Disruptive business models – driving change and innovation across the globe

At the CBI Annual Conference 2015, the BBC’s Evan Davis hosted an insightful series of interviews on the contribution to global business of disrupter companies at different stages of their evolution. Here, Fiona Murchie reviews the debate.

Williams F1

Courtesy of Williams/LAT

This year's CBI conference was aptly titled Global Ambition: Britain Means Business. Evan Davis, presenter of BBC TV programmes Newsnight and Dragon's Den and Radio 4's The Bottom Line, explored disruptive innovation, teasing out what made disrupters – from new challengers to established firms embracing change – successful. Jo Bertram, of Uber, gave insights into the dramatic growth of her agile organisation, which has shaken up the taxi world in an increasing number of global cities."Uber has succeeded where others haven't because of its user interface, its 'safe ride' features, and its ability to scale quickly," she said.The Airbnb home-sharing experience, related by general manager for the UK and Ireland James McClure, is already impinging on hotels, and, in the relocation sector, is making the serviced apartment sector sit up and take notice."The success of the Airbnb platform is in its easy-to-use interface and the ability to reach a wide audience," said Mr McClure.Meanwhile, more established disrupters like Amazon continue to surprise. In November, Amazon announced the opening of its first bookstore, in Seattle. Diversification and innovation have been key to the company's success, adding Amazon Web Services to its online retail model.As Amazon UK's Christopher North said, "Sticking to your principles is key. For Amazon, this has always been customer obsession, embracing innovation, and long-term thinking."Jayne-Anne Gadhia, from Virgin Money, illustrated the point that you don't have to be a young business to disrupt. Reinforcing this point was Andy Harris, of Whitbread, whose brands include Premier Inns and Costa Coffee.Mr Harris demonstrated that investing in technology had boosted the company's ability to deliver a great night's sleep and the customer experience. Success is also about leadership, he believes, and "having the right attitude, bringing in new skills, new ways of working, and bringing in people to create the muscle you didn't have before."Moya Greene, Canadian CEO of the Royal Mail Group, talked passionately about how her organisation had changed. Through investment in technology and people, it had attained the number one position in parcels, grasping new opportunities, with 70 per cent of its business generated by internet shopping deliveries.Meanwhile, on the mail side, much loved and trusted by the UK public, the reality is that messages are delivered increasingly by smartphone. "Shrinkage also takes investment in people and training, and it is about moving in a sensible way around what is happening," commented Ms Greene.

Teams, engagement, innovation

For some companies, it is all about speed. Claire Williams, deputy team principal of the Williams Formula 1 motor-racing team, was introduced by Sky Sports presenter David Croft as someone who lived her life in the fast lane.Ms Williams has played a pivotal role in effecting change. When she took over her role in 2012, the team were languishing."If you don't evoke change, you don't get change," she told her audience. "We have a lot of fans, and we couldn't allow ourselves to go into a circle of decline." The strategy, she explained, was to look at every area and turn it around.The budgets of the other teams were huge, Claire Williams explained, citing figures of £300 million-plus for Ferrari and Mercedes. Asked if it was about buying the best power unit, the Mercedes engine, she replied, "Everything has to work in harmony to achieve success."What Ms Williams is most proud of is 500 staff working behind one winning driver.This was a high-impact session, with lots, too, about motivation, acquiring talent for a global sport, and encouraging the younger generation to come on board.With kids today beginning karting aged three or four, it is about getting into schools early and encouraging interest in STEM subjects. Leaving it until GCSE and A Level stage is too late."Formula 1 is a human capital business," Claire Williams said. "It is therefore crucial that we arrest the declining interest in the study of STEM subjects at school and inspire the next generation of budding engineers. Several of our staff are STEM Ambassadors, who go into local schools and deliver speeches designed to engage young people to focus on STEM subjects."There was inspiration for plenty of businesses here, with examples of innovation, diversification, and sharing industry knowledge to generate new income streams.Williams Advanced Engineering, with a £20 million turnover, is now a critical revenue stream, contributing to the £110 million it takes to fund a season.It is not just working in the car sector. Claire Williams gave the example of collaboration with UK start-up Aerofoil Energy to develop a new aerodynamic device that could significantly reduce the energy consumed by supermarket refrigerators.With a strong message coming across from all industry sectors represented about the importance of developing women leaders and ensuring they made it to the boardroom, it was encouraging to see the CBI's effort to reflect the gender balance in its choice of speakers, and to see so many women delegates.Combined with Caroline Fairbairn's taking over from John Cridland as director-general, this sends a clear message that big business is responding to the call for equality and diversity.Many of the themes touched on at the CBI conference have also been highlighted in HR and global mobility events this season, including the CIPD, Worldwide ERC, and Canadian Employee Relocation Council conferences.

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