25/07/2016 05:32 BST | Updated 23/07/2017 06:12 BST

Britain Must Act Now - Or Risk Falling Further Behind 'Digital Tigers'

Our everyday interactions are being transformed by technology. Growing up, I'd meet people face-to-face if I wanted to speak to them; glance at a map if I needed to get somewhere new; and unfold a newspaper if I wanted to know what was happening in the world. Now, everything can be done simply through a mobile phone.

The digital revolution signals an era of huge opportunity. But revolutions by their nature create challenges as well as bringing benefits. If we fail to keep pace with technological change, British businesses risk becoming less competitive, less productive and less able to thrive in the digital age.

This has never been more important than it is now, as we find ourselves at a time of great uncertainty. As the UK considers its future outside the European Union, we have to remember that the challenge to become the most digitally savvy economy is not confined to Europe. It is a global race that will define how successful and prosperous we are for decades to come.

For this reason, it is encouraging to see in the Barclays Digital Development Index, published today, that the UK is performing well in terms of the policies in place to help encourage digital upskilling. The index benchmarks the digital readiness and confidence of 10 leading global economies, combining the experience of 10,000 employees across the world with insights from a coalition of charities, businesses and government stakeholders. However, while the UK comes in the top half of the table for digital policies, it slips down to sixth place for individual digital skills. When it comes to individuals' assessment of their own digital skills and confidence, the UK trails major economic rivals India, China and the USA.

Digitally divided society

It is concerning that here in the UK, despite the clear investment in policies to develop digital skills, some 12 million adults (23%) still don't possess the basic digital skills necessary to take advantage of today's technology and the internet. [1] The risks of creating such a digitally divided society are already very real; the digital skills gap is costing the UK economy an estimated £63 billion a year in lost additional GDP and whole groups of society are excluded from reaping the benefits the digital economy presents.[2]

Worryingly, our research highlighted that the UK's lack of digital skills may also be having an impact on our security. 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 data leaks in the coming years as cyber hackers find increasingly sophisticated ways to access data.

Digital consumers vs digital creators

In addition, the UK ranks just seventh out of 10 for coding skills and content creation. This is a key indicator of the ability to be a 'digital creator' rather than just a 'digital consumer', posing questions about what impact this will have on the UK's readiness to compete in the future digital economy. Only 16% of people in the UK would be very comfortable building a website, compared to 39% in Brazil and 37% in India. Only a tenth of the UK workforce would be very comfortable creating a mobile app or game, compared to 22% in the USA, 27% in Brazil, or 33% in India.

So what can we do to close this gap? With the UK coming in seventh out of 10 for vocational and workplace skills, our 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%).

Keeping up with the digital pioneers

While the vast majority of developed nations may be digitally competent, the focus of digital investment at the higher and lower ends of the skills spectrum has created a 'forgotten middle' - those who are just about 'getting by' online but not developing the skills and confidence to really thrive in an increasingly fast-paced, 'Uber-ised' society.

The future focus must be on extending digital investment, training and infrastructure to those harder to reach areas and groups and ensuring not only is no one left behind, but all groups of society are empowered. Digital skills have the potential to be a true social enabler. As business leaders we must advance the 'digital inclusion' debate, which has seen a focus on basic skills and literacy, towards a more ambitious concept of 'digital empowerment'.