A POPULAR working definition of an expert is “someone who lives 5000 miles away”. When I ran a software company with headquarters in Edinburgh and Seattle it was easy to provide expertise for any occasion simply by importing an executive from the other continent. It never failed to impress.
I was reminded of this by the recent ‘Business in the Parliament’ session, in particular the contribution from lain Graham, chairman of a successful Scottish company, Graham Technology. He pointed out that Scottish public procurement is biased against buying technology from Scottish suppliers, preferring to buy from multinational giants.
He stated that his company earned around 15 per cent of its revenue from public sector bodies and has successfully sold to governments in Australia, South Africa, Ireland and Indonesia. It has even sold to the UK government — but not, alas, to the Scottish Executive which remains closed to him.
This is an institutionalised version of the “I kent his faither” attitude. When procuring new technology, public sector employees are suspicious of smaller and/or local suppliers and much prefer the ‘security’ of buying from a large global corporation. Understandable: the latter can point to its worldwide experience with similar projects; supply technology that is well used elsewhere; and has the resources to fix any problems that arise.
As they say “nobody ever got fired for buying from IBM”. It is also a very lazy attitude and often wrong headed — it’s not hard to find examples of disastrous projects led by multinational giants.
We are very proud of our technological base here in Scotland. Our universities educate a much higher proportion of the UK’s young people in science and technology than our natural share and we demonstrate leadership in the number of scientific papers and patents produced. In the field of IT we have Europe’s leading research centre at
Edinburgh University and in biotechnology, Scotland is building a new industry that is truly world class. Government, through the Industry department and Scottish Enterprise, has a host of schemes, such as SMART, SPUR, Proof of Concept, Enterprise Fellowships, etc, targeted at supporting new high-tech businesses. The only thing that they will not do is what these businesses really need — buy technology from them.
And it is really important. Given that 54 per cent of all procurement in Scotland is public procurement, by losing access to public bodies you are losing the largest single source of potential revenue available.
The most successful Scottish companies, such as Graham Technology, mostly ignore the problem and just get on with winning business around the world. GT has offices in the US, Australia, Indonesia, Ireland and the Netherlands and, probably rightly, regards the Scottish market as very small, uninnovative, conservative and difficult to enter.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In the US —surely one of the world’s most commercially driven economies — its Small Business Administration (SBA) sets quotas for public procurement from smaller businesses and has a whole range of sup port for emerging technology businesses. The result is that the US dominates the world of technology vendors.
Scotland needs to follow its lead.