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The big opportunity for FE; making tech work for small businesses

Anthony Impey

I distinctly remember purchasing my first cloud-based system. I was running a small technology business and was looking for some software to manage day-to-day operations; something that would drive accounting, procurement, and the supply chain. I had big growth ambitions and thought that the right system would accelerate this. When I signed the paperwork and committed a big chunk of cash, I had high hopes.

As you’ve probably guessed, things didn’t go quite as I’d anticipated. The software didn’t do what I expected, and a lot more money needed to be invested to get it working the way I wanted. The thing that I thought would help us grow faster, seemed to slow us down.

Turns out that this is not an uncommon experience. Even though all the evidence shows that technology boosts business productivity, over half (53%) of leaders of small businesses say that their attempts to introduce technology have been unsuccessful.

It’s this challenge that Be the Business wants to fix. We know that technology adoption, alongside leadership and management, is a key driver of small business productivity. We also know that successful tech implementation can have a huge impact on SMEs, which is why we focus on this area: successful tech adoption is linked to business success.

This ambition led us to partner with the Open University to gain further insight into the challenges SMEs face and discover how the learning and business support ecosystem can respond to best equip business leaders with the knowledge and tools required.

In data collected from over 1,500 senior business leaders, we found that more than half (54%) accelerated their implementation of digital tools because of the pandemic. Of that figure, nearly nine out of ten (85%) plan to continue using that tech at the same level now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted. This unprecedented momentum provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to increase the level of digital adoption by small businesses.

However, it’s not all good news. Despite business leaders reporting a high level of awareness of digital tools, they also admitted to a lack of deep knowledge and a limited appreciation of the value of technology within their businesses. We found that only one in five (19%) believe that their employees have the technical skills necessary to successfully adopt technology within their business, and only half (50%) have any plans to address this skills gap in the next 12 months.

This is a big opportunity for the FE sector. Small businesses account for 99.3% of the total business population and three out of five jobs in the UK. And the massive shift to a more tech-driven economy is going to mean that more and more of them are going to be looking to address their digital skills gaps.

At Be the Business, we have developed a set of online resources for business leaders who want to make their businesses more digital, including step-by-step guides on how to introduce specific technologies like CRM systems, cloud accounting and project management software, all based on the successful experience of hundreds of real business leaders – resources that would have helped with my first cloud-based system purchase!

By making it easier for leaders of small businesses to access learning and development provision, the potential of small- and medium-sized businesses can truly be unlocked. Not only will this boost the performance and productivity of these businesses; it will be critical to the pace of the recovery of the overall economy.

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 companies 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.

By Anthony Impey MBE, Chief Executive, Be the Business

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