Baroness Dido Harding inspires audience to drive growth in digital Britain

23 October 2014

Baroness Dido Harding inspires audience to drive growth in digital Britain

Baroness Dido Harding, Chief Executive at TalkTalk Group plc, gave a capitvating speech at our October Keynote Lecture about how we can create a truly digital nation for the future. Read the event summary for more detail.

Henley Business School

Keynote Lecture – 7 October 2014

Following a welcome to the 120-strong audience from host Steve Solomon of RBS, the Deputy Dean of Henley Business School, Professor Ginny Gibson introduced the event:

‘Our events focus on topics that resonate with the themes at Henley, and this evening’s presentation and discussion pulls together business, IT and technology, and explores how these interact with leadership skills development.

‘And given that we have just launched a new Women in Leadership Forum at Henley, we are delighted to be able to have such an eminent woman at the podium.’

Ginny then introduced the speaker, Baroness Dido Harding, Chief Executive at TalkTalk Group plc, who has recently been appointed as a non-executive director on The Court of The Bank of England, as well as being offered a peerage, taking her position in the House of Lords this autumn.

Dido began by asking how we can create a truly digital nation for the future, and gave some background to the UK’s notable digital achievements to date.

But despite Britain having an enviable record of success as a leader in the digital economy – with high levels of broadband penetration and, in proportion to GDP, one of the largest internet economies – there are a number of threats on the horizon, and these must be addressed if the country is to maintain its competitive advantage.

For example, the UK still has a large number of people who have never used the internet, up to half of all SMEs don’t have any web presence, and two-thirds of charitable organisations can’t yet transact online.

The challenge facing small businesses is an especially worrying one, with emerging markets catching up fast, and threatening to overtake the UK in the near future.


Nudge, nudge… we need to put greater focus on digital to get from good to great

According to Dido, addressing the many issues will not be an easy task, but she advocated the use of both carrot and stick to implement a number of measures, including:

  • leadership from the top
  • a real focus from government
  • moving public services online
  • community support for the hardest to reach – with proper investment
  • setting different targets and expectations that nudge behaviour change
  • employer support for those in work who lack digital skills
  • strong competition to drive uptake
  • innovative new services, such as YouView


Building the infrastructure isn’t enough, however. Despite the message of the 1989 film Field of Dreams that ‘if you build it, they will come’, this doesn’t apply to businesses, which have suffered from this delusion ever since!

‘None of the senior management in my organisation had grown up in the digital world,’ Dido explained, ‘so I had to force the issue by slashing our offline marketing budget and diverting funds into digital marketing.

‘It needs strong, brave leadership to drive the move towards digital skills, and that goes for government every bit as much as NGOs and businesses, even when opening a new hospital is “sexier”.’

Dido recognised the work done by Mike Bracken, Head of the Government Digital Service (GDS), in delivering public services online, but expressed concern that these innovations are still inaccessible to those excluded or underprivileged members of the community who are still without an online facility.

‘We need to trust our youth, and inspire and support them.

‘Employers have a responsibility to ensure that all their staff are digitally savvy, and by making it happen, we will ensure that even SMEs can succeed internationally, and help balance the books, supporting Britain to be great, to be global, to drive growth. That’s why it’s important.’



Ginny Gibson then facilitated a lively dialogue between Dido and the audience, covering a selection of topics, including the following:

Q   What causes the inertia within leadership?

A   ‘Fear and ignorance are strong inhibitors; we really invest in training and development, management learning, planting totem poles. It’s important to listen to what’s being said at the coalface. Encourage senior people to understand the basics of the digital world. We need to put our future in the hands of the people who are experts in this field, so as leaders, we need to know how it works.’

Q   Is change driven by technology or leadership?

A   ‘Most technology companies are driven by customer demand; they take customer needs and develop a proposition. Digital development is intellectually more challenging, though, because the customers often don’t know – and can’t even imagine – what is possible.’

Q   An 11-year-old child recently questioned me on why he needed to learn anything, because it’s all there, on the internet, on his phone. How would you respond?!

A   ‘The digital revolution has thrown up a whole raft of philosophical issues we have to work through, but – unusually – I agree with Michael Gove on this one! We have to teach our children to read and write. And we also have to make sure we have programmers who recognise that not everyone wants or needs a digital world. The key is often to engage with them outside the digital world.’

Q   A question about hyperlocal environments… how can we harness digital technology to bring together local communities?

A   ‘This is a really important topic. Digital needs to create local social networks and enable physical engagement. It must become a hub – a way of connecting local people, not isolating them.’

Q   Should access to the internet be a universal right?

A   ‘Well, Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted to connect everyone in Africa, but I tend to side with Bill Gates, who suggested that we tackle issues like polio and poverty first. But there’s no doubt that when we reach a threshold of perhaps 90–95% connection, there will be great public policy benefits.’

Q   How can we provide internet security for young internet users?

A   ‘We need to apply the same rules as we would if they physically go out – ask them where they’re going, who they’re meeting, how long they’ll be there, what they’ll be doing. We can’t hide away from it just by using the excuse that we ourselves don’t understand it. Meeting a stranger online is no different to meeting one offline. SO HAVE THAT CONVERSATION!’

Q   Does Parliament set a good example in the way it uses technology?

A   ‘Clearly not, but with the average age of politicians being similar to that of business leaders, they have the same challenges of generational inertia. In the political bubble, in particular, it’s easy to forget that there’s a real world outside.’

Q   How can we attract more women to drive digital growth?

A   ‘There’s undoubtedly a supply problem, which starts in schools. We need to inspire girls before they get to secondary school, and instil in them that coding, for example, is cool.’

To close the formal proceedings, Ginny thanked Dido for her openness, and took the opportunity to remind the audience that the conversations never stop at Henley and that, appropriately, the forthcoming Women in Leadership Forum is just one of many future events.


And the audience reaction?

Feedback from the audience praised Dido as an influential and inspirational speaker, and commended Henley Business School for putting on such an impressive event:

‘Wow! What an inspiration Dido is! She inspired me as a CEO, and as a woman. Really tremendous.’

‘She has amazing presence. In an hour, she’s managed to completely change my view of TalkTalk too!’

‘Henley always manages to deliver such diverse topics. It was a real coup to get someone like Dido to speak here tonight, but everything was right. Great venue, great pace, plenty of opportunities to ask questions and network. Loved it.’

‘If I’m honest, I didn’t know much about Henley Business School, but you can’t fail to be impressed by how professional this is. And what a fantastic, mixed bunch of people.’

‘I’m in awe. She’s really made me think. I’m going to go into the office tomorrow and insist that we recruit a 19-year-old to run our digital operation!’

‘I was really interested by the emphasis she put on blending physical contact with digital communications, and the idea of the internet driving community engagement. That feels important, and right.’