Brexit and UK Engineering (Part 4)

Brexit and UK Engineering

Managing uncertainty – the key to innovation success

In my last article on Brexit and the UK engineering industry, I took a brief look at the vital role that innovation can play in ensuring ongoing success for the sector. This article continues the ‘innovation’ theme with a focus on the importance of innovation in managing uncertainty – an abiding theme through the entire Brexit process.

At present, the impact of uncertainty is evident in many aspects of the engineering industry – from funding, investment and collaboration to environment, employment and finding new markets. This will continue, right through to the conclusion of negotiations.

Why is true innovation actually so rare? It’s largely because innovation, by its very nature, involves a significant degree of uncertainty. If there was certainty about the outcome of a project, it would not be truly innovative. Innovation is about creating something new which is untried, untested and unseen. Successful innovation therefore, is very much about how we manage this uncertainty. The points made in this piece are particularly apposite in considering how we, as a nation, adapt to the complexity that is Brexit.

Guided by a vision

Central to the management of uncertainty is a central vision, driven by one or several visionaries – those who have a complete mental picture of that which has not yet been created.

These people have an important role to play in communicating the aims and objectives of the innovation, inspiring investment in the project and preventing key stakeholders from distracting the group at the wrong time. Yet even though their job is to keep the ‘big picture’ at the forefront, they must also be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances, knowing the right time to change tack and having the skills to bring the group with them.

Keeping expectations realistic

Because the end user only has limited experience of the previous, existing solution, the expected level of success, financial payback for example, can be difficult to ascertain. Getting end users to think beyond their current experience is a major challenge so a backup plan is critical, as is a readiness to adapt the solution.

This requires workstreams that identify key risks to delivery, with presentations throughout the innovation process that address possible alternative solutions and encompass justified changes in direction to suit the success of the outcome.

Communication is key

Innovation involves groups of people and the communication dynamic between them is critical to project success. Because people are people, that dynamic can change dramatically with changing circumstances. The creation of a new idea can often be quashed with an unintended comment or distraction at a critical time. Conversely, poor ideas can often ‘grow legs’ through the assertiveness of one or two individuals.

The right sized group and the right blend of expertise

Too small, and the group may lack key skills, ideas and influences. Too large, and it may contain a surfeit of interested parties which hold up progress and constrain thinking. As with the three bears, this porridge has to be just right. This is a problem that magnifies in larger organisations, hence the reason why smaller organisations and start-ups are often better at innovation.

Shortage, high cost or unavailability of personnel can create gaps in the required skills, ideas and influencers. Understanding and managing these gaps can be critical to the success of an innovation. Here, it is vital to involve key third parties – often separate businesses – as suppliers or partners. These third parties can have a critical input but can cause delay or disruption in delivery if not handled in the right way.

Managing disruptive influences

Influences and influencers can create disruption to the work of the group, creating critical delay, unseen risks or breaks in the thinking process. There is a time to push on and a time to hold back. There are times when the group should be left to create its own ideas and other times when an influencer should intervene to converge the work.

Solution to fit the time frame

Because we live in the real world, there are often good reasons why a solution is required at a certain point in time. That said, there are other situations where artificial time limits become detrimental. It is important to recognise and challenge these. Meeting a time frame needs a clear vision of what is achievable, presented in clear and regular communication to the group. Aspiration is worthy, but not if it prevents priority given to the deliverables that are required first.

Prosperity through innovation

It is interesting – and not surprising – that many of the modern project management methodologies seek to put some aspects of process and organisational structure around the innovation process in order to mitigate the challenges outlined here. Frameworks such as PRINCE2 and Agile represent an excellent first step towards ensuring successful innovation, but ultimately it is good management of uncertainty that marks the difference.

Start-ups and companies in the early stage of their lives will play an important role in innovation. The UK already has some of the most successful engineering start-ups. According to the European Startup Monitor, 25% of all UK start-ups were founded by nationals of non-UK EU countries. And co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners, Dr Hermann Hauser, reported that 405 of CEOs of Amadeus portfolio companies are actually from outside the UK.

While other EU states have begun trying to encourage UK start-ups to relocate, there remains the opportunity for UK companies to grow new, global partnerships which look beyond the EU. Well managed innovation, with appropriate government funding and support, can be a key factor in ensuring the future prosperity of the UK engineering sector.

Brexit and UK Engineering (Part 3)

Innovation in Engineering

The vital role of innovation for UK engineering in a post-Brexit world

In this, the third in my series of six pieces on the future of the UK’s engineering sector post-Brexit, I will be examining the vital role of innovation in preserving and developing the prosperity of British engineering.

Innovation has long been a factor behind Britain’s success as a world engineering leader. The extent to which it can take advantage of the opportunities afforded by Brexit will depend to a great extent on how successful the nation is in understanding, safeguarding and developing innovation within the industry.

Defining innovation

At the most basic level, innovation is about the successful creation and delivery of new ideas or major new improvements to deliver financial or societal benefit, and, subsequently, improvements in people’s lives. With so many new concepts and inventions today, it is highly unlikely that innovation can actually stem from just one person or even one small group of people.

The vital importance of collaboration

Successful innovation almost always depends upon a variety of groups and individuals who share appropriate skills and ideas and then work to deliver a solution to an end user who may never have seen the solution to be delivered, or indeed had any conception of how it would work. Successful innovation is also highly dependent on the extent to which there is, across every group and every process within a particular project, a clearly defined strategy to determine how the innovation will eventually be delivered to the end user.

British innovation has come to depend on the vast range of knowledge and experience available beyond its own shores, drawing on this expertise and know-how to develop and refine new ideas, concepts and approaches. This dependence is highlighted in a recent report from the European Startup Monitor which found that 25% of UK startups were founded by non-UK EU nationals, with 45% of UK startup employees coming from non-UK EU countries. The fact that many EU countries are now actively encouraging UK startups to relocate to EU countries should be ringing warning bells, as this presents a serious challenge to the future of collaborative innovation in the UK. The time to act on this is now.

An industry at the crossroads

The UK can and should act with assurance and confidence, drawing on its reputation as a leader in innovation to develop programmes which spread a wider net, drawing in collaborators from much further afield than the EU alone. Such ventures would rely heavily upon strategic management and upon ample funding. Britain’s very future as an innovative leader will depend on both.

My next article will look in closer detail at what is required to develop these kinds of projects.

Brexit and UK Engineering (Part 2)

People and Skills: the second of 6 articles by Mark Harris on how UK engineering can prosper under Brexit.


A key consideration when determining how Brexit will impact the engineering sector has to do with how we handle shared capital and labour as well as research & development. As discussed in my previous article, a looming UK engineering skills crisis means that we must tread wisely and decisively to ensure positive outcomes for the industry in the medium and long term.

Tapping new sources

According to the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s 2016 Skills & Demand in Industry survey, out of the 52% of engineering companies currently recruiting engineers at technician level and above, more than half are having trouble finding engineers with the right amount of experience.

A major recommendation for this report is that employers and educators forge stronger links to create more widespread opportunities for the kind of work experience that will address specific engineering skills gaps.

The report also recommends that businesses help to address the ‘experience shortage’ by taking an ‘agile’ approach to CPD (Continuing Professional Development), with a particular emphasis on the rapid pace of change within the industry.

Along with the necessity for quality work experience and continuing professional development, the report cites the need for a more inclusive engineering workforce which currently has only a “very small” proportion of women in it. It also points to the opportunity that exists in exploiting the untapped potential of recruiting from a range of more diverse backgrounds.

Beacons of excellence

It’s important to remember that the engineering sector generally has already been active in addressing skills shortages. The gradual shift in emphasis from manufacturing to service industries has led many companies to invest in programmes which promote engineering to young people.

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘Engineering Talent Project’ has been set up to specifically challenge policy barriers to engineering education and it is expanding its ‘Tomorrow’s Engineers’ – a project that gives young people a hands-on experience of engineering at school. It is also pleasing to see teams from some leading UK universities among the 50 teams from around the world competing in the 2017 Airbus ‘Fly Your Ideas’ competition.

Programmes such as these are essential in mitigating any future skills crisis but they must begin much earlier. Engineering has to become bedded into the educational mainstream and this will only happen if the skills, processes and ideas are present as curriculum topics in subjects such as Mathematics and Design & Technology. And this means not only in the teaching materials, but also that the key teaching staff have a good appreciation of engineering. Otherwise, it’s just too late for many, who have already begun forming broad ideas for career choices.

Maintaining academic mobility

Up till now, the UK has attracted some of the world’s best researchers. According to 2014/5 figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 11% of the UK’s academic staff come from other countries in the EU, but in engineering, that figure is 15%. In terms of academic research, it is vital that UK academic institutions continue to be attractive for researchers, with support for the mobility of research staff, at least in line with academic institutions in EU countries.

UK researchers also need to have the facility to spend time in EU countries. If Brexit brings reduced access, we need other means to give researchers and students the international experience they need. It’s also vital to the future growth and health of our engineering industry that the UK retains access to world-class EU research facilities.

A successful Brexit is about developing a clear understanding of all the ways that the UK is currently dependent on the EU. For the UK engineering industry there’s a lot to get right. Besides exploring and exploiting new sources of talent and creating programmes of excellence to address highly specific skills gaps, we must take account of the benefits of our current access to European funding, labour and shared research – and ensure we have enough measures to replace them in a way that protects the industry and ensures its healthy future.

I hope you found this piece thought-provoking. My next article in this series about UK engineering post-Brexit is the first of two pieces examining the vital role of innovation.

Brexit and UK Engineering (Part 1)

The first of a series of 6 articles exploring how the UK engineering sector might benefit from Britain’s exit from the EU


The issue of Brexit has profound implications for just about every aspect of British society. For the UK engineering sector, there are significant issues to be addressed, but huge opportunities too. In this series of articles, I will be exploring these issues and how the industry can take advantage of the appreciable opportunities afforded by Brexit.

Nurturing Skills

The key factor behind the success of any industry sector is its people, and this is certainly true of the UK’s engineering sector, which accounts for 20% of the UK’s total gross value added. In total, engineering-related sectors employ 5.5 million people and produce around half of all the UK’s exports.

In this series of articles I will be exploring the issues and the opportunities facing the UK engineering industry in a post-Brexit world.

Addressing the skills gap

While the UK’s research and innovators continue to lead the world, we can’t escape the fact that we are facing an engineering skills crisis. It’s been estimated that we need 182,000 new technicians and engineers each year. Although some may argue that Brexit will only add fuel to that particular fire, I would argue that the opposite is true. Managed properly, Brexit presents the engineering industry with almost unprecedented opportunities to expand and flourish.

As far as the Brexit negotiations are concerned, the government must work with the sector to address the skills gap and enable the development of practical, collaborative solutions.

Engineering draws from a worldwide skills pool. It is important that companies remain free to transfer personnel between positions in the fulfilment of their contracts. Likewise, young people looking to establish a career in the industry need to be assured of opportunities to gain international experience – in the EU and beyond. And there must still be opportunities for engineers from other countries to study and work in the UK.

Addressing the problem from within

The government’s apprenticeship programme, with its target of three million apprenticeships by 2020, will go a long way to addressing the projected skills gap, but it must still be supplemented by continued recruitment from other countries, including those within the EU – there is no way round this, in the short term. Brexit will, of course, affect the whole issue of free movement of labour, but for the engineering industry, we are still going to need to draw talent from outside the UK for now.

Another key part of solving the problem is about how we are attract young people to the industry. Although our universities are among the very best in the world we’re still not getting enough students into the courses. Why is this?

I think we need to broaden the perception of what engineering actually is. It’s important to understand that a successful engineering solution is as much as about skills in marketing and finance as it is about engineering. And let’s not forget the skills required in manufacturing quality and regulation either.

Engineers are not just geeks with calculators, they need a high level of critical thinking skills. So while Maths is certainly important, we should also concentrate on some of the more creative and problem-solving aspects.

All of this has knock-on implications for the actual university curriculum  – we need to look at broadening it out to prepare graduates for the real-world innovation and creative thinking challenges they will face in their careers.

We could also look at incentivising prospective students by cutting university fees and providing a greater level of financial support through bursaries and other grants to help with living costs.

There is much that is currently being done by academics and those working in the industry to mitigate the effect of the projected skills crisis. As we move forward to the triggering of Article 50, effective partnership between government and industry is going to be absolutely crucial.

My next article in this series is going to take a close look at various aspects of innovation and the important part it will play in ensuring the growth and prosperity of the engineering industry in the post-Brexit world.