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Talking to other caterers and learning from them – whether within teams or among different ones – has undoubted benefits

12th Jun 2019 - 16:20
That's the view of Mark Davies, managing director at ISS UK Food Service, who spoke to David Foad.

David Foad: Do you think sharing industry knowledge across foodservice is of value?

Mark Davies: It’s an interesting question and certainly the short answer is yes. We all want each of our businesses to thrive and it’s helpful if, collectively, our industry has a good reputation in the eyes of our customers – the Government. Despite there being the important aspect of competition, we share the same customer group, so it has value that we share best practice. There is a commonality of issues and we can work together as an industry and if we can speak with one voice it provides greater weight to our message.

DF: Do you feel that the public sector is very good at this?

MD: We can always be better. We obviously have a customer group that is fairly ‘siloed’ in itself and there are lots of different organisations working together with lots of government departments. I think it would be better if we were good at sharing within and across the different sectors. I am encouraged when I see the different interest groups like PS100, School Food Matters, LACA, NACC and HCA all working toward common aims.

One of the best examples of collaboration is the School Food Plan – it’s a wonderful case study of how multiple caterers, NGOs [non-governmental organisations], lobbyists, research groups and charities all came together and collaborated, despite possibly have slightly different views. The output they generated was very strong and Government listened. As a result they achieved a number of the outcomes they were looking for. There was an energy and purpose behind it and some very useful working relationships were formed. It helps, of course, to have a particular objective that everyone can get behind. In this case it was improving children’s futures.

DF: What works best if you want to encourage such working together?

MD: It’s a mixture of things – social media, informal networking and more formal presentations. Think tanks are a good starting point with topical subjects that are relevant for most. You want thought leaders involved and your events should work for business leaders e.g. breakfast meetings that are slightly less formal. You want to foster networks. After that you can start to make things slightly bigger, but the key is to focus on particular topic areas and that there are leaders involved who are empowered to take action when needed, behind a compelling and common purpose.

DF: Do you encourage this idea of cross-fertilisation in ISS?

MD: It’s an important strategic focus for us at the moment and a major driving force behind the creation of ISS Food Services. We have developed a matrix structure to enable that cross-fertilisation of ideas and functions to happen. We have also established an Excellence Board on which all the subject matter experts are represented and the board hears about best practice and talks about concepts and systems. We try to see if best practice can travel between sectors - schools learning from B&I teams, for example, or taking public sector IT and systems into the workplace. We have an internal social media network Yammer [Microsoft’s business-focused social media tool] which provides a safe, private platform. It’s like an informal Twitter or Instagram to show what happens in the various sectors of the company. It fosters networks all over the business – across different sectors and across subject matter – so we have foodies and techies talking to each other, often across international borders.

We try to learn from this and align things where we can. This [Yammer] is something we have developed over the last 18 months and there is still some work to do, but I’m pleased that things are starting to happen in terms of supporting what we’re doing in the different parts of the business. We have 600 schools, for instance, and getting the schools to share stuff is a challenge but we’re starting to see that come on really well. We try not to force it and let it develop naturally. Some prefer Twitter, others What’s App for example. It’s about encouragement and allowing people to make the connections. Encouraging this type of sharing is a long-term project, it’s trying to help people feel less isolated and knowing they can ask somebody if they need to.

DF: Can you tell us about an example where an idea has been borrowed from another sector?

MD: In our primary schools we have an award-winning programme called Feeding Excellence Every Day that was inspired by a concept called Touchpoints@ISS, which was originally designed for an office environment to help us enhance the workplace experience for employees. Touchpoint@ISS looks at the experience from coming in first thing in the morning, to booking a room for a meeting, having lunch all the way through to leaving in the evening. It made us think, ‘do we understand the experience for children at school?’. And it got us thinking about what it’s like for them. In the office people can tell you about problems and we try to fix them, but in a primary school it’s more challenging.

So we decided to do some research and gave head-mounted cameras to children so we could observe their actions, emotions and interactions as they navigated the lunchtime experience. That gave us an insight that we would probably never have got. We looked at five different touch points and then considered how different schools had tried to meet the challenges around each one. We then aggregated them to produce the Feeding Excellence Everyday programme.

DF: What are the most important issues facing caterers in the public sector right now and how might greater collaboration help address them?

MD: Brexit aside, generally in the public sector it is austerity, to varying degrees. We have had this for ten years and it continues to challenge our customers and so has an impact on us. It has made life much more difficult for caterers in the public sector. The other big question is over sourcing of services for our customers. Many public sector catering organisations have changed or disbanded, then we had Carillion and now with others challenged in the sector. To me it’s how the public sector procures its services. What does partnership mean? What outcomes do we want to achieve? How do we change so that we approach things collaboratively? There are new models that can be adopted e.g. Vested [hybrid outsourcing business model], different ways of viewing the partnerships between supplier and customer. It involves asking the question, what does social value mean? And, how do we demonstrate it? We need to approach things in the spirit of a win-win situation.

I also feel that the value of what we do in the public sector seems to have eroded under the weight of the financial challenges along with its value to society. We need to bang our own drum and say, ‘this is what we do across the different sectors’. There’s a lot of great stuff going on and we should do more to tell people about it and promote the industry.

Written by
David Foad