Whatever one may feel about the makeup of the current Government and the political events of the last few weeks, business doesn’t stop, and neither should the Government's efforts to introduce the Digital Charter promised in the Queen’s speech and Conservative Party manifesto.
Whether you are in, out or somewhere in between, Brexit dominates the political agenda and the uncertainty it has created is apparently already affecting the appetite of businesses to invest in new assets and skills. This could hamper productivity, innovation and growth.
It is an important matter, but it simply cannot be allowed to distract from the Government’s other commitments, such as the Digital Charter, which promises to make Britain the best place to start and run a digital business and the safest place in the world to be online.
At the very least, a safer online environment and more equitable access to super-fast, high-quality internet technologies may help businesses recoup some of the ground lost to the uncertainty of Brexit. At best, the Digital Charter could be transformational for the economy.
The safest place to be online
Let’s start with cyber security. Research shows that more than half of British businesses fell victim to some form of cybercrime last year. The bill for recovering from these incidents - including time spent managing them, business downtime and the expense of replacing assets and people - was almost £30 billion.
On average, British businesses were subjected to almost 230,000 internet-borne cyber attacks each in 2016. No company with an internet connection was too small or too remote to escape attention.
Thankfully, businesses are taking the threat more seriously and accelerating investment in cyber security technologies to protect their data, assets, people and customers. Smaller businesses are leading the way in this regard.
Demand for unified threat management devices, web application firewalls and network access control systems increased by 71 percent, 59 percent and 45 percent respectively amongst businesses employing between 10 and 49 people.
Meanwhile, more than half a million British businesses took out cyber insurance policies for the first time in the last 12 months. 19 percent of firms are now covered for losses associated with cyber breaches and data theft. This market needs to be stimulated so that all businesses can access reasonably priced cyber insurance, without it being an onerous task.
These investments are necessary and welcome, but technology and insurance alone are insufficient to stem the growing threat. Insurance cannot cover the stress and reputational damage that a major cyber security incident can bring, and even businesses with top notch technology can still fall victim as people continue to be the weakest link in the chain.
All businesses should have documented data security policies, and it is encouraging to see that more than a quarter (27 percent) now do. Investment in cyber security education is also essential.
Schools can do their part by ensuring young people enter the workplace with the right knowledge and skills. Businesses must ensure that this education continues in the workplace, so their people understand both the evolving threat and their responsibilities.
We need to see a cultural shift in business where cyber security is considered to be as important as health and safety. Employees must feel as able to highlight vulnerabilities that endanger a company’s technology and data assets, as they are to report bad practice that endangers life and limb.
HR departments have a major role to play as cyber security makes the very necessary transition from being purely an IT issue to one of critical corporate importance. The Government and wider public sector needs to lead by example.
The best place for digital businesses
Making the UK the best place to start and run a digital business requires much more than a commitment to boosting security. As customer expectations and data usage grow, factors such as internet speed and service resilience become increasingly important for businesses.
The Government still talks about 95 percent of the country having access to ‘high speed’ internet, by which it means speeds of 10Mbps. This might be enough to stream the BBC’s iPlayer, but one questions whether this is fast enough to meet general business needs, now and in the future, let alone high-bandwidth digital business users.
The hotchpotch in the delivery of high speed internet, which has resulted in even parts of the capital being left with poor broadband speeds, must be addressed. Great ideas can come from anywhere, and the nation simply can’t afford for progress in the digital industries to be hampered by a digital divide that makes it unaffordable for early stage businesses to access high quality fibre connectivity.
Full fibre technology is also important because it is more reliable than fibre to the cabinet broadband and certainly standard DSL broadband, which more than half of businesses still use today. The more people who use a service the more the demand for data increases and the slower a connection can become. Businesses need the bandwidth to reach their potential.
They also need it to be resilient. British businesses suffered three days worth of internet downtime each on average during 2016, costing them £7 billion in lost productivity, missed opportunities and extra overtime. While this downtime can be damaging for most businesses, for a digital business it can be catastrophic.
While the devil is always in the detail, the promises made in the Government’s Digital Charter are welcome. If delivered, its commitments to improve cyber security and access to full-fibre technology will make the UK a better place for digital businesses and other forms of industry alike. Infrastructure is part of the answer, but it needs to be supported with the right skills and a sensible approach to regulation.
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