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Microsoft’s Clare Barclay: Fear of new tech threatens UK competitiveness

The UK risks losing its global competitiveness if companies fail to allay employees’ fear of change, Microsoft UK’s chief operating officer, Clare Barclay, has warned.

Barclay told NS Tech that while the UK has a strong heritage in innovation, there is a growing divide between firms whose staffs support investment in new technology and those that do not.

“The risk to the UK is that if we don’t embrace it, our level of competitiveness will fall,” she said. “Companies that are unwilling to change face new competitors who are more tech savvy.”

“They are more digital and more able to offer new services to customers, and that’s putting pressure on some of the industries and organisations.”

Barclay was commenting on a Microsoft survey of 1,000 business leaders that indicates employees’ reservation is hampering British companies’ attempts to capitalise on their tech investments.

Nearly two in three business leaders (61 per cent) say that attempts to improve work practices with technology create anxiety among employees.

Despite the findings, only 23 per cent of leaders said they were investing in cultural change programmes to ensure new technology is embraced by employees when it is rolled out.

A key focus point for Microsoft’s research is the role automation will play in the workforce in coming years.

One of the survey’s headline findings is that 59 per cent of business leaders agree that automation of tasks creates fears about job security. But Barclay said companies should challenge the notion that new technology inevitably leads to jobs being automated.

“The reality is that there is a set of tasks that could be automated, allowing employees to do higher value work,” she said. “There is a set of tasks that is a mixture of technology and humans and then the majority of tasks which are tasks that can really only be done by humans.”

The survey suggests that only 23 per cent of tasks carried out in major British businesses could be substituted entirely by technology, while 64 per cent could not be automated at all.

Barclay added that it’s essential firms look to re-skill employees to deal with this change: “At Microsoft, we’re very committed to a broader skilling problem around cloud computing tech and AI, to make sure we’re equipping people with the skills that are going to be in demand.”

The rate of adoption of automation in British companies was revealed in another survey of business leaders carried out by the Royal Society of Arts last month. It found that just 14 per cent of companies had already invested in AI or robotics, or were planning to in the near future.

The RSA’s researchers said automation’s impact on the economy will come down to the choices we make as a society. But they concluded that “these choices will be largely irrelevant unless the UK accelerates its take-up of AI and robotics”.