The latest research by Barclays shows the UK to be lagging behind ‘Digital Tiger Economies’. Where are we going wrong, and how can we digitally ’empower’ our workforce?

According to new research from Barclays, the UK could be in for a digital battle, as it fights to compete economically on the world stage. The digital technology industry is growing rapidly all the time; there is no doubt that this is where the future is, so of course, we must invest intelligently. Failure to keep up and failure to invest in digital skills however is feared to be more of a reality than previously thought.

Digital empowerment is the ability and desire to use one’s digital skills to work productively and creatively, and to have the opportunity to continually upgrade them to keep pace with changing technology. The Barclays Digital Development Index benchmarks 10 countries around the world on their readiness to compete in the digital economy, and therefore their digital empowerment. The most recent study, which attributes an overarching digital empowerment score to each nation, found that the UK came in just fourth place behind new and emerging ‘digital tiger’ economies: Estonia, South Korea and Sweden.

dreamstime_m_36855040Ashok Vaswani, CEO, Barclays UK wants to drive home the importance of digital empowerment – now, not sometime in the future: “We urgently need to secure London and the UK as the world’s pre-eminent powerhouse of tech innovation as well as make sure that the UK has the digital skills and expertise to compete globally across all sectors and industries. At a time when the UK is considering its future outside the European Union, we have to remember that competing in the digital economy isn’t simply a European question, it’s about a global race that will define how prosperous and successful we are for decades to come.”

The findings are based on a survey of nearly 10,000 working adults combined with analysis of policy frameworks and support for the development of digital skills in each country. The research highlights a disconnect between policies to support digital engagement in the UK, which score well overall, and a lack of confidence in digital skills at an individual level among British workers.Workforce confidence was scored as particularly low when applied to basic digital skills, including security: protecting data and devices.

Workers in the UK are less likely to keep their phones and laptops secure than those in Brazil, South Africa or China, posing a potential risk of dangerous data leaks in the coming years as cyber hackers find increasingly sophisticated ways to access data.

When cyber security issues are already rife in businesses, big and small, it’s concerning that only 13% of people in the UK use password-generating software to create hard-to-crack passwords. This is compared to 32% in China and 32% in India. Equally, only 41% of people in the UK change important passwords regularly, compared to 59% in India. One of the easiest ways of running into security issues is storing payment information on a laptop, computer or phone – especially when passwords are relatively easy to hack – but, despite this, only 38% of people in the UK never save or store payment information on online accounts, compared to 58% in South Africa.

So, the question is, is this due to a lack of skills, education or just simple denial?

Looking at digital skills in the UK…

The UK ranks just seventh out of 10 for coding skills and content creation. As this is a key indicator of the ability to be a ‘digital creator’ rather than just a ‘digital consumer’, our readiness to be a competitor in the future digital economy is far from certain. Businesses are finding it harder and harder to gain and retain the skills that they need to innovate and grow. The UK needs over 745,000 additional professionals with digital skills to cope with increasing demand between 2013 and 2017, but the findings of this survey reveal this prospect to be very daunting indeed. Even in this day and age, where the Internet is King, every business has a website and the majority of high street retailers seem to be struggling, a shockingly low 16% of people in the UK would be very comfortable building a website, compared to 39% in Brazil and 37% in India. Equally, with Smartphones pinned to eyes and ears all day long, it’s surprising to note that only 11% of people in the UK would be very comfortable creating a mobile app or game, compared to 22% in the USA, 27% in Brazil, or 33% in India.

In addition, just 12% of people in the UK feel very comfortable creating a software programme or game, compared to 23% in the USA or 33% in India.

ipad-820272All the while, the UK maintains its rank in 4th position in terms of support for the development of digital skills, performing well in selected areas of digital skills policy and advanced learning skills. We have the technology! Quite literally. But these strengths are offset by relatively low capability and confidence in digital skills on an individual level – here, the UK ranks in 6th place behind some of its biggest economic rivals China, India and the USA. So, we turn to education.

If the capabilities are there and the skills being taught, where are we going wrong?


Looking at digital training in the UK…

The two leading countries in the index are ahead of the UK in the ranking for digital policies. Both Estonia and South Korea are particularly strong on vocational and workplace digital skills, while South Korea leads the way on broadband access policy and digital skills in compulsory education.

With the UK coming seventh out of 10 in vocational and workplace skills, the research highlights a clear need for more to be done in the workplace to help boost digital skills. Estonia and South Korea, the joint leaders on digital empowerment, are also joint leaders on vocational and workplace skills. Only 38% of UK workers interviewed for the study say that their employer offers training in digital skills; this figure is considerably higher in China, the US (48% in both) and India (67%).

The digital skills gap costs the UK economy £63bn a year in lost GDP, which makes a strong case for investing in workplace training and education. This in turn will boost the UK workforce’s confidence and take us closer to our goal of not only securing our place in the digital battle, but in the UK’s economic future.

Ashok continued: “In the last century, most of us had to cope with just one big shift in technology in our career or lifetime, and we’ve been able to rely on our early education to get us through. But, now these changes are happening constantly though the evolution of the internet, smartphones, social media, and the advent of new technologies like blockchain, virtual reality, AI and open data.”

Of course, the workforce’s lack of confidence in basic digital skills suggests that, for example, some of the policies we already have in place are simply not being applied in the right areas. We then fall into a cycle where the confidence isn’t there to even teach the skills necessary, leading to a shortage of teachers qualified to provide instruction in digital skills, impeding any potential progress.

Ashok added: “This research shows Britons need to equip themselves with digital skills whether to future proof their career, or keep personal data and devices safe. Businesses also need to do much more to upskill each and every generation of their workforce; we need to create a new culture of lifelong learning.”

What can we do to improve?

Digital empowerment requires the government, businesses and other stakeholders to together provide workers with the necessary digital infrastructure, training and support. For all stakeholders, it means understanding and embracing the digital future, especially at such an uncertain time in our history.

“With the [EU] referendum sending a clear message that too many parts of the UK do not feel they are sharing in the promise of global prosperity, now is the time to take everyone in society forward in the digital age,” warns Ashok.

The comparison of digital confidence and policy across countries points to five objectives that UK policymakers, businesses and other key stakeholders should jointly pursue to build digital empowerment: accelerate efforts, widen the focus to all groups – not just the most relevant, introduce more rigorous training to provide others with educators, keep non-IT entities involved, and diversify the learning (we all learn differently, so we must cater for that). Only then can we try to close the digital skills gap that’s costing our economy millions, and isolating us as a country lagging behind the digital tiger economies.