Digital dinosaurs are lurking in our boardrooms

UK boardrooms are full of 'digital virgins,' says Baroness Kingsmill.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 27 Mar 2014

Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner in charge of the EU digital agenda, has estimated that 30% of Europeans are 'digital virgins': those who do not use the internet at all.

Maurice Saatchi, borrowing from Marc Prensky, once talked of 'digital natives' (those born after 1990) and 'digital immigrants' (the rest of us), contrasting the fluency and ease with the language and structures of technology of the former with the earnest efforts at understanding and translation of the latter.

I have recently encountered large numbers of 'digital dinosaurs'. Unfortunately, these beasts are not actually extinct, merely digitally dormant. Many of them can be found around boardroom tables or in the corridors of Westminster.

They know the digital world exists and dimly recognise its importance but they have no idea how to engage with it. They parrot demands for a digital strategy or a digital policy but cannot articulate what this means. At the same time, they boast proudly of their ignorance of technology, saying things like 'I have to ask my 10-year-old grandson to programme the video recorder' and seem never to have heard of Netflix or streaming or even BBC iPlayer.

Social networking platforms are like distant lands to them. When asked if they use Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, they react with horror. 'Why would I want people to know what I'm doing?', 'My children signed me up but I don't have any friends yet' and 'I don't need any more contacts' are typical responses. What they fail to understand is that these and other social networks are the basis of the digital strategy they so urgently desire, enabling a direct connection with customers and constituents.

Twitter has an app that gives a weekly update on the monetary value of an account based on the number of followers, while a recent study has indicated that every new Facebook friend generates about £150 of value for a brand.

David Cameron recently invited ridicule when it was revealed that he had paid for 'friends' to 'like' him on his Facebook account. Someone around him obviously recognised the marketing value of social networking and thought his boss should get on board, but was not enough of a digital native to do it properly.

Cameron's £7,000 for 60,000 new friends was probably cheap at the price, if only the clumsy execution of his digital strategy had not undermined his brand even further than his policies.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has set up a commission on digital democracy to look at the ways in which digital technology could be used to increase participation in parliamentary democracy. This is a welcome initiative to counter the apathy and disenchantment represented by the Russell Brand approach, best summed up as that of a lazy teenager: 'can't be bothered' or 'what's the point?'

However, since more people vote on Strictly Come Dancing than in some elections, his position is obviously shared by millions of others. This could possibly have something to do with the fact that Strictly presents viewers with real choice, and informs them of the skills, talents and personalities of the dancers. They can then exercise their considered judgement and express their preferences easily from the comfort of their own home, using their smartphones.

Voters, meanwhile, must go to a chilly school hall, be checked off a list and then place a tick against a name. Whoever is elected will be making fundamental policy decisions on their behalf for the next five years, yet many voters have only a vague idea of what their chosen individual stands for.

My own experience of voting in the House of Lords is similarly archaic. A bell rings and out of the woodwork scuttle hundreds of peers, summoned by their whips with eight minutes to get into the appropriate corridor (lobby) and vote by having a line drawn through their name and being clicked out again by people holding sticks on their shoulder. They frequently have no idea what they are voting on but simply follow their colleagues and the party line.

How much more sensible it would be if we adopted the Strictly approach with the application of some 21st-century digital technology. Unfortunately, the dinosaurs are in charge and dictate the pace of change, not of digital innovation but of people's ability to access its tools.

The UK has been very slow to respond to the digital age, with only 73% of the country able to access high-speed broadband. It is estimated that 60% of small businesses are negatively affected by inadequate broadband speeds.

As politicians speak of the coming of the new age of 5G Wi-Fi and waffle on about the new industrial revolution and the 'internet of things', a survey by insurance firm NFU Mutual highlighted that the education of many children is being damaged by being unable to use online resources because of poor internet access.

The message must be: slay the dinosaurs, get the access right and the next generation of digital natives will take care of the rest.

- Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director of various British, European and US boards. She can be contacted on editorial@managementtoday.com.

Follow her on Twitter: @denisekingsmill

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