The north-south skills delusion

October 2012

It never fails to entertain me when business folk in the south of the UK think that the further north you live the less clue you have. We’ve all heard of the ‘north-south divide’ – which Wikipedia sums-up as ‘refers to the perceived economic and cultural differences between Southern England and the rest of Great Britain’ – but in the skills sense I refer to here I call the problem the ‘north-south skills delusion’.

And now I live in the north of Scotland, I experience it all the time. Take the London head office of a client I have up here who thought it wise to get a newly-setup IT consultant (had previously headed-up IT for a largish company in London) to ‘help and advise’ me and my partner business on a marketing strategy (having apparently assumed that we didn’t have one). Of course his start point was to assume we knew next-to-nothing about marketing in an all-things-digital sense (or probably any sense), and proceeded to ask a range of probing questions and no doubt in the belief that we wouldn’t even understand them and therefore could be easily tripped-up. Such tactics just play into my hands, and I simply delight in being able to not only respond to each and every point, but demonstrate to the consultant that actually he hadn’t done his homework and I knew more than he did. And my partner business (which does much of the implementation) did just the same and, I don’t doubt, ran rings around the chap. The outcome? His planned trip north never materialised and, better still, we never heard another peep from him.

The above example certainly isn’t unique, and I could recall various others to demonstrate the point. But actually what’s even worse is the assumption by businesses and organisations in the far north that for really high-end expertise, they also have to look to the south. And in the case of the north of Scotland, the south as the minimum is Inverness but more usually it’s the Central Belt – so Glasgow and Edinburgh. (And no doubt the culture extends as you go progressively go further south, with businesses in Carlisle thinking they need to go to Manchester for expertise, and those in Milton Keynes thinking they need to go to London – and I can vouch for the latter from my days at Argos who are based in Milton Keynes.)

You might think that the problem was largely confined to the private sector, but actually the public sector and non-governmental organisations are just as bad or even worse. In fact I even know of a Chamber of Commerce which looked to the ‘bright lights’ of the nearest city some 120 miles south of the region it represents to get its own visual identity updated, rather than use a perfectly capable business right on their doorstep. And just think about the irony of that given the stated objectives of any Chamber of Commerce.

What’s ultimately so unfortunate about this broad culture is that it deprives very capable individuals and larger businesses of valuable work. And valuable in often small and relatively rural economies that need the work. But it’s also the business and organisations which place the work outside their region which suffer, because they inevitably end up paying more for it than they need to.

There’s also an irony here about the business folk in the south that think those further north of them are all stupid, in that if they woke up to the reality of the situation they’d realise that they could actually get a range of high quality business services for often a fraction of the cost they pay in Edinburgh, Manchester, London or any other big city.

Take a client I have which is based in the East Midlands. I convinced them to use my partner design business in Thurso to create packaging designs for product ultimately destined for the supermarket shelf. And I convinced them to do so because a) I knew the results would be excellent (and they were) and b) because I could get the job done for £5k and not £25k. And that cost is barely an exaggeration.

Of course my monthly rant won’t change the culture of a north-south skills delusion, but it just might act as warning to the next smart-arse in the south if they’re considering a stance on behalf of one of my clients which is around the belief that we’re better at shearing sheep up here than we are SEO strategy. But they’re welcome to try it on anyway…

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