From education to employment

A once-in-a-generation opportunity for SME productivity

Anthony Impey MBE

Few of us will forget the Monday evening in March last year when the Prime Minister announced that the country was going into lockdown. For businesses leaders it triggered the greatest challenge of our lives.


In the face of overwhelming uncertainty, small business leaders and entrepreneurs rapidly pivoted their business models and embraced new ways of working. Like many others, my organisation went from an office-based nine-to-five to a virtual environment wholly dependent on technology. Transforming into a digitally powered organisation meant that we not only kept going; we thrived.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all small businesses, who frequently encounter issues when trying to become more digital. Over half (53%) of all small businesses report that their attempts to adopt new technology fail, meaning that they will struggle to get back on their feet as we start to rebuild the economy.

The pandemic has shifted attitudes. At Be the Business, we found that last year, small businesses underwent three years’ worth of innovation in just three months. Two in three small business leaders believed that technology could boost business performance and six in ten medium business leaders said they would be willing to invest in technology in the future. With the right support, these businesses could start using tech to accelerate out of the difficulties of the last 18 months.

The challenge to realising this potential has been revealed in a recent report published by Be the Business in partnership with The Open University. This found that while the majority of business leaders feel confident in their ability to adopt tech and they have a high level of awareness of the digital tools available, less than a quarter (23%) think they have all the necessary technical skills to implement them.

We have started to tackle this issue. Be the Business Digital offers free advice for business leaders looking to get the most out of technology, including easy-to-follow descriptions of a range of technologies together with interactive adoption guides. It also has real-life stories about businesses and their experiences (both positive and negative) of introducing technology because, more than anything else, business leaders want to hear about organisations that look like them, doing things they can do.

Leadership and management capabilities also play a crucial role in adopting technology and driving productivity. We’ve discovered that offering leaders of small businesses the opportunity to learn from senior leaders in large enterprises can be invaluable. Our mentoring and advisory board programmes provide the tailored and specific support craved by so many business leaders, supported by action plans, tools and templates. In a recent survey of mentees who have completed our mentoring programme, over half reported that they had adopted new management and leadership practices (54%), while 51% reported increased productivity and two thirds (67%) expected further improvements in the next two years.   

However, there is still so much more to do. Business leaders are looking for more training options that provide greater flexibility and variety. They are looking for a mix of formats and delivery options, with a preference for short courses, industrial certifications, and vocational qualifications. Dip-in, dip-out and online learning is seen as being most beneficial by time-poor, resource-constrained small businesses.

If the further education ecosystem can build learning and development propositions that meet these needs, there is a massive opportunity to be realised. And helping the country’s small businesses to become more digital has never been more important. With small businesses making up such a significant part of the economy (they account for 99.3% of all businesses and £1.6 trillion of annual turnover) their failure to adopt technology will hold back the pace of post-pandemic recovery.

We must make training more accessible to business leaders and their employees, giving them the skills and confidence to successfully adopt digital tools. The task is a mammoth one, but the opportunity is greater. By supporting small businesses to successfully use more technology, we will do more than just recover from the pandemic; we will emerge from it even stronger.

By Anthony Impey MBE, Chief Executive, Be the Business  

Be the Business is an independent, not-for-profit organisation, with a single goal: to help business leaders improve the performance of their business. We work with some of the UK’s most successful businesses to provide small- and medium-sized business leaders with the support and guidance they need to increase their productivity. We offer digital resources, tailored programmes, research and campaigns to help business leaders succeed.    


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