Baroness Lane Fox on digitalisation, accessibility and equality
Digitalisation is supercharging business practice, but it must not happen at the expense of accessibility and equality, Baroness Lane Fox tells Laurence Eastham
Baroness Martha Lane Fox is one of the UK’s leading voices in technology and digital transformation. It’s a reputation that has been well earned, not only from co-founding Lastminute.com in 1998, but also from a decade’s worth of public service. From 2009 to 2013, she was the UK’s digital champion, creating the Government Digital Service that sits within the Cabinet Office. That was followed by her entry to the House of Lords in March 2013, joining the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy in 2017 and, most recently, chairing the House of Lords “Living online” inquiry that explored the complex interplay of the pandemic and digitalisation.
The internet also enabled us to have lockdowns. But there’s a big caveat: it also revealed the schism between the world that could see itself as a technology-enabled organisation and the world that could not.
The report produced by the inquiry is a stark warning that the accelerating adoption of technology must not risk the accessibility of jobs and services. It quotes Ofcom research that 2.8 million households in the UK do not have internet access, with affordability the deciding factor for 10% of them, and an estimation by the Lloyds UK Consumer Digital Index that half of the current workforce lack digital skills in the workplace. In other words, left unchecked, digitalisation could widen existing structural inequalities in the UK and damage individual outcomes as well as the strength of the economy.
“It’s been an enormous shift,” says Lane Fox of the pandemic. "What happened was a breakthrough of some of the inertia that was in some institutions. The internet also enabled us to have lockdowns. But there’s a big caveat: it also revealed the schism between the world that could see itself as a technology-enabled organisation and the world that could not. It’s not just the hard end of inequality – I’m also talking about the different experiences of people in the school system and the health system. It’s in sharp relief if you look at it through the lens of the relative ability to cope with the entirely digital world that we were in."
Digital inequality is often hidden from view. Those experiencing digital poverty cannot access the platforms, services and jobs that would amplify their voices. And the problem worsened during the long periods of lockdown. While spending months locked indoors was an uncomfortable experience for many, it was a relative luxury enabled by digital working, schooling, shopping and so on. The next challenge, however, is to ensure that the accelerating digitalisation of the UK economy does not leave more and more people behind. For Lane Fox, who is Chancellor of the Open University, the solution lies in training and education, empowering workers with the skills that allow them to keep pace.
“Half of the jobs in the UK could never be done from home, so we’ve had essential workers whose world has not been touched very much by the digital world. My anxiety is about how those two worlds meet in a hybrid world. If you’re in an essential job, you still need digital skills in the future. You need them to survive – to find work, complete tax returns, whatever it might be,” she explains.
“I don’t think we have enough of a strategic plan for the UK – how we’re going to invest in infrastructure and skills. We’ve got to make sure that we have the skills we need in this country. We have so many open jobs right now and we’re going to have even more – and even more complexity – in the future. This is something that needs an urgent focus from the top.”
The new economy
We are living in a world where everything that can be digitised will be digitised.
The unprecedented digitalisation of the pandemic era presents new risks to business, too. As more services move online, businesses will have to become faster, constantly assessing whether their strategy and positioning align with wider changes in consumption, employment and investment. And it’s not just for most tech-savvy firms. Lane Fox expects digitalisation to touch every corner of the economy.
"The first risk is that businesses don’t digitise and they’re left outside of what is happening. We are living in a world where everything that can be digitised will be digitised. You may not like that – but it is my belief about what is happening. Now, not every business needs to be a digital-only business but unless you think very carefully about how to deploy technology, you will be left behind. And there are still enormous opportunities," she says.
“The second thing is that the world is shifting and we are facing economic uncertainty. There are so many structural changes, from shopping patterns to the climate crisis. Then there are local variations and regional variations. And all of those things have hastened in the last two years. The businesses that will be successful in the future will be the ones that are extremely quick to iterate, thinking about the ways technology can help them and listening to their customer base about how their needs have shifted.”
During the pandemic, Lane Fox has been putting those words into practice, drawing on a growing demand to see shifts in business behaviour. In July 2020, she added another string to her bow by becoming Chair of tech unicorn WeTransfer, one month after the business became a certified B Corp. That’s been followed by overseeing the company’s commitment to climate neutrality in February 2021 and the publication of its first sustainable business report in April 2021. It’s an entirely different way of doing business from when Lane Fox entered the world of work nearly 30 years ago – but one she sees as essential to taking care of the customer, environment and, crucially, the bottom line.
“It is one of the biggest shifts I’ve seen in my business life,” she says of the growth of ethical business. “When we started our business in 1998, we didn’t really have a concern for the wider stakeholder group. The impact of your business on society was a bit more remote – now it’s absolutely fundamental. It’s a huge trend. And I don’t just mean tick-boxing the ESG metrics – because that’s sort of the easier part to do – it’s much more about the relationship between your company and society.”
Finance comes first
Lane Fox’s diary is also filled by board memberships at Twitter and Chanel. And you may have paid a visit to karaoke chain Lucky Voice, which she co-founded in 2005. It adds up to hands-on experience across many different sectors, always with a close eye on the growing and transformative influence of technology. But even though these commitments offer considerable variety, Lane Fox reveals that her first port of call on joining a business is often the same.
Finance has a huge amount of power, beyond the metrics or investment strategies, because it is the place where you’re systematically looking at the business in a data-driven way.
“One of the committees I always want to join on boards is the audit committee,” she says. “It may sound strange, but I think that’s where the living, beating heart of the business is. It’s often where you’ll find issues emerge that then have to spiral up to the board. And depending on how the company wants to operate, audit committees are often the ones holding some of the ESG stuff, definitely the risk stuff, and a lot of the points of failure in business.
"Finance has a huge amount of power, beyond the metrics or investment strategies, because it is the place where you’re systematically looking at the business in a data-driven way. And audit has become more and more powerful recently. So, I would say to anyone who’s thinking about reskilling, upskilling or multiskilling that understanding finance – being able to read a balance sheet – is such a big bonus."
The critical importance of financial professionals to business means that their skills must keep pace with digitalisation, too. And that’s especially true as businesses evolve to take on new responsibilities and cater to more stakeholders. It’s not just a case of keeping up with shiny new software and tools that shape the technical work of CAs – it also touches on larger issues around what information is created, how it is created and who it is supplied to. Lane Fox believes that seeking the answers to these questions, powered by the capabilities of new technology, will be a source of competitive advantage in the long run.
“Excellent, high-quality finance professionals need to be digitally literate,” she closes. “It’s no good to eschew the importance of really understanding data, understanding how tools and productivity can improve and change. It’s beholden on finance, practically more than any other department, to become really technologically savvy – and I think that will set apart many organisations from their competitors.”
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