There is a golden rule with ‘research’, namely, to ensure that you get your survey/project reported in the mainstream media. You can be pretty sure that the vast majority who read about it will never check your data, or indeed actually read your original report, but a couple of provocative headlines, preferably highlighting some potential fear (“digital growth could lead to total impoverishment of the UK” or similar) and you’re almost guaranteed to be in the Daily Mail and probably also on a phone-in hosted by Nicky Campbell on Radio5Live.
Barclays Digital Development Index certainly won a watch with the publicity for its latest research. That’s not to say that its research is wrong, but the way it’s being reported gives only one side of the digital picture in the UK at present. What’s slightly strange, to me at least, is that when I first Googled “Barclays Digital Development Index” I couldn’t actually find the original report. There was no end of links to the media reports of the survey, mainly under headings such as “UK lagging behind other countries in digital skills”. This is based on several of the report’s findings, including the one that that the UK is only ranked fourth out of ten countries for its support for digital knowledge. But we all know that ‘bad’ news sells (digital) papers! However, a day later and the report came top of the rankings.
The survey, which covers 10,000 people (1,000 in each country surveyed), asks some interesting questions (e.g. would you be comfortable building a website?) and the results rank countries according to a range of measures that combine citizens’ skills and government policy on digital tech. Apparently, some 16pc of respondents from the UK feel “very comfortable” building a website. This sounds not bad, until you read that 39pc of Brazilians say they would be similarly relaxed about tackling such a project. Is it just me or does this sound disproportionately high for both countries? Are nearly one in five of the people you know in the UK “very comfortable” building a website? Moreover, does this mean building one from scratch with code or simply “building” a site from one of the many online ‘kits’ such as 1and1, 123-reg or Wix? There is a world of a difference between the two.
Dig a bit deeper into the “lagging behind” headlines and you find that Barclays, while expressing some notes of caution, are actually pretty confident about the UK. Their CEO, Ashok Vaswani, is quoted in some of the media analysis of the Index as saying the UK “comes out in a pretty reasonable place; clearly the Government has done a lot to put the basic building blocks in place”, but he also added that there more needs done. In the report in City AM, he goes on, “We have to get people being digital creators, not just consumers. It’s about not just inclusion, but empowerment”, adding that he’s confident the government will continue to push the digital agenda, despite the complicated matter of Brexit - “and hopefully with even more vigour”.
We wrote in a recent blog about the strength of the UK digital economy and the need for more talented people to staff it. The Barclays survey is correct in that we still have a lot of people who are not particularly tech-savvy – mainly older people I suspect – but that doesn’t change the fact that we are undoubtedly a leader in many digital fields. The sale to the Japanese of ARM Holdings (the UK’s eminent technology firm which designs the chips that power billions of smartphones and computers worldwide) shows that we can create fantastic, highly profitable digital businesses. And there is an enormous demand for the tech geniuses who will power the next ARM in the UK.
It seems to me there is a ‘digital gap’, between the general ability of the mass of the population to use digital technology and the ability of our tech entrepreneurs to invent and then develop a myriad of brilliant new technological solutions to the everyday problems of business and life. What Barclays Index does is identify the approximate size of that gap. The key to real success, it seems to me, is to close this gap from both ends, so that more of the population as a whole are able to use technology to its fullest extent while the tech companies continue to develop new ideas and stretch the general public’s ability to use them - and both sides then benefit accordingly. But that needs the aforementioned tech geniuses, which brings me back to my day job… must rush, I’ve got jobs to fill!
Freddie Kydd, Be-IT Resourcing