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National Digital Conference 2016 – Chair’s reflections

Written by Mark Thompson, Strategy Director at Methods Digital

As ever, Digital Leaders this year lived up to its unique positioning in the conference circuit as a coming-together of a genuinely cross-sector community with common interests in delivering digitally-enabled services, within a mutually supportive environment. Following a warm welcome from Rachel Neaman, this year’s topic, ‘developing digital DNA’, provoked some energetic contributions by a great line-up of speakers, with some robust challenges from our 300-strong audience.  As Chair, I had a great opportunity to reflect on some of the themes that emerged during the day.  Though by no means definitive, here’s my take on some of these.

First, there were several reflections on the sheer speed of digital change that is underway.  Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director, Lloyds Bank, pointed out that there had been more technological change in the past 10 years than in the previous 250 – and discussed up to 40 proofs-of-concept they run in Lloyds every year to keep up with this momentum – a point emphatically supported by Sage’s Sarah Hurrell and Accenture’s Emma McGuigan, who added that it’s worth remembering that digital change is exponential, not linear.

Second, the topic of diversity attracted much interest.  Martin Wilson, Head of Digital Creativity at BBC, produced a shocking statistic: 50% of all gamers are women, but only 4% of women gamers can code!  Other dimensions of diversity also attracted comment: Lord Knight reminded the audience that 10 million people remain excluded for the digital world; Jacqueline de Rojas reminded us of the continuing London-centric focus of the ‘digital crowd’; Maggie Philbin mentioned that one in four people born today will live to be over 100, and Jeh Kazimi added that over 30% of the population will be senior citizens by 2030.  In one of the most notable audience contributions of the day, we were reminded that digital has a particular contribution to make for disabled people, who are too often overlooked within digital projects. Lots of challenges, therefore, about not assuming any particular profile of the ‘digital citizen’.

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Third, there was lots of discussion about disruption and ‘real’ transformation.  Asking whether it may become illegal to drive by 2026 due to the superior safety record of driverless cars, Jacqueline de Rojas counselled us to “pause” and take the long-term view of organisational responses to digital technologies, which may disrupt aspects of our business models that we all take for granted. Ben Dowd from O2 made a similar point, asking whether we all had “enough troublemakers in our organisations”, and pointing to the huge scale of startup activity out there – in which O2 seemed to have an exemplary track record.  In a well-received speech, MCO Matt Hancock reiterated that it’s not the ‘digital’ part but the ‘transformation’ part that’s hard in ‘digital transformation’ – whilst GDS’ Stephen Foreshew-Cain, and Kainos’ Marc Heasman, offered their responses to this challenge: start small, and scale up.

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Fourth, we all discussed digital skills.  Jacqueline lamented the scale of the crisis, which is costing UK plc £63bn in lost opportunities each year; Ben reckoned that the UK needs 2.3m more digitally-skilled people by 2020.  Nick termed digital skills “the fourth form of literacy”, and Steria’s John Torrie lamented that “there are not enough (digital) people to employ”! – indicating that the potential jobs are out there. The lack of digital & cloud computing skills means progress is slow (especially on the public sector side); but that’s why digital consultancies like Methods Digital exist. They are there to support this shift towards digital service delivery, not just in terms of consultancy or implementation but also to upskill your existing workforce.

Martin Wilson, together with BBC Youth Panel’s Whitney Ngali and Rachel Lumley, offered a truly fantastic showcase of what can be done to empower young people to unleash their own digital creativity – an enabling role which was mirrored in Wigan Council’s outstanding approach to digital enablement, as outlined by Alison McKenzie-Folan.

Fifth and finally, we all agreed on the need to think more carefully about the purpose of digital transformation.  If ‘digital’ is about two-way conversations and co-creation, as pointed out by Alison, and Informed Solutions’ Elizabeth Vega, then people need support as they do this; and as Ben pointed out, this requires the development of trust.  In fact, there was a striking convergence amongst all speakers about the purpose of digital: it’s all about people; indeed, as Lord Knight remarked, ‘digital’ foregrounds the skill that is increasingly at a premium: “the ability to be human” – because, as Emma reminded us, it’s actually people that remain at the heart of digital change.

As ever, at DL – a mix of passionate, thought-provoking, and at times humbling, contributions and discussions that continued to mark this conference out as one not to be missed.

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