Web guru Martha Lane Fox on how to get Britain's 16 million 'tech illiterates' online

Jonathan Weinberg
Martha Lane- Fox at Orange prize for fiction at Royal Festival Hall, London, England- 30.05.12 Mandatory Credit: WENN.com

Whether you're reading this article on the internet via your computer, tablet or smartphone, it's probable that you're one of the millions in Britain who takes the World Wide Web for granted.

But according to new research from charity Go ON UK, there are 16 million people in Britain who are still not as lucky or clued-up.

They do not have the basic online skills to log on to a website, buy something from Amazon, watch a video on YouTube or even send an email.

And it's an issue that could be wiping a whopping £63 BILLION in lost revenue from the country's economy according to a report from analysts Booz & Company.

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Launching the research, written for Go ON UK, the charity's chairwoman

Martha Lane Fox told Yahoo UK! News she believes this gap in digital

skills is one of the biggest challenges facing Britain today.

The businesswoman launched iconic dotcom business LastMinute.com.

While the number of people who cannot use the internet has dropped by around four million since 2009, Ms Lane Fox says there's still a lot of work to be done.

She explained: "The most significant thing is digital skills, the basic functions we think are important to survive online. All the research shows people want to use this technology but don't know how to and that's what we need to focus on.

"There are 4.5 million people in work who don't have basic online skills. That was a number from the report that was really shocking to me. How can you do your job as effectively as another person without those skills?

"Some jobs obviously don't require technology but how can you change jobs effectively without being able to find a new one online or simply save money without using the internet."

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In a bid to spread its tentacles to educate as many of the 16 million as possible, Go ON UK has teamed up with a range of partners from Government to big business and charity organisations.

All have signed a charter to firstly bring their own workforce up to a level playing field of digital knowledge before taking this on to their customers and those they help in day-to-day life.

They include the likes of Orange and T-Mobile parent company EE, which just launched its superfast 4G mobile network, Age UK, TalkTalk, the Post Office and banking group Lloyds.

And Ms Lane Fox believes grasping this opportunity now will ultimately create new jobs and improve the British economy, especially as the country finally starts to emerge from the economic downturn.

She explained: "If you look now at the resources available to us, technology is clearly one of the most levelling products. It brings access right to your doorstep.

"I believe very deeply that the opportunity to encourage more entrepreneurialism, more empowerment and more economic growth comes from using technology.

"Our research shows that only a third of small and medium companies have an online presence and it seems to me to be such a crucial skill to have. Not necessarily to have a website or be able to sell your goods and services online but even just to buy products and services you use as an organisation, like stationery, cheaper. You have such an advantage being able to use the web."

Dido Harding, chief executive of TalkTalk, agreed. She said: "For many of us, when you look for something, you go online and when you look down the list of companies in a search, the ones who have some form of digital presence are the ones who get your business.

"It doesn't have to be much, just a tiny bit. If you are a local plumber without it, then you are going to make less money than the one who comes up in a search when your boiler breaks down. The perception is they are more professional.

"Life in the global economy for the next 10 years is going to be a long hard slog so as a country we must give those SMEs the skills to get online and start connecting with customers and employees. That will help them grow faster."

But it's not just businesses who can benefit from a more digitally-educated workforce. Millions of older people without basic online skills are missing out on connecting with their families through the likes of Skype or enjoying the entertainment and educational benefits of cyberspace. They also cannot access Government services increasingly migrating to the web or hook into online health advice or support.

Training work by Age UK is attempting to combat this while the recent Livingstone-Hope review recommended a new way of teaching computer science in schools so young people have the right skills - such as coding - for a technologically-influenced world rather than simply knowing how to create a spreadsheet.

Ms Harding added: "If you look at Britain as a nation, competing with China and India, we are never going to be able to outman or outnumber those great big countries but we can be a smarter, more nimble and more creative country. But to do that, you need to be brilliant at digital.

"We are already quite good at it. The average person is more digitally literate. But there's a whole chunk of people who aren't and just building the infrastructure is not enough, you have to nudge people towards it. The generation who grew up without it, don't always know why they need it.

"And if you are a teenager growing up without internet access, how do you do your homework today? It is not just the elderly this affects. We have been trying to work on products that those in socially deprived areas can really afford to use."

The Go ON UK research seems to be hitting home. According to alternative careers' website unisnotforme.com, a fifth of those adults questioned for a survey believed training and work placements within the technology sector would be more useful to a young person's future than gaining a degree.

And Ms Lane Fox added: "We are now in a better place than we have ever been. We have a Government who is really taking digital in its widest sense seriously. I am optimistic and believe we can create a big groundswell of change in the UK.

"With all those unemployed people today, I cannot believe there are not some entrepreneurs among them. They have the tenacity and the ideas they've just not been given the opportunity and we must embed digital skills in that group of people.

"We need to make the country fit for purpose through the next decade and ensure everyone and every organisation has basic digital literacy."