Red Rose county must do more to shout about tech
Lancashire has a tech community to rival its neighbours, but must do more to shout about it.
That’s the view of Digital Lancashire chairman Michael Gibson, who believes the county’s geography can sometimes make it challenging for like-minded businesses to collaborate.
All that is set to change, however, with the increasing workload of Gibson’s group, the not-for-profit community interest company set up to address the issues facing the sector and accelerate growth.
Launched with help from Lancashire County Council, 60 businesses have joined the organisation so far and managing director Stewart Townsend has been appointed.
“The big thing with Lancashire is that we’re separate groups of communities and people in Burnley don’t necessarily work with businesses in Lancaster,” Gibson, who sold Lancaster web designers Fat Media two years ago after building it up to 68 staff, told BusinessCloud.
“Yet, when we came together in a big room for the first time we found the challenges were very similar, things like the lack of office space for SMEs and the broadband infrastructure.
"Businesses have tended to operate individually rather than understand there’s a bigger community out there where they can get support.”
In addition to the Lancashire group, smaller local groups will be rolled out, starting with Burnley as a pilot area. Burnley already has around 70 member businesses.
“That’s really great because we’ve seen what the potential is,” Gibson said, adding that groups for the likes of Blackburn, Preston and Lancaster will follow.
Special interest gatherings may then form, such as an eCommerce network where companies can share ideas.
“Lancashire has a lot of eCommerce businesses working in their own areas that don’t compete, yet they have common issues like how to market themselves,” Gibson added.
“We need to form clusters so that if we have 10 eCommerce companies in one town they can work together to gain more support and maybe encourage more companies to move in.”
Another shared consideration is around skills – arming up-and-coming talent with the tools required by the area’s tech businesses then ensuring they stay in the county.
The larger organisation has already worked with University of Central Lancashire to draw up a digital apprenticeship programme and more partnership work with education could follow, Gibson said, as it is essential to show the universities and colleges what businesses want.
It has also worked with ten schools and colleges to set up the Digital Advantage programme to identify those aged 16 to 18 who have an interest in coding or blogging, for example, that they could turn into a career.
“What we hope is that we’ll have 100 people ready to move into a digital apprenticeship – that’s exciting and it’s perfect for getting the economy working,” he said, adding that the group wants to do a lot more with schools to help shape the digital curriculum.
“There’s so much more potential and government money around now and if we can do better as a digital sector we can offer something that’s a bit more rewarding for young people and graduates.
“We want to retain these graduates in Lancashire and give them a well-paid and exciting career here, which will also mean we retain the companies here, because sadly there are companies that move because they’re attracted by the bright lights of London and Manchester.”
Competition from nearby Manchester and the digital community in Salford is an issue, but Gibson says Lancashire boasts a work-life balance that is second-to-none. “Lancashire’s tech community is very strong, but it’s very disparate,” he said.
“In Manchester everyone talks about the digital community but nobody says that about Lancashire. There’s not necessarily been anybody to shout for us or pull together what’s there, yet we have companies like AMS Neve in Burnley, which has won an Oscar for its digital sound work.
"There are countless other examples of companies working in different sectors across the county and somehow we’ve got to put the glue in place to hold all that together.”