We stepped outside of our comfort zone last week and attended the Digital Leaders Conference ‘Building the Nation’s Digital DNA’ . We usually attend education technology or HE conferences. First – what a great day – seeing different sectors sharing best practice, acknowledging challenges and keen to look to the future was really refreshing. The day kicked off with awkward questions:

Are you of the net or on the net?

Will it be illegal to drive our own cars in the future?

and as you will read below, prompted some of my own awkward questions.

For me, this is the first conference where the gender of the formal and informal contributors was overtly addressed. In fact gender equality was one of the themes that shone through the day:

  1. From the choice of speakers
  2. From the topic being addressed – particularly in the presentation from Nick Williams of the Lloyds Banking Group when he shared that his team is 42% female – and this hasn’t happened by accident they have taken positive and proactive steps to address this
  3. To the excellent chair, Mark Thompson, who actively encouraged participation from female members of the audience – ‘we need to hear from a woman on this…’

The presentations from successful organisations seemed to follow a theme – collaborative, inclusive working environments (often the physical space was referred to as well as the virtual) that always had the end user in sight. The human was at the forefront of many of these presentations – and not an average human, but humankind with different needs based on age, ability, access.

In the afternoon we began to cover familiar territory (for us) with presentations from Maggie Philbin about the core skills our whole society will need in future to survive (and yes it is as urgent as survive – the UK loses £63 billion a year because of the digital skills gap) and be competitive in a global, connected world.

Maggie Philbin's list of core skills we need for radical look at how digital innovations can enable: Creativity, collaboration, bold thinking, life-long learning, tenacity, adaptability.

Jim Knight obviously got my vote when he mentioned the use of digital portfolios for evidencing skills when applying for jobs.

If I was completing an end of conference evaluation I would say I left feeling ‘somewhat’ optimistic. Why not ‘completely’? Well this is summed up by a tweet by @markbragginsTweet from @markbraggins Customer (service user) focus, yes, but also consider wider implications, like climate change, societal wellbeing etc #digileaders

The theme of the conference, Building the Nation’s Digital DNA, was very broad.  There was a strong focus on ‘delivery’ and ‘experience’ (Amazon was mentioned so many times as a service to aspire to – certainly with regard to user experience), and on users, consumers, customers.

Do we need to pause and consider are digital leaders just adopting enlightened business ethics or is it time to discuss and review digital ethics and what this means for our society? Because frankly, we are moving from discussions about ‘the web we want’ to ‘the society we want’. We may agree with Maggie Philbin about core skills – but does big business really want ‘bold thinkers’ in their workforce?

We were told by Stephen Foreshew-Cain, Executive Director, GDS that his staff are encouraged to create an atmosphere where it is safe to do ‘what is right’ and his staff are supported and support each other in discussing and defining what is right. A big question is what is the ‘right thing’ in these cash strapped times when something like procurement is at issue? See Simon Wilson’s blog summarising the day and his comments about procurement and the painful process of tendering.

To return to awkward questions: What  is the significance and impact of choosing to use tools and technologies provided by companies like Facebook and Twitter? When organisations and individuals use these companies we ‘gift’ them our data.  When large organisations (local and national government in particular) select these companies, is it through a tender process and if not, why not?  Do we as a society want to select companies that don’t pay full tax, nor share revenue and possibly have controversial practices?

We need to build on the good practice shared by the presenters at the conference around inclusivity and innovative ways of working envisaging what society needs in a holistic manner. Can we imagine a post Amazon, post Google, post Facebook, post Twitter, post Apple society? What should we be creating (rather than mimicking) in their place?

The conference was excellent on gender equality, demonstrating that doing the right thing has an impact.  What else needs to be challenged as we consider our digital DNA?

Digital Leaders covers a wide range of topics and discussion so I’m sure some of these issues have been raised in local salons and online discussions. It’s worth going along to these events, particularly if you are in education because we need to be an integral part of forming the nation’s digital DNA. I can’t see any other forum for these discussions that draws on a range of sectors.

The subject of digital ethics is necessarily challenging, and is redefining broader business ethics. We all have a role to play in this important dialogue.