All businesses strive to be as efficient and profitable as possible. So, introducing systems to improve productivity – no matter what the specific size, sector or scope of the business – is essential for growth and long-term success.
The past year provided a dramatic call to action for any business leader still unsure about digital’s influence.
Digital technology has found itself under the spotlight as organisations have scrambled to adopt it. Whether that is to support remote working, communication, to improve systems and services, or to enable ecommerce.
So, a focus on digital technology and the associated skills is timely for businesses – especially small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). While investment in digital technology and skills may be easy to justify for businesses operating at scale, budget constraints and fears of getting it wrong can hold back SMEs.
It isn’t just about technology
A new report published by The Open University and Be the Business entitled Skills for Success: supporting business leaders with digital adoption found that while SME business leaders value training and technology, time and money barriers stand in the way of upskilling. This research – surveying 1,500 SME business leaders across the UK – gave a detailed understanding of their experiences and views. It painted a mixed picture.
For example, Covid-19 accelerated the adoption of eCommerce software for more than half (54%) of UK SMEs. Of the business leaders who had bought into new technology, at least 85% plan to continue using it at the same level once restrictions are lifted. Elsewhere, there is reticence. The value of technology isn’t clear for all leaders. Only 39% see it as having a positive impact on increasing efficiency, 31% on revenue and 27% on profit margin.
What is holding back digital transformation
The digital skills gap may be holding some back, and so it certainly looks as though much more can be done to ensure SMEs realise the benefit from these tools – both from an investment and a skillset point of view. More than three quarters (77%) of SME business leaders think they do not have the required skills to implement new technology into their businesses successfully.
It is now key for business leaders to understand the skills required to see their digital investment reap the most rewards, here are eight points that they should focus on:
1. Look at where the biggest business challenges lie
To succeed, start by identifying the challenge that needs solving and select the right technology and partner to provide the answer. For example, five digital technologies that play a crucial role in improving productivity are: task/project management, collaboration software, customer relationship management (CRM), cloud accounting, HR software, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and eCommerce.
2. Identify reasons why previous digital technology investment failed
If previous introductions of new technology or digital tools haven’t been successful, it’s important to honestly examine what went wrong and how that can be remedied in the future. For example, was it a lack of technical skills, a failure to engage employees or the wrong choice of digital tools?
3. Plan and budget for improvement
Once your business has identified areas for upskilling and individual training needs, put a plan in place to deliver this in a set time. If money is required for learning and development, prioritise setting funds aside as part of the budget process.
4. Identify time pressures
Identify the challenge by finding time for learning and development within your organisation – or investing time to bring teams up to speed on new technology. Provide the solution, if there is a problem, focus on what’s causing that pressure and identify ways to free up capacity to dedicate training time.
5. Adopt continuous learning
With the world changing rapidly and unforeseen events altering the way both the economy and society operate, it’s important to be resilient and agile. Create a culture of continuous learning at all levels. A willingness to adapt and grow is more likely to flourish within the organisation.
6. Embrace a digital culture
It’s not enough to adopt technology once. Putting in place a continuous improvement plan, which adapts to the needs of the business across both technology use and skills ensures that a digital-first approach is at the heart of the business.
7. A varied skillset is vital
Business leaders understandably recognise the value of digital skills, particularly in the context of adopting technology. However, it’s crucial to also invest in leadership and management skills to bring employees along on the digital journey and recognise when to delegate to more technically minded teams.
8. Know when to ask for help
Business support and advice on digital adoption and training is widely available for free to SMEs so look for tools and advice to help overcome challenges. For example, Be the Business, a government-backed charity, offers free and impartial advice to SMEs on tech adoption, leadership and much more.
SMEs account for 99.7% of the total business population in the UK, so their success is the country’s success. If SMEs realise the full potential of digital technology, it will not only lead to improving their productivity, but that of the whole UK.
The Open University (OU) is the largest academic institution in the UK and a world leader in flexible distance learning. Since it began in 1969, the OU has taught more than two million students worldwide and has over 174,000 current students, including more than 7,000 overseas.
Over 76% of students are in full-time or part-time employment, and three out of five FTSE 100 companies have sponsored staff to take OU courses.
The OU works with over 2,400 organisations and is the largest provider of degree apprenticeships based on 2019/20 starts.
Regarded as the UK’s major e-learning institution, the OU is a world leader in developing technology to increase access to education on a global scale. Its vast ‘open content portfolio’ includes free study units, as well as games, videos and academic articles, which have reached over 36 million people.
For further information please visit The Open University