Denmark’s digital ambassador: should the UK be following suit?

 

By Steven McGinty

On 26 January, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that they would be appointing the world’s first ‘digital ambassador’ to act as the nation’s representative to major technology companies, such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

At a conference on the future of the Foreign Service, the Foreign Minister, Anders Samuelsen, explained that:

Denmark must be at the forefront of technological development. Technological advances are making such a great impact on our society that it has become a matter of foreign policy. I have therefore decided to announce the appointment of a digitisation ambassador.

In a follow up interview with Danish newspaper Politken, Mr Samuelsen expressed his belief that multinational technology giants “affect Denmark just as much as entire countries”. He highlighted the examples of Apple and Google whose market values are so large that if they were countries they would only narrowly miss out from inclusion in the G20 – the global forum for cooperation between the world’s 20 major economies.

As a result of this economic strength, together with tech firms’ impact on the everyday lives of citizens, Mr Samuelsen argues that the technology sector should be treated as a form of ‘new nation’, which Denmark must develop closer relationships with.

Cooperation between nation states and the technology sector

Technology companies are becoming involved in activities that were once reserved for nation states. For example, Mr Samuelsen’s Liberal party accepts donations in Bitcoin – an online currency which challenges the state’s role as the only issuer of legal tender. And Microsoft have signed a partnership agreement with the French Ministry of Education to provide teacher training, in order to prepare teachers for running special coding classes.

The technology industry argues that it is better placed than national governments to provide effective digital services, at cheaper prices. In terms of national security, computer engineering expert and academic, Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, argues that this is probably the case. Mr Ganascia highlights that Google and Facebook have vast image databases that enable them to use facial recognition software far better than any national security service. Therefore, countries have started working with technology companies on a variety of crime and public safety issues.

Citizens are also spending greater amounts of time on social media platforms. In an interview with The Washington Post, Mr Samuelsen stated that more than half of the world’s data has been created in the past two years (much of this from major platforms such as Facebook). This trend has implications for the privacy of citizens and the spreading of false information, a phenomena that has been labelled ‘fake news’. These issues are fundamentally important for citizens and nation states, and are likely to increase cooperation between countries and the technology sector.

Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs

Although Denmark will be the first country to introduce a digital ambassador, another government has made a similar appointment. In January, Dr Tobias Feakin was appointment as Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs. His role focuses on cyber-security, but also includes issues such as censorship and promoting internet access. At this stage, it’s unclear whether Dr Feakin will have direct contact with technology companies and whether this relationship will involve discussions over economic issues such as taxation.

Is a digital ambassador necessary?

Not everyone, however, is buying into the appointment of a government representative focused solely on digital issues. Technology journalist, Emma Woollacott, believes that it’s a ‘terrible idea’.

According to Ms Woollacott, Denmark already has a good relationship with technology companies, highlighting that Facebook has recently announced plans to build a new data centre in Odense, creating 150 new permanent jobs. These views may have some merit, as Mr Samuelsen has confirmed that the deal between the Foreign Ministry and Facebook was the result of three years of behind-the-scenes work.

Ms Woollacott also argues that Denmark is setting a worrying precedent by equating a private company to a nation state.  In her view, the importance of the technology sector could have been acknowledged through hiring knowledge staff, rather than granting it a ‘unique political status’.

However, Professor Jan Stentoft, who researches the insourcing of technological production to Denmark, believes creating the ambassadorial post is a good idea. He explains:

We have much to offer these companies, but Denmark is a small country, and we obviously need to make ourselves noticed if we are to attract them to the country.

Marianne Dahl Steensen, CEO of Microsoft Denmark, also welcomed the creation of a digital ambassador position, but did acknowledge that the company ‘can hardly be equated with a nation’.

Should the UK introduce a digital ambassador?

By introducing a digital ambassador, Mr Samuelsen is taking a pragmatic approach to ensure Denmark is a key player in the international digital economy, as well as attempting to manage the impacts of an increasingly digital society.

Although appointing an ambassador for the technology sector poses philosophical and ethical questions, the UK should closely monitor how this new role develops and the potential benefits (and challenges) it brings for Denmark. In particular, if the new role is able to improve dialogue between technology companies and the security services on matters such as privacy, or help address the sector’s need for digitally skilled workers, then maybe introducing a digital ambassador is something worth exploring.


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Women in technology: London Tech Week

From 20-26th June London Tech week will once again be shining a spotlight on all things digital in the UK’s capital. An opportunity to showcase and network, the event will see some of the UK’s biggest tech firms gathering, along with smaller start-ups and keen individuals, to talk all things tech: from enterprise and engagement, to growth and innovation. This year one of the core themes is “talent and inclusion”, with the keynote seminar considering what now seems to many to have become the age old question: what will it take for business to truly take action on diversity within technology, and specifically how can businesses be encouraged to “shift the dial on the gender agenda”?

technology

There have been many studies, blogs, reports and comments about the reasons technology-based careers, or jobs within technology firms seem so inaccessible to women, and chances are many will form the basis of the London Tech Week event discussions.

In the UK today women make up fewer than 30% of the information and communications technologies (ICT) workforce, comprising around 20% of computer graduates and fewer than 10% of app developers. The Lords Select Committee, chaired by Baroness Sally Morgan, produced a report in early 2015: Make or Break: the UKs Digital Future 2015 which urged the UK government to seize the opportunity to secure the UK’s place as a global digital leader by investing in and promoting careers and skill building to try to encourage more young women and girls to consider a career in the tech industry. They state that increasing the number of women working in IT could generate an extra £2.6 billion each year for the UK economy. But just how exactly can women be encouraged to pursue a career in technology? Is it all down to funding or the availability of jobs, or does there need to be a combined approach? The following sections highlight some of the opinions of women who work in the tech industries, and showcase some of the strategies of technology firms to try to diversify their workforce and attract women to a career in technology.

Creating and promoting positive, high profile female role models in the tech sector

As the various magazine polls and top 10 countdowns show, some of the best and brightest minds in the UK tech industry are women. And yet, some girls and young women still feel like the technology world is not open to them. More and more high profile role models may be a way to tackle this – and clearly some do exist – but their profile is limited and more could be done by the industry and the media to promote them in an appropriate way. Similarly, mentoring schemes, like those promoted by Girls In Tech UK, which engages women already in industry by mentoring future tech professionals, could also demonstrate practical ways in which girls can work in a technology based profession.

Emphasising the importance of a female approach to creative technology and technology based problem solving

Women, it is often said in psychology and sociology literature, approach problems in different ways, and will often take a different approach to finding solutions. Including a female perspective brings another set of experiences which can be used to address specific problems. Additionally, the problems women experience are different to those of men and as a result they may allow tech companies to tap into an entirely new market.

Increasing funding and industry promoted schemes specifically to support women entering the tech industry

Although it is recognised that there is still a long way to go, the scope and the space to develop skills within the sector is growing for women. There are many initiatives promoted by large multinationals to encourage more women either to train for a career in tech, or to join their workforce. Many of these employers will be present at tech week but schemes by Microsoft, Apple, Google and Samsung need to have their profiles raised even within the sector; they should also be used as blueprints for others, and act as examples for smaller and medium sized businesses to encourage more women into their workforce.

Marketing a career in tech as desirable

Learning providers should recognise the importance of maintaining relatively low barriers to entry and promoting upskilling and retraining. They should also seek to engage with employers to create easy transition pathways into employment; an almost certain guarantee of employment at the end of a period of training can be a great incentive. Similarly, many courses exist to promote learning and upskilling around the tech sector. These should be made more accessible to women and promoted more widely, as should the availability of grants and additional funding opportunities for women and girls who want to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

Education and industry figures should do more to market the tech industry, emphasise the positives and make it an appealing career pathway. Some of the most rewarding aspects of working in the tech sector – problem solving, considering solutions and watching a product develop from start to finish – are not always highlighted as good reasons for joining. Many tech companies also come with a great working ethos. Employees can often work flexibly, or from home, enabling women to maintain a suitable work/life balance, while maintaining their position within the company.

Don’t underestimate the importance of stereotypes and misconceptions

The consistent rhetoric that the tech industry is a “man’s world” can be off-putting for some people; not everyone wants to be a trailblazer within a company. Women’s involvement should be normalised, but so should the language.Talking about women working in tech careers as being unusual can have an effect on the women and their male colleagues. Industry and education both need to be aware of the need to strike a balance between not sounding too complacent about the number of women pursuing careers in tech, and not making too big a deal about women joining the tech industry so as to single them out and place additional pressure on them.

Showing that there’s more to a career in tech than “nerds doing coding”

Careers services and advisers need to be aware that someone who has an interest in STEM (or specifically in technology based subjects) has more career options within the tech sector than “computer coder”. The tech industry is diverse, taking in areas such as social media, gaming, content creation, research and development, digital marketing and product design and development. Technology as an industry also generates products and solutions needed by diverse sectors for their day-to-day business, including health and social care, education, finance, and ICT,

DARPA_Big_DataObviously these are just a few reflections on the literature and some common perceptions of women in the industry. But it is clear that there is a key role for both industry and learning providers in driving the diversity agenda forward.


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The myth of the digital native? Young people, education and digital participation in Scotland

Digital participation has been high on Scotland’s political agenda of late. Connectivity featured as a key pledge during the SNP spring conference in March. Meanwhile, both Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter and the UK government digital strategy are looking to engage those people who don’t have access to, or who do not feel confident using, technology.

Increasingly, the focus is on young people, many of whom do not remember life without internet access or mobile phones. The term being used for such young consumers of technology is “digital natives” – a digitally proficient generation which is more reliant on digital technology than older generations.

However, while in some areas of Scotland more than 80% of young people now have access to a tablet or a smartphone, their depiction as a “digital generation” may not be as accurate as first thought.

Digital competence isn’t inevitable

Some academics have challenged the notion of a “digital native”, observing that children only become digitally active if they are exposed to digital media from a young age. While a lot of research has been conducted around the impact of digital technology on those who have access, for example understanding how it effects family dynamics or health and wellbeing, less is known about the impact of not having exposure to digital technology.

This is something which needs to be explored further, and highlights that the term “universal digital native” is misleading. For example, in many areas of Scotland 17% of the population have no internet access.

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Image by Intel Free Press via Creative Commons

School-based initiatives to improve digital exposure and digital literacy

Research into digitally excluded children emphasises the important role of education on children’s digital development. School could potentially be the only opportunity for some children to receive guided exposure to the digital world, highlighting the importance of integrating digital literacy into the wider curriculum.

Individual schools have their own schemes to promote digital literacy. However, some barriers are holding children back from harnessing their potential, including:

  • allotted Information and Communications Technology (ICT) slots
  • teachers who are reluctant to teach extensively with ICT because of gaps in their own digital skills
  • concerns about exposing children to potentially harmful material.

Secondary schools in Inverclyde have trialled a ‘bring your own device’ scheme, where children use their own digital devices in lessons. Initially, there were concerns about the potential exclusion of those children who did not have their own computing devices, and about personal information being transferred across shared school networks. However, steps were taken to ensure a stock of school devices were available for those children who were unable to bring a device, that networks were secure, and that strict rules regarding the use of the technology were enforced.

Children were encouraged to work in pairs or groups to help with communication, partnership working and sharing of knowledge, which also reduced the number of personal devices in use. The scheme is still in its infancy, but already it has enabled digital technologies to be incorporated into many aspects of the Curriculum for Excellence, including: internet research, app design, online learning games and tools, photography and recording of voice notes.

UK- wide rollout of coding scheme

At a UK level, children in year 7 in England and Wales, S1 in Scotland and year 8 in Northern Ireland (aged 12) are being given the opportunity to learn how to code through a scheme rolled out by the BBC in partnership with 29 other key organisations, including Microsoft, Samsung and Barclays. The BBC Micro: Bit initiative provides children with a pocket sized computer which they can code to bring digital ideas to life. The computers are compatible with other devices, such as the Raspberry Pi, and so can be used as a springboard to more complex coding and computer programming.

The computer provision is supported by online learning resources, which teach coding techniques and give ideas about the sort of actions children can code their Micro: Bit to complete. It’s hoped that the initiative will inspire more young people to study computer science at degree level.

Implications of the digital native for education

It is clear that the education system needs to adapt to incorporate digital practice into everyday teaching. However, this has generated some debate surrounding the implications for education of the ‘digital native’ concept: how can you teach a child if they are (or are perceived to be) more proficient than their teacher? How do you integrate new technology into teaching if the teacher and pupil are learning about it at the same time?

However, failure to tackle the issues of integrating “digital” successfully into the curriculum, and digital exclusion in schools and at home could also have serious implications. If a significant portion of the next generation is digitally excluded this potentially puts them at a significant disadvantage in terms of employment and further education.


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The next big thing in management and organisational development … why your organisation should be considering reverse mentoring

A jigsaw of a handshake being completed ny two hands.

Think of the modern workplace and a number of features may spring to mind: technological innovations, flexible and remote working, to name a few. However, a more social factor is also at play: the multigenerational workforce. For the first time in history, it is now feasible that a workforce could comprise employees from four different generations, i.e. the World War II Generation (born 1929-1945), Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Generation X (born 1965-1979) and Generation Y/Millennials (born after 1980).

The characteristics of a generation

In 2012, Ashridge Business School identified that Generation Y (Gen Y) has grown up in an environment that is very different to previous generations. Additionally, their survey of managers from around the world found that Gen Y:

  • comes to the workplace with different skills;
  • is motivated by different things;
  • thinks differently about learning and development; and
  • approaches work relationships differently.

As noted by Steve Regus, writing for HR magazine in 2012, Gen Y also take a less hierarchical attitude towards work, and place a high importance on mentoring and feedback. The trick, according to Regus, is for organisations to utilise the strengths of this diverse workforce to their advantage, by creating opportunities to learn from each other.

The technological benefits of reversing

One way that some organisations have approached this is through reverse mentoring. Rather than following the usual path of older, more senior employees being assigned a newer colleague to mentor, reverse mentoring (unsurprisingly) sees younger or newer employees sharing their knowledge with company stalwarts. An early champion of this strategy in the 90s was Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric. Welch recognised the importance of capitalising on the skills of the company’s younger employees, and instigated an initiative that saw older employees learn how to use Netscape. Today, reverse mentoring is commonplace in global companies including Microsoft and Cisco.

Technology is an area in which reverse mentoring is particularly valuable. Having grown up in an age of constant technological change and development, Gen Y are ideally placed to offer insight into how technological innovation can benefit an organisation and its processes. Crucially, technological innovation has also opened up the possibility of working more flexibly, something that is highly valued by Gen Y employees. Senior employees who have taken part in reverse mentoring programmes have also highlighted gaining an insight into the potential benefits of flexible working as one of the positive outcomes of developing a mentoring relationship with a younger employee. Thus, opening up this dialogue between generations can potentially diffuse conflict between the traditional 9-5 generations and the less hierarchical Gen Y.

A two-way street

In practice, reverse mentoring has been found to be less ‘teaching an old dog new tricks’ and more of an exchange of information and experience. At General Electric, one of the most basic benefits for the young mentors was simply the ability to gain contacts in the upper echelons of the company. The mutual benefits of the relationship can also be seen in terms of the insight it offers each party. The older participant gains in terms of gaining new perspectives on the company’s industry, and the thinking of its workforce, while the younger gains a better understanding of the company’s strategies and objectives, and becomes better placed to recommend actions or technologies that may support these.

Reverse mentoring – how to do it

In 2013, Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work published an evaluation of the implementation of a reverse mentoring initiative by The Hartford, a leading US insurance company. The company’s CEO had identified a need for the company to become more confident in its use of digital technologies, particularly social media, and recognised that its younger employees were best placed to drive this forward. Following a successful initial pilot that went onto become a national initiative within the company, The Hartford highlighted the following factors as crucial to the success of any reverse mentoring programme:

  • the creation of a project timeline;
  • identifying the business objectives – link the reverse mentoring programme to what the business is trying to achieve as far as possible;
  • ensure that mentors are fully informed of what mentees are expecting to get out of the exchange;
  • making sure the initiative has clear agendas and timelines;
  • using the mentor role as a way of keeping younger employees motivated; and
  • encourage both mentors and mentees to be open to the relationship and gaining new knowledge, and to respect that each other approaches learning differently.

The final point is echoed by the majority of companies who have used reverse mentoring within their organisation. Initially, Cisco had issues around more senior employees adapting to younger employees’ more informal way of working. As they, and other reverse mentoring adoptees have discovered, though, the key is commitment to the programme, in recognition of the value it can bring to the business.


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Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Heather Cameron’s post on how entrepreneurship drives growth in the UK.