THE digital world presents both threats and opportunities for North- East businesses.

Part of the North East England Chamber of Commerce’s (NEECC) manifesto for 2017 is to develop a more connected region.

Companies are facing a number of issues at the moment, though they should feel reassured that help is available to meet such challenges.

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“The Digital World seems like such a broad and futuristic phrase”, says Ben Powick, chamber policy advisor specialising in the digital sector.

“It’s one that has developed over the years from describing the abstract thinking of innovative film-makers creating features like the Matrix to something that affects all our daily lives.

“Whether it is digital education, cyber security or the upcoming changes to data holding regulations, this sector presents a range of challenges to businesses wanting to keep up with it.

“The recent Tech Nation 2017 report showed the incredible impact the digital and tech industry is having on jobs, growth and prosperity for the UK as a whole, but also particularly for our region.

“With more than £1bn of digital GVA (gross value added) being generated in Newcastle alone, the report showed just a snapshot of the potential and direction the sector has and the huge impact it is already creating.

“Many of these figures are of course not exclusive to just digital tech start-ups and software firms, as today the vast majority of businesses use some element of digital technology.

“Whether it is their basic email system, stock management processes, CRM, iPhone or iPad, businesses are becoming more and more reliant and focused on the opportunities that technology brings.

“But of course, with innovation and new technology come challenges along with them.”

Recently, the chamber carried out a digital survey, which aimed to find out member views on subjects such as mobile phone coverage and broadband.

The North-East fared particularly well in terms of businesses and their experience with mobile accessibility, with 56 per cent experiencing ‘not-spots’.

This is in contrast to the significantly higher 70 per cent figure reported by respondents nationally, showing that as a region we seem to be outperforming for ‘on-the-go’ coverage, benefiting small and medium enterprises in particular and showcasing our attractiveness to new, agile businesses.

“There are also emerging challenges to face such as cyber security, which has dominated so many headlines in recent weeks,” says Mr Powick.

“You only have to look at the problems the NHS has faced with the ransomware disruptive attack on their IT systems to understand about the havoc malicious hackers, and not keeping security updated, can have.”

As well as internet security issues, regulations are being introduced to enforce better protection of data within businesses.

GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) is being introduced by the EU and will still apply to the UK even post- Brexit.

It will help to strengthen and unify data protection for countries.

It is something that has potentially crept up on many companies, with the deadline, May 25 next year, now less than a year away.

Therefore, it is important that businesses are quickly made aware of the changes and can adapt.

Particularly when they take into account the potential fines that could be imposed if they do not properly follow the new procedures, which can cost a company up to four per cent of global annual turnover or £20m.

The chamber, in conjunction with Pulsant, which has recently joined the organisation’s partner programme alongside other leading businesses in the region, is hosting an event on Wednesday, July 12, at Ramside Hall, on the outskirts of Durham City.

This will outline the essential information about what GDPR changes will mean for businesses across the North- East.

The breakfast meeting will explore the key elements that all organisations, no matter what size and sector, should be aware of.

This event is part of a series of quarterly IT and systems related events that the chamber runs to ensure North-East businesses are updated.

On the chamber website there will also be a question and answer facility available to help companies understand what they need to do to comply.

Mr Powick said: “The digital world’s technical demands and legislative challenges are also added to by the skills shortages in that field being experienced in our region.

“Although we have many big digital brands in the North- East, the attraction of these names alone is only a small part of retaining talent and upskilling our workforces, whilst also making sure younger people have the skills we need for the future.

“Bringing in skilled talent from abroad is equally important when tackling short-term needs to combat these shortages.

“The language from the recent General Election about potential migration caps and raising the recently-introduced Immigration Skills Charge, which penalises businesses, are particular areas that need to be addressed.

“We need to be a region that welcomes talent from abroad and encourages those that have been born and raised here to take the right educational path which will help fill the job opportunities for the future.

“If we can tackle all of these challenges, then we have a great future that will ensure we have the right skills, proper cyber security and an economy that is a hub for digital and tech business.”

A business view:

STEVEN PARKER, managing director of Digital Allies, based on Rainton Bridge Business Park, Houghton-le-Spring, confirms the business view of the digital sector’s security concerns.

He said: “With stories about highprofile cyber security, identity theft and hacking in the media on the rise, website security should be a business’ top priority.

“In August 2014, Google released a statement in which they said they were giving secure websites a boost in the search engines’ organic rankings in a bid to create “encryption for everyone”.

“At the time, less than ten per cent of the top 100,000 sites on the internet were secure.

“A recent study suggested that figure is now upwards of 65 per cent.

“Having a secure website means your visitors can be safe in the knowledge that any information they give to your website will be protected.

“Google Chrome is now visibly labelling sites as being secure to reassure visitors their information will remain safe and will not be passed to another party.

“It is also rolling out warnings to web users to let them know their information may not be secure if they proceed to another website.

“Previously, the implementation was lengthy and costly, however, there are now solutions that are free to implement.

“With this in mind, I urge businesses to re-think their security settings to ensure their customers’ information is kept safe.”

TODD WHALEY, director of consultancy services at Pulsant, which last year acquired the Onyx Group, which has headquarters in Stockton, said: “Businesses in all sectors face a host of challenges in today’s competitive marketplace, especially when it comes to cyber security and compliance.

“For many, the primary stumbling block is where to start.

“As part of the event at Ramside Hall, we’ll be discussing how to get the basics right, looking at different risk management frameworks like cyber essentials, and then taking that a step further with delving into GDPR, the questions you should be asking, the impact it will have on your business, and the steps needed for meeting the compliance deadline."