John Neill, executive chairman of the Unipart Group of Companies and a member of the Cranfield University School of Management’s Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility Advisory Council since its inception, is eloquent on the scale and range of impacts of the coming Digital Revolution. The World Economic Forum calls this the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Joshua Cooper Ramo, in his recent book ‘The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks’ (2016) argues that the hyper-connectivity created by the Digital Revolution will create a tsunami of economic, political, social, cultural change. Clearly, responsible organisations need to be anticipating and preparing for such transformative change. At a minimum, they need to consider how to make themselves and their employees future resilient. Can they do more?

Last week, the UK Corporate Responsibility coalition Business in the Community (BitC) held its Annual General Meeting. BitC chairman and Cranfield alumnus Anthony Jenkins is pushing BitC and its 600 member companies to consider what responsible businesses should do in the Digital Revolution. At the AGM, an initial report on the topic, prepared by global consulting firm Accenture and presented by another Doughty Centre advisory council member, Peter Lacy, was launched. The report: ‘A Brave New World? Why business must ensure an inclusive Digital Revolution’ (Accenture for BITC November 2016) highlights potential benefits from the Digital Revolution such as helping to reduce inequalities and improve livelihoods; creating new jobs, enhancing societal outcomes: such as saving lives (through assisted driving); enhancing environmental outcomes; opening up education; and enabling smarter working (eg remotely).

As chairman of the charity Carers UK,  I was in the Bristol offices of Aviva UK with Andy Briggs, CEO, Aviva UK and Ireland Life, on Friday, to launch new Aviva policies to support their employee carers and promote a concerted pilot of the new Carers’ policy in the 3,000 employee Bristol office. I was, therefore, particularly pleased to see Andy Briggs quoted in the “A Brave New World?” report on how digital working can help employees juggling working and caring:

“More flexible working patterns will be critical. Twenty per cent of the over 50s in the UK are carers – many of them end up leaving the workforce because they cannot combine an inflexible job with caring responsibilities.” – Andy Briggs, CEO, Aviva UK and Ireland Life, Chairman of Global Life and Chair of Business in the Community’s Age at Work Leadership Team.

Indeed, an Accenture volunteer is currently volunteering with Carers UK on the charity’s own digital strategy.

‘A Brave New World?’ also, however, highlights the potential downsides of the Digital Revolution. “Forecast job losses due to automation range significantly” the report notes, “– one prediction suggests as many as 10 million job losses in the UK by 2035.” Many older workers may find it hard to acquire the necessary new skills for the new jobs that will be available. Digital technologies can also reduce face-to-face contact, which can in turn “have mental health impacts and increase loneliness.” This danger particularly resonated as I read the Accenture-BitC report immediately after reading a challenging speech by Julia Unwin the retiring Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) on the future of Civil Society, in which she quotes a respondent to a JRF loneliness programme:

“I’d really like to talk to someone who wasn’t paid to talk to me.” – (Where next for civil society? Julia Unwin’s inaugural lecture for the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) given at their AGM, 24 November 2016, https://www.jrf.org.uk/where-next-civil-society )

Accenture and BitC are very clear: “Business has the opportunity to help secure an inclusive digital revolution.” The report highlights three areas of significant opportunity.

Opportunity one: Enabling the rapid transition of employees from traditional jobs to the high-quality jobs of the future, building digital skills, actively managing job losses (there are analogies to where BitC started in the 1980s with local enterprise agencies, job-creation initiatives like British Coal Enterprise, British Steel Industry etc); and proactively seeking to open up new jobs to under-represented groups: women, older workers etc.

Opportunity two: Ensuring that digital technology is used to enhance transparency of business practices and operations, building trust with consumers and wider stakeholders eg using digital to drive transparency across supply chains and managing personal data of customers responsibly. I would add employees, and also add the responsibility to protect the data securely against cyber-attack, cyber fraud etc.  Indeed, other Accenture authors have written extensively on Corporate Digital Responsibility:  “Guarding and growing personal data value” https://www.accenture.com/gb-en/insight-guarding-growing-personal-data-value

Opportunity three: Finding new ways to deliver social and environmental benefits while creating business value.  ‘A Brave New World?’ argues that “The opportunities that digital transformation creates for radically different ways of doing business can drive societal benefits including reducing environmental footprints, enabling internet access for all and enhancing community cohesion, all while creating new value for the private sector.” The report notes that digital solutions play a critical role in more than 50 per cent of the 169 targets that sit beneath the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015, while offering around £7 trillion in additional revenues and reduced costs.

Cranfield University colleagues working on the circular economy will be particularly interested in the report’s assertion that “Digital transformation presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many businesses to transition to sustainable (including circular) business models.”

The report also contains numerous good practice vignettes: as an EE customer, I particularly liked the following example of the mobile network provider:

Increasing digital skills among older people: EE’s Techy Tea Parties are run in partnership with Age UK, using EE’s high street stores to help older people learn, for free, how to use mobile /tablet devices for basic tasks such as communicating and shopping, along with how to keep safe and secure online.

The report concludes with a useful checklist:  Ten questions for business leaders to ask themselves:

  • How does digital transformation impact the responsible business agenda, both in terms of new risks and opportunities?
  • What element of the inclusive digital revolution do we want our brand to be known for championing, and how will we drive progress and communication on that?
  • What value is at risk if we do not achieve an inclusive digital revolution for the UK?
  • How will we change our governance and accountability structures to drive improved stakeholder trust in digital technologies
  • How can we deliver the right digital skills training across our workforce?
  • What spare capacity is there in our digital assets that we can helpfully share with local communities/SMEs?
  • How can our recruitment and training recognise and support non-traditional learning?
  • How can we use the data that we are already collecting (for example, customer data) to help address specific societal challenges?
  • How can we ensure our products and services have a positive net impact on the environment
  • How can we work more effectively with policymakers, industry peers and others in order to address these challenges collaboratively?

The checklist could be a useful checklist for other organisations too – not least universities!

I look forward to further development of this Accenture-BitC programme.

David Grayson is professor of Corporate Responsibility and director of The Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield University School of Management. He is the co-author of Corporate Responsibility Coalitions: The Past, Present & Future of Alliances for Sustainable Capitalism.

0