This is a pivotal time for the UK tech sector, as the current circumstances drive both innovation and seismic shifts in the way we work and learn. Though some businesses are more insulated and able to step up than others, explains Nick Watson.
While we remain in the middle of a rapidly developing global situation, history shows that following any sort of economic crisis, market leaders tend to be the ones to come to the fore, while weaker competitors may fall by the wayside. We have witnessed this phenomenon in recent times. Notably, following the "dot-com" bubble implosion in the early 2000s, and the credit crunch and subsequent banking crisis of the late 2000s.
We expect this to equally ring true in the performance of UK tech companies during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, with a majority relatively well insulated to cope with the current disruption.
Insulating factors for the UK tech sector
UK tech sector vendors operating across fintech, healthcare, pharma, biotech, cloud solutions and connectivity, and mission-critical areas of the public sector should prove to be largely protected.
Types of contract:
Long-term contracted revenues, enabling high visibility and renewing on a rolling basis, will provide additional security.
General resilience of business models:
Software as a Service or managed services operators with high degrees of recurring revenue and strong cash conversion have weathered previous storms exceptionally well.
Supply chain strength:
Hardware manufacturing and assembly companies that rely heavily on Asian manufacturing and components are already suffering significant disruption to everyday operations and logistics. Industry heavyweights, such as Apple and Xiaomi, have publicly announced that the outbreak would affect their results for the ongoing quarter.
Ability to forecast future cash flows in a reliable and granular way:
This is a major contributing factor in allowing UK tech sector companies to access government support programmes designed to preserve cash and manage resources: furloughing and CBIL loans, the Future Fund and tax schemes.
For more information on these schemes, see our COVID-19 hub.
Important role for UK tech sector in fighting COVID-19
Not only is technology prominent in our efforts to help predict, mitigate and contain the spread of COVID-19, but this innovation may well enable new ways of working in the future. The UK government is talking with UK tech sector industry leaders to examine the role of technology during this crisis. This represents a significant opportunity to transform the delivery of healthcare and other tech-enabled services, both during the pandemic and in future.
3D printer farm
Many are taking the prime minister's early call for the UK tech sector to join the fight against COVID-19 literally, with newly pooled resources often creating interesting developments. For example, members of the Reading Makerspace are exploring whether they can create a 'sanitised' pop-up 3D printer farm to attempt to print the parts for single-use face visors for the NHS.
Similarly, the IT systems for the NHS Nightingale Hospital at London’s ExCel Centre were implemented in less than a week. The whole IT project has been delivered rapidly by extending the incumbent Cerner Millennium Electronic Health Record (EHR) platform at Barts Health NHS Trust. The necessary infrastructure has also been put in place with support from Cisco and Block, while Nightingale Hospital staff will be able to use most of the systems already implemented across the Trust’s five hospitals. Cerner UK MD Distie Profit said, “this goes a long way to show the great things we are all able to achieve when we work together towards a single goal, and for the benefit of millions.”1
In another example of the role tech and innovation is playing in the fight against COVID-19, a number of organisations have been working on apps to help track the spread of the virus, or manage the social-distancing requirements of a progressive return to work. NHSx has developed a contact tracking app, which alerts people to new cases in their locality and allows them to input their own suspected symptoms. The data is then used to track where the virus is spreading and alert other app users that cases are escalating in their area. It is hoped that the data will also help NHS Digital develop an algorithm to identify high-risk patients by applying a range of demographic information such as age, clinical history and prescribing history.
There may be more permanent shifts in how we work, learn and create as a result of the pandemic. Four particular areas with impacts for the UK tech sector are:
1 Remote and collaborative working
The surge in remote working stands to benefit a range of conferencing, unified communications and connectivity providers, particularly with the advent of 5G. We are now more likely to be comfortable working from home and organisations will be set up for remote, flexible working from inception.
Video communication and collaboration specialists, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, are the order of the day and will continue to be so. Zoom has already unlocked multiple restrictions on its services, meaning users can now hold meetings for up to 100 participants, including audio, video, screen sharing, whiteboarding, annotation and breakout rooms for free. There are also live and recorded training options – useful for teachers – and additional resources for home learning. The platform has seen a huge surge in its user base, from two million users in 2019 to 4.2 million in March this year and rising.
5G is also set to facilitate the trend towards remote, flexible working, as well as bring many more disruptive capabilities on a network and service level. Essentially bringing direct improvements in capacity, latency, mobility, accuracy, reliability, availability and simultaneous connectivity across multiple devices.
There has been a huge uplift in demand for online learning courses and resources. Pearson and RM are seeing a significant uplift in the use of their digital products and growing interest in ‘virtual school offerings’. COVID-19 is likely to be the catalyst that will accelerate a shift to online learning and e-assessment. Although there are obstacles to overcome – there are huge cost, infrastructure, management and security implications in digitising the examination process – we will see significant advances in the area of EdTech, as countries and education bodies seek to improve their resilience to any possible future disruption.
3 Hybrid and multi-cloud IT infrastructure
Long-term, organisations will need to adopt hybrid or multi-cloud strategies to develop and enable flexible infrastructure to manage remote workforces. Many businesses now recognise that the virus’ impact is testing their ability to respond to crises that may affect local back-office IT operations, such as data centres or co-location facilities. History will undoubtedly highlight the importance of distributed cloud IT systems in disaster recovery situations. The cloud’s distributed nature is a natural fit to the post-COVID world and will be the hero in a future landscape that features winners and losers.
4 Local tech manufacturing
Supply chains have been severely hit due to COVID-19, particularly those of hardware and electronics manufacturers that have a propensity to rely on Asia for key parts and the assembly process. In the long term, this may lead to tech manufacturing hotspots in other parts of the world, as well as increased automation to drive further efficiencies into the manufacturing process.
The pandemic is showing us more than ever before, the sheer importance and value that tech has in running our businesses, our teams and our lives during such times of uncertainty. For many people, this is the first time they will realise the true power of technology in enabling aspects ranging from remote working to instant knowledge sharing. It is likely to be a true shifting point in our attitudes towards tech-driven behaviour in the long-term. “Companies in the tech sector will find this is a pivotal time to really speed up and ramp up their efforts to contribute to the shift,” says Robert Darling, COO, Eko2.
In reality, the UK tech sector could ultimately grow as it provides ways to meet the needs and demands generated by this unprecedented situation. Necessity is the mother of invention and the UK has a great track record for innovation in recent times. These new technologies and ways of working will help shape how we all live going forward.
To discuss these topics further and find out how our team can support your innovation and growth, please contact Nick Watson or Andy Morgan.