The digital revolution taking place in UK businesses must be inclusive and ensure no-one is left behind, Business in the Community (BITC) has said.
The campaigning group is calling on the business community to think seriously about mitigating the rising inequality that could come with digital transformation, as more and more jobs are automated, for example.
Its A Brave New World report says that the relentless march of digital presents a number of key challenges businesses will need to address, including building skills that allow everyone in the workforce to participate in the new economy.
It asks organisations to enable “the rapid transition of employees from traditional jobs to the high-quality jobs of the future” by focusing on building digital skills via agile and lifelong learning, managing job losses, and creating more diverse workplaces.
At the BITC Leadership Summit and annual general meeting BITC chairman Antony Jenkins, former CEO of Barclays, said technology “provides the conditions to worsen or improve inequality and social mobility”.
He said the future could be “utopian”, with technology enriching lives, helping people to live longer and healthier, and freeing up time for volunteering. Or it could be “dystopian” he said, with automation leading to mass unemployment and increased inequality.
“Act now as businesses to ensure we are closer to the utopian than the dystopian outcome,” he urged. “We have a unique opportunity to ensure Britain is a leader in the fourth industrial age, but we have to make that happen.”
Peter Lacy, global managing director, growth strategy and sustainability at Accenture, who partnered with BITC on the report, said digital transformation will cause “enormous disruption” to the workforce as some jobs are lost and others created.
“It is going to create pain and we need to manage that transition,” he said. “Trust in a digitally disrupted era is a scarce commodity and we need to keep and build it. There’s a huge opportunity to bend the curve of this digital era to deliver fairer societies and more inclusive growth, but it isn’t going to happen automatically.”
Speaking on a panel, Vivian Hunt, managing partner at McKinsey, added that business leaders have “a responsibility” to explain the true implications of digital changes to the workforce and customer base. “If colleagues are only seeing the negatives that means we have failed as leaders,” she said.
“We have a choice about what type of society we are going to be, and technology is just a toolkit,” added Ian Cheshire, chairman of Debenhams, who called on businesses and policymakers to “manage the transition” because there will be “losers” as technology advances.
“We need to make sure skills are relevant,” he said. “If you don’t adapt you will get left behind. It’s that transition in leadership we have to lean into.”