Supercharging digital skills - interview with Barclays' CEO Ashok Vaswani

Written by
Mary Appleton

14 Mar 2017

14 Mar 2017 • by Mary Appleton

As the UK considers its future outside the European Union, for Barclays UK chief executive, Ashok Vaswani, it is more important than ever to ensure the country thrives as a powerhouse of business and tech innovation. He believes that competing in the digital economy is not simply a European question, but rather a global race that will define how prosperous and successful we are, for decades to come. 

“With the EU referendum sending a clear message that too many parts of the UK do not feel they are sharing in the promise of global prosperity, now is the time to take everyone in society forward in the digital age,” he says. 

Vaswani sees an urgent need to ensure the UK has the digital skills and expertise to compete globally across all sectors and industries. And he believes business has a huge role to play. “The rate of change driven by digital technology today is staggering – a rate that is only going to increase, so it’s vital that, as individuals and businesses, we step up the pace,” he warns. 

“The benefits on offer are plentiful, but it’s how we take advantage of these that will determine our future. Better uptake of digital training in the workplace through a range of flexible learning channels, as well as continued investment in digital training in schools, will not only help future-proof our workforce, but also improve prospects for the economy as a whole.” 

UK lagging behind the digital curve

While Vaswani agrees that the UK has made fantastic headway in recent years by investing in digital infrastructure, he believes there now needs to be more focus on boosting the digital capabilities of the UK workforce. “A failure to keep up with digital advancements and invest in digital skills alongside infrastructure could hamper the UK’s ability to compete on the world stage,” he comments. 

Indeed, recent research conducted by the banking giant highlights a disconnect between policies to support digital engagement in the UK and a lack of confidence in digital skills, at an individual level, among British workers. 

The Barclays Digital Development Index benchmarks 10 countries around the world on their readiness to compete in the digital economy. The study, which attributes an overarching ‘digital empowerment’ score to each nation, put the UK in fourth place behind emerging ‘digital tiger’ economies Estonia, South Korea and Sweden. 

Although the UK scores well for broadband access and digital infrastructure, it drops to seventh in the table for individual skills such as content creation and coding, revealing a disparity between investment in digital policy and how confident UK workers feel about their own digital capabilities – which for Vaswani means that we are fostering a nation of digital “consumers” rather than “creators”. “Only 16% of people in the UK would feel comfortable building a website, compared to more than double in Brazil (39%) and India (37%),” he points out.

And when it comes to individuals’ assessment of their own digital skills and confidence, the UK trails in sixth place, lagging behind major economic rivals such as India, China and the US. This is compounded by separate research from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee which shows the UK is facing a digital skills crisis, costing the economy £63bn a year in lost GDP, and that future innovation, productivity and growth are at risk. 

So what can the UK learn from countries leading the way? “‘Digital tiger’ economies lead the pack for coordinating and combining government and business efforts to improve the teaching of digital skills, across both compulsory education and vocational and workplace digital learning,” says Vaswani. 

Call for digital equality

The thinking behind the Digital Development Index initiative is part of Barclays’ ongoing commitment to use its insights, expertise and scale to help everyone realise the full benefit of the digital age, and to add value to wider society. “Living in a world of disruptive innovation and digital advancement is empowering and challenging for people, businesses and society as a whole,” Vaswani says. “It can make our lives easier, but only those with the greatest levels of access, ability, and understanding will continue to prosper.” 

Seeing the transformative impact of technology and digital innovation in banking, and at Barclays, inspired Vaswani to do more to support the development of digital skills in the wider UK workforce. He believes that getting to grips with the latest technologies – from developing apps, to using the latest voice recognition solutions as well as being able to help customers become digitally savvy –is vital not only for Barclays employees but for those from all walks of life. 

Fostering digital inclusion

The bank itself is running a number of initiatives to help move the digital agenda forward and foster digital inclusion. “We believe programmes to help the digitally excluded are vital as well as those aimed at the ‘forgotten middle’ – those with basic levels of digital skills, but who could supercharge their careers and also give the wider UK economy a boost if they were to improve their digital capabilities,” Vaswani explains. 

The Barclays Digital Eagle Labs initiative provides business startups and communities with access to space and resources to build their business and digital skills. “Our network of Eagle Labs has seen over 36,000 visitors to date, proving there is a real demand for digital knowledge sharing and that businesses can play a pivotal role in providing this,” comments Vaswani. 

There are currently around 16,000 ‘Barclays Digital Eagles’, empowered to introduce customers, particularly those over 65, to the benefits of the internet and smart devices, through workshop sessions called ‘Tea and Teach’. At the other end of the scale, the bank also provides coding lessons for young people and parents through its ‘Code Playground’ initiative, which has connected with more than 50,000 children in one year; the LifeSkills programme has already helped 1.6m people get ready for work and includes a focus on digital skills. 

How to embrace the digital era

So what steps, in Vaswani’s view, can business leaders take to move the digital agenda forward within their own organisations? “Start by dispelling the ‘millennial myth’,” he says. “Our research found four in ten employers opt to hire younger employees for the specific reason of addressing the lack of digital skillsin their business, yet a third of millennials fear they lack digital skills to keep up – more than any other generation. Counter this by investing in employees at all levels of skill, age and role to fully embrace the new digital era.” 
Vaswani also encourages collaboration between businesses and with charities, to promote digital learning in the workplace. “Encourage a culture of digital knowledge sharing at work,” he urges. 

Improving awareness of training – both in the workplace and beyond – is fundamental too. “With some UK workers still unsure what digital learning programmes are available to them, it’s important business leaders ensure any existing training is accessible to all and well-communicated internally,” he advises. “The same goes for government-sponsored initiatives; people need to be inspired to keep learning as technology will continue to change rapidly. The key skills needed in five years’ time will almost certainly be different from the ones needed today.” 

A culture of lifelong learning

Vaswani argues that in the past century, most people have had to cope with just one big shift in technology in their career or lifetime, and have been able to rely on early education to get them through. But the evolution of the internet, smartphones, social media, and the advent of new technologies such as blockchain, virtual reality, AI and open data mean changes are now happening constantly and at a much quicker pace. 

“Britons need to equip themselves with digital skills whether to future proof their career, or keep personal data and devices safe. Businesses also need to do much more to upskill each and every generation of their workforce; we need to create a new culture of lifelong learning.”