Why skills are essential for a successful digital future

With over three-quarters of SME leaders without the skills to implement technology, Anthony Impey explains how businesses can address the talent gap

If anything has taught us the importance of technology to the small business community, it’s the Covid-19 pandemic. It has radically altered the way we live, work and behave. And, in many ways, businesses have been at the forefront of this shift. In the first lockdown alone, we saw three years’ worth of innovation in just three months as businesses were forced to embrace technology if they wanted to continue operating.

Tech is a proven driver of business productivity. We know that if businesses embrace technology there will be an improvement in their performance. For example, the introduction of technology such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) have been shown to create a productivity premium of around 25 per cent

More broadly, technology and digital skills are increasingly important enablers for businesses to expand into new geographies, to increase their agility, to support their staff and facilitate homeworking, and to deliver increased efficiencies and revenue.

With Covid-19 accelerating the implementation of digital tools in more than half (54 per cent) of the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) population, it may be that the unique context of the pandemic could serve as a catalyst for businesses up and down the country to embrace digitalisation and tech solutions over the long-term. There is a moment of opportunity to build on this recent surge in technology adoption, yet we also know that it’s not always straightforward or easy.

In partnership with The Open University, we surveyed over 1,500 senior leaders in businesses with one to 249 employees. The research allowed us to explore what skills are needed within businesses in order to be successful when it comes to technology adoption, and to use the recent context of Covid-19 to dig into the experiences of SMEs. 

In the recently published Skills for Success report we found that over three quarters (77 per cent) of SME leaders do not have all the skills required to successfully implement technology into their businesses. This is a staggering skills gap, and one that is broadly reflected across all levels of businesses. However, only half of leaders (50 per cent) have a plan to address these development needs in the next 12 months and one quarter (25 per cent) spend no money at all on training and learning. 

We hear from a range of stakeholders that there is a digital skills shortage in the UK and just last week tech companies have been calling on the UK government to take action to address the challenge. As it becomes increasingly difficult to recruit for digital skills, there’s a strong case to be made for building digital expertise from within. Not only does this enable businesses to develop the exact talent they need, but investing in people and upskilling them helps to create a very real sense of value and loyalty among employees. 

However, our findings aren’t only focused on digital skills. Leadership and management skills are just as important, or arguably more so, to ensure that a digital approach is embedded throughout the organisation and that employees are brought along on the journey. Embracing both a digital culture and a proactive approach to training and development that is shared throughout the business can allow for success when it comes to adopting technology and using it to greatest effect. Leading from the front has never been more crucial.

If we seize this moment and build the right capabilities among business leaders, we can ensure that the flurry of technological innovation seen in the last 15 months is supported by a skilled workforce and a culture of lifelong learning that is fit for the future.

Anthony Impey MBE is chief executive at independent charity Be the Business