online
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.

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