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The UK must have an open door to global digital talent

Econsultancy CEO Ashley Friedlein says the UK must continue to attract international talent to build its digital skills base.
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As many organisations are finding out, the move to digital is now an accepted necessity for companies wanting to survive. Dozens of examples exist where companies who have ignored the innovator’s dilemma have had abrupt downfalls. Kodak, HMV, and Jessops are all examples of well-known brands which have failed.

In the past few years, we have highlighted the issue of what we termed the “ticking digital talent time bomb.” Modern marketing now requires a different and flexible skill set. In particular, we have seen a rise in demand for the data geek.

McKinsey believes by 2018, there will be a 50 to 60 per cent gap in the supply and demand for deep analytical talent. This is a common theme we see when we assess the digital skills of organizations. It’s also backed up by Econsultancy’s research on analytics.

But is the government’s approach to immigration law holding companies back when it comes to digital transformation?

When it comes to our own business, we have sourced talent from abroad, but we have also had to let employees go due to visa requirements. Likewise, it is a continual frustration to get permission to send our staff into new markets, as they make repeated trips to embassies to stand in long queues.

While larger companies may have the resources to spend money on immigration bureaucracy, smaller start-ups often don’t. But both suffer as they find it more difficult to access the global labour market. There appears to be a contradiction in the desire for government to support efforts like Tech City, but not to reduce the red tape to allow them to grow.

This is of particular concern given negative comments about how the British educational system equips people for a digital future. The chairman of Google Eric Schmidt recently remarked: “I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools. Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.”

However, while changes to the educational system are needed, we cannot wait 20 years for the next generation to fill the gaps.

Ofcom and BCG both note that the in the UK a higher proportion of retail spend is online than in any other major developed economy, and we will inevitably have to look elsewhere to continue to grow. Martha Lane Fox has stated that solving the digital skills shortage would “unlock £18 billion of unrealised economic potential”.

It will also be of key importance to find the rare breed of ‘pi-shaped’ talent, who blend left-brain analytical and technical skill with right-brain creativity. These are the people who can not only think of innovative ideas, but also put them into practice. Silicon Valley teems with such people. The UK needs to keep up.

One thing I am particularly encouraged by is Boris Johnson’s plan for a ‘London Visa’ to allow talent to the capital. “It is a clear message to the elite of Silicon Valley or the fashionistas of Beijing that London is the place they should come to develop ideas, build new businesses and be part of an epicentre for global talent,” says Boris. We are also encouraged to see the Mayor of London supporting our Festival of Marketing, where existing UK digital talent gathers to share experience and renew skills.

With the need for companies to transform themselves into agile and flexible organisations, equipped to take on disruptive challengers, the UK can continue to lead the world in digital if it is allowed to find the people who can do so. Only then can the UK grow its own digital giants.

The smartest businesses look forward to welcoming the world’s talent. I hope they can join us.

Ashley Friedlein is CEO and co-founder of Econsultancy.

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