From the top · 5 April 2017

Martha Lane Fox doesn’t believe government’s digital strategy goes deep enough

Martha Lane Fox
Martha Lane Fox was appointed in 2016 as an advisor to the Government Digital Service.

It’s no secret that too many of the UK’s small business owners are yet to fully embrace digital technology, a plight that Martha Lane Fox is keen to draw a line under.

Research from Lloyd’s bank has suggested as many as 1.4m lack “basic digital skills” and are yet to use technology to reduce costs and increase efficiency within their company.

The recently published digital strategy acts as the government response to these skills gaps. The document brought together a number of investment plans and corporate initiatives to see out prime minister Theresa May’s familiar pledge to make Britain “the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business”.

Martha Lane Fox – who, as co-founder of early internet success story Lastminute.com and previously a digital champion for government, is well-placed to answer questions surrounding Britain’s digital future – is enthusiastic about the strategy’s potential to deliver a safety net of base level digital skills for the owners of small companies.

However, with technology trends constantly evolving, does the strategy represent a comprehensive long-term solution to the skills gaps evident in small businesses?

“I don’t think it will address the deeper skills needed,” Lane Fox exclusively told Business Advice.

“Lots of organisations are helping in a fantastic way to make a profound difference to how we think about basic digital skills, but there are far fewer organisations addressing that more difficult aspect of digital understanding,” she added.

Elaborating on how this deeper understanding of technology manifests itself, Lane Fox outlined the common knowledge gaps that could prove vital in a business remaining competitive.

“It’s about understanding how different security might affect you, or being able to think about data protection in a way that’s helpful to your business. It’s also about ensuring you can use different social media platforms and are able to assess how automation might impact your industry in the coming years,” she explained.

“Those are the kind of things that we should be helping business owners with.”

One initiative will see Barclays bank deliver cyber security training to a million UK workers by 2020, while Google has targeted the skill sets of small tourism business in coastal towns across the country.

“Organisations like Google, Barclays and Lloyds have brilliant intentions – and it’s great to see it come from the corporate sector – but this is a difficult and changing world and keeping it up to speed with what people need is a major challenge. I don’t think they are able to do it by themselves,” Lane-Fox added.

A committee of MPs warned parliament in 2016 that British industry was facing a “digital skills crisis”. As seen in the digital strategy, the national response has been to rely on the private sector for training initiatives with public investment in infrastructure.

Grading Britain’s digital progress

The strategies implemented by government indicate a three-year plan for the business community to make significant progress on the digital skills question.

Lane Fox suggested that commercial indicators, like Lloyds’ digital skills index, will be important in grading Britain’s movement on technology by 2020.

“Being able to assess basic digital skills is a crucial part of the puzzle. We can look at our infrastructure and speeds, that’s something we can tangibly measure.

“What is harder to gauge is our general digital understanding. However, we can judge the success of that if we’ve got better productivity, if our exports are growing and if we can build a world post-Brexit. All of this is irrelevant unless it helps us build a more resilient and robust economy in the future.”

For Lane Fox, the UK’s entrepreneurs and business leaders could look beyond top-down policy and play a crucial role in ensuring a digitally-capable future for Britain. She outlined two strands of “digital leadership” business owners can incorporate into their company’s ethics.

“If your organisation has anything to do with technology – whether it’s using it or creating software – ensure you are doing it in the most inclusive and diverse way you can. Think about the human angles of technology – not just designing for the early adopters, but designing for the people we don’t want to leave behind,” she explained.

The second strand, according to the dot.com entrepreneur, is applying the ethics of sustainability to technology, in terms of energy and supply chains.

“Just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply the same standards as the real world,” she added.

A future of ethical technology according to Martha Lane Fox

With Article 50 now triggered, and Britain tasked with re-asserting itself in the world order, Lane Fox urged business leaders and politicians to take control of the country’s “digital destiny”. She is firm in her belief that technology has yet to fully empower the people who use it.

“It is here, in the space where ethics and tech meet, that Britain can be a world leader,” she said.

But in real terms, what could this future look like in Britain?

According to Lane Fox: “It could be one that celebrates not just digital skills but digital understanding – the ability to both use tech and to comprehend, in real terms, the impact it has on our lives.”

Adding colour to these ideas, she pointed to gender diversity programmes within the French startup community. She suggested the UK government has yet to fully embrace the capabilities of small tech companies in Britain in the public supply chain to the same extent as the United States Digital Service.

“Or it could be one that calls on every sector to build innovative, forward-thinking cyber security,” Lane Fox added.

“This is not just about digital. It’s about finding the future of Britain. We’re about to be a smaller country alone in a large world. There is no society more fit to lead the world in ethical technology, and so the role is ours for the taking.”

Martha Lane Fox is one of our small business decision makers for 2017 – the influencers leading future policy and enterprise promotion in the UK

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Simon Caldwell is a reporter for Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and communications from the University of Liverpool, and previously worked as a content editor in the ecommerce industry.

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