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Evaluating the Cox Review’s impact on bringing design into the C-Suite


Evaluating the Cox Review’s impact on bringing design into the C-Suite

Alex File



The Cox Review of Creativity in Business foregrounded the need for small businesses to better employ and exploit creativity as an act of urgency, in the face of rapidly increasing global competition— not only in low value-added, labour-intensive industries but, increasingly, in high-technology, high-skilled sectors— most notably from the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations of newly advanced economic development. 

Within his 2005 report, Sir George Cox identified the principal obstacles that inhibit organisations making greater use of creativity and sets a roadmap for the Government’s central role in the bringing together of resources to support the enhancement of SME’s creative capability. In tackling culturally ingrained attitudes, understanding and behaviours that challenge the increasing of SME’s creative competency, Cox outlined 5 key areas for action:

Tackle the issue of awareness and understanding, including by taking the Design for Business programme, which has been developed and piloted by the Design Council over the last four years, and making it widely available to SMEs throughout the UK and those that work with them. 
Improve the effectiveness of government support and incentive schemes, prominent among which is the Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credits system. 
Tackle the issue, in higher education, of broadening the understanding and skills of tomorrow’s business leaders, creative specialists, engineers and technologists . 
Take steps to use the massive power of public procurement, both centrally and locally, to encourage more imaginative solutions from suppliers. 
Raise the profile of the UK’s creative capabilities by way of a network of centres of creativity and innovation across the UK, with a national hub in London.

More than a decade on, this short essay critically reviews and reflects upon the implications of the review’s action statements for UK manufacturing organisations, centring on Cox’s call for greater representation of creative specialists on company boards; assessing the broader impact and implementation of The Cox Review, the design maturity of UK SMEs in the manufacturing sector, and influence on belief and engagement of design at board level.


Cox, creativity and the organisation


The Cox Review— selectively and narrowly— frames ‘creativity’ as the generation of new ideas (through finding new ways of looking at existing problems, seeing new opportunities, or exploiting emerging technologies), and ‘innovation’ as the successful exploitation of these new ideas. Cox emphasises design’s role as a process of linking these two activities and shaping them into practical and attractive customer propositions; “creativity deployed to a specific end”.

Creativity, properly employed, carefully evaluated, skilfully managed and soundly implemented, is a key to future business success – and to national prosperity.

Accordingly, in reacting to rapid market transformation and new competitive pressures, Cox argues that the continuous growth of SMEs is reliant upon the adoption of a more “creative approach”. Implicitly and explicitly, Cox’s notion of a more creative approach echoes the preexisting requirement for a product-to-service transition in manufacturing industries, and adoption of a service- rather than goods-dominant logic to organisational strategy— which lends itself to higher levels of innovation and value creation. 

In transitioning manufacturing organisations to service-oriented frameworks, design’s preexistent capacity for creating sustainable competitive advantage through radical transformation of the customer value proposition, by means of cross-disciplinary interaction and new value (co-)creation comes to the fore. 

While many businesses suffered, the more enterprising businesses responded to these pressures, and the industry looks very different today. Half of its revenue comes from services, with creativity at their core. 


Impact on Design in Business


Perhaps due to the review’s context— and therefore considerations for a non-specialist audience— The Cox Review adopted and perpetuated a traditionally narrow view of design’s scope; primarily focussing on value added through digital media, industrial design, packaging, graphic design, branding and advertising. In this regard, Cox’s report demonstrated an inconsistent (if not limited) appreciation for design’s potential for unlocking radical new value beyond these traditional dimensions: largely disregarding systems, services and experiences, for example.

Nonetheless, since The Cox Review, many initiatives— including, Designing Demand and Design Bugs Out— have engaged with SMEs, providing design support and coaching to increase design awareness and exposure, while also demonstrating the benefits of design on the participating organisations’ productivity, particularly for manufacturers. Resultantly, manufacturing SMEs are more likely to say design is integral to their work and a central element in the company's strategy than any other sector; with the value of early stage design in high-value manufacturing widely illustrated.  

To unlock value within lethargic industries and awake the UK’s dormant economic potential, design must be applied strategically by business leaders, through enhanced board engagement and belief in design. Despite this— and the UK’s a strong history of design and design as a personal capability— design specialists continually struggle to penetrate the boardroom. 


Representation of Creative Specialists on Company Boards


Across industries and sectors, many organisations have recognised the value of bringing creative specialists into executive positions; including 3M, Philips, the BBC, and even the Seoul Metropolitan Government. Within SMEs however, organisations can often be segmented into two types: ‘confident’ and ‘apprehensive’ design users.

In order to increase the design confidence of apprehensive organisations, through the bringing of designers (or creative specialists) into the boardroom, Cox calls for the breaking down of language barriers; a key issue that continues to be identified as a primary cause of design not being optimised in the boardroom environment. Moreover, creative specialists must become better equipped for the commercial environment; as they are often lacking knowledge of high-level strategic, managerial and organisational concepts. Therefore, business needs creative specialists who understand the environment in which their talents will be used and who can talk the same language as their clients and business colleagues, to break down the perception that creativity is the province of a few. 

In response to these realities, Cox stressed the need for promoting entrepreneurship and developing business acumen within education in creative fields; advocating for greater legislative provision of a symbiotic experience of business and creativity— envisioning highly multidisciplinary education approaches across creative and business fields. 

The impact of these educational initiatives will take time to provide proof of concept, however actions such as the integration of ‘Managing creativity’ as a topic in the Institute of Directors (IoD) Chartered Director syllabus has generated marked progress in increasing awareness of the role and value of design in innovation, and overcome issues with the associated loss of control and unpredictable outcomes that accompany design-led approaches at executive level. However, these initiatives have also arguably further withheld designers from the boardroom; producing boards of generalists, rather than ones populated by more creative specialists.  




This review is extremely limited in depth, however presents a responsive link between some of the needs identified by Sir George Cox and the journey undertaken by manufacturing SMEs in the interim years. Furthermore— despite The Cox Review’s many virtues and triumphs for raising design’s profile in business— I hope I have also begun to underscore one of The Cox Review’s many shortcomings; pertinently, the implicit segregation of creative communities from wider enterprise, entrepreneurship and industry, via incomplete and inconsistent exposition of design’s potential. Disseminating a view of creativity as a commodity that can be skilfully injected, Cox has potentially further withheld designers from executive roles, through further dilution of the broad, yet distinct, value design offers and reducing the salience of Cox’s own affirmation that creative businesses need to be creative throughout.