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Canals and Technology... What Do They Have in Common?

Following our recent senior leadership meeting Chairman Andy Jervis shared his reflections with our team on how things have continued to grow and adapt during 2021. Although written for our Teams, It's a great read, so we thought we'd share it with you too.

The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, a section of which we navigated this week, will be 250 years old next year. When it first opened in 1772 it was an immediate success, creating new efficient trade routes between the Potteries, Gloucester, Bristol and Birmingham, and soon recovering it's £100,000 construction cost.

As one of Britain's oldest canals the 'Staffie' follows the contours of the land in a winding, twisty course along it's length. The engineers who built it didn't have the technology to build the dramatic embankments and deep cuttings that appeared on more modern canals such as the Shropshire Union, which opened 63 years later and offered long, straight stretches of canal that cut journey times dramatically for the narrow boat hauliers for whom the waterways were constructed.

We think that times move fast today, but the period of the industrial revolution was just as quick to develop. Canals galvanised trade in the UK and innovation followed innovation as their sponsors sought quicker ways to move people and goods around. The huge canal boom gave way to the railways, which in turn gave way to the road network as each new technology developed and overcame the limitations of its predecessor.

Transforming technologies

Technology has transformed our own workplaces dramatically too. When I was a callow youth in my first 'proper' job at Norwich Union in Leicester, we had no computers. Clients rang in to our office on their landline, and if they didn't know their policy number we went to the card index at the back of the office to look it up before pulling out the appropriate ledger from the shelf containing all of the policy records. When I started my own business I was one of the first people in the area to offer computerised motor insurance quotations. We had to load up the computer each morning by running a cassette tape with all of the codes required. Now, 37 years on, we talk to our computers and they answer back!

But some things don't change, despite the march of technology. The early canal boats were pulled by horse but steered by humans, and although the method of propulsion changed over time, they are still steered by humans today. The card indexes and ledgers needed humans to operate them, and the computers of today need humans to talk to them. Despite our rapid progress, it will be a long time before computers can function in our business without human intervention.

Keeping closer to our customers

What technology has enabled us to do is to stay much closer to our customers. People's service expectations have increased as technology has helped us to work quicker and more efficiently, and clients want their interactions to not only be smooth and fault-free but also personalised and human. Having the means to deliver an outstanding service using technology is one thing, but actually delivering it in practice is another. I guess we all have stories of shoddy service and poor communication in our interactions with the many organisations we all come into contact with during each day.

As our business grows it can become harder to maintain standards that clients love. New team members require training and support to be able to use the technological tools they have available to them, and to understand and assimilate the ethos and culture of the organisation. This takes time.

Great people

I have been heartened by the way in which all of our managers have been able to recruit great people, bring them into the fold, and help them to become effective in their roles. Like the early canal engineers, we are continuing to build our knowledge and effectiveness day by day, month by month, year by year. You are all doing a great job in what are often very trying circumstances, but we are also learning as we go, and none of us gets everything right. Making mistakes is a corollary of progress, and are how we improve.

The primary function of our transport systems is simply to move people and things from one place to another. The primary purpose of our financial planning, accountancy and legal businesses is to deliver personal freedom to our clients, whether that is by growing their wealth, helping them to get their affairs in order, manage their businesses, secure their property, or guide their families. All of these things are founded on the true peace of mind that arises when you have a reliable, effective, conscientious and skilled partner taking care of these things. That's a role that's not easy to fill, but fill it we do and our clients unquestionably get the benefit of our efforts.

Let us continue to be that reliable partner to our clients, and let us at the same time continue to learn and improve, and seek innovative ways to remain outstanding at what we do. You’re doing a great job, and I and our clients appreciate it.


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