Benchmarking Britain

Article excerpt

How the UK shapes up in the global economy is the theme of this year's Marketing Forum.

The Marketing Forum, upgraded this year by Richmond Events to the Oriana, has become a key date in marketers' calendars.

Its purpose is to provide the best environment in which marketing buyers and sellers can meet in a style that makes business happen, to an agenda chosen by delegates themselves. This year they chose 'Benchmarking Britain', to look at how we were doing in key business and marketing areas against global competitors.

Competitiveness, assessed nationally, is a well-researched subject. Michael Porter's sardonic conclusion that Britain's sole areas of global clout were alcohol and leisure goods is now some years old. Management shakeout has meant that many of his readers are probably now a lot closer to both markets than they might have chosen to be. After Porter came Hamel and Pralahad, who have been equally downbeat about British and now European prospects.

We can ignore the business teachers, but we can't ignore the facts. This year's World Economic Forum's (WEF) review of 49 leading world nations uses well-established research methods and models.

The headlines are that little countries wallop big ones, largely because they get on with the business of making and selling things, rather than expanding the costly and ever-widening reach of government.

Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand get the three big medals, while in Europe, Denmark, Switzerland and little Luxembourg all leave Britain standing. Britain has narrowed the gap with mainstream Europe, largely because Europe has itself been catching the so-called British economic disease.

While our post-Thatcherite institutions are coherent and our financial markets disarmingly open, we remain high-cost and over-regulated. We have inadequate infrastructure and, in the areas of most direct interest to business managers, Britain is firmly in division two for technology and is sadly out of the premier league (16th place) for the key criterion: quality of business management.

'Physician heal thyself' may not have been the message that the Forum delegates were looking for, but it's probably one they're going to get. Overall, UK PLC is in 15th place.

Just as we nerve ourselves to take on and integrate with the European Union, we find the whole of the EU drifting backward in economic competitiveness - as Yale's Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers said would happen if Europe carried on its internal squabbling.

Social welfare systems developed in the post-war period of a 'New Jerusalem' overconfidence are proving too heavy. a burden for Europe to fund. Five of the six most competitive nations are open economies with small governments, low tax rates and an ability to generate the entrepreneurial approaches and innovative results associated with the Pacific Rim markets.

New Zealand's crusading reformist policies have turned the country from yesterday's low-margin farm exporter to today's well-diversified, high-margin producer. It takes Taiwan, an 'Eastern Tiger', to prove to us that single-minded worship at the free-market altar doesn't work. Taiwan has a series of practical incentives and measures to ensure national competitiveness. This is interventionism on a grand scale something Britain's economic planners jettisoned with contempt two decades ago.

In contrast to Europe, east Asia's economic performance has been dazzling. They have succeeded in catching up rapidly with advanced nations' living standards and aspirations. In the past five years, all but two of the world's ten fastest-growing nations have been in east Asia. These economies, led by Japan and the little dragons (Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan), pursued single-minded export growth strategies, open-door investment polices, constrained government spending and high savings rates.

But it isn't government or fiscal policy which stands out most clearly to differentiate the dragons; it is a long-laid, deeply felt and ruthlessly implemented emphasis on education and investment in human capital. …