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When Two Heads are Better than One

To be competitive, firms need to streamline processes, raise productivity and meet targets. Yet real innovations often demand a little time dawdling in the slow lane, thinking rather than ticking boxes.

As the new Benedict Cumberbatch film about Alan Turing (due to be released this November) no doubt underlines, the UK has not always treated its technology pioneers as heroes. Many of us could pass Sir Tim Berners-Lee in the street, unaware we were in the presence of the man behind the worldwide web - and history lessons rarely feature Ada Lovelace the 19th century woman mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage on early computers.

Yet suddenly the country is waking up to the need to encourage this particular type of brilliance. "You've got to make sure that the UK becomes a hub for digital skills," TechUK chief executive Julian David told the government recently. But is it too late? In tandem with the mobile and social media revolutions and the emergence of the cloud, big data and the Internet of Things - we are still experiencing technology skills shortages and many firms are looking beyond the UK to recruit the expertise they need.

Encouragingly, the latest figures do show a 12% increase in students studying computer science - the highest total in a decade, so all is not lost. But perhaps it's away from the classroom and lecture theatre that the real problem lies. Today's pace of business means that even in technology-focused companies, there's little time for in-depth research or experiments on how to address a particular challenge.

To be competitive, firms need to streamline processes, raise productivity and meet targets. Yet real innovations often demand a little time dawdling in the slow lane, thinking rather than ticking boxes.

Technology followers have an example right in front of their eyes; big data. Everybody is praising its potential but few have time to find out how to fulfil it. Many businesses need help in identifying the opportunities it presents.

Despite all the hype and glib assumptions, big data a complex and multifaceted topic, taking advanced mathematical skills as well as creative insight. In other words, the kind of predictive analysis data scientists need to carry out to exploit this data sits more comfortably in an environment where ideas can be pooled and there's time to try out new ideas - rather than a highly competitive office, where the pressure is on to make short-term wins. Besides, in reality, many firms just won't have the staff with specialist knowledge or skills to make sense of this analysis, anyway.

This is why I believe the answer could lie in encouraging closer links between universities and industry. After all, one of the complaints about newly-qualified graduates is that they have no experience in the world of work. This way under- and post-graduate students, can work on actual live projects and learn about real problems and practical challenges. In turn, participating businesses have a global lab of experts on hand who can add value in a multitude of ways - and hopefully push the boundaries with their innovation and problem-solving skills.

For example, Bull has a partnership with the University of Warwick. Data scientists from the university's strategic business research unit and business experts from Bull, combine knowledge, skills and high performance computing resources to help Bull's customers and other increase their understanding of data integration and analysis and device practical ways to apply the results.

This collaboration doesn't have to be restricted to one university either - HPC Midlands is a joint venture between Loughborough and Leicester universities, backed by £1 million funding from the UK government and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and powered a supercomputer from Bull. It prioritises research that has direct economic benefits for both academic and industrial organisations.

Again this demonstrates business and academia working together, taking the best of both worlds and benefitting both in different ways. It neatly addresses the skills shortfall - but it's far more than a stop-gap approach. As Turing's, Berners-Lee's and Lovelace's work has demonstrated - application is all. This blending of the best academic and commercial brains is proving a potent combination and leading to valuable and practical results.

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