An Open University and Be the Business report found that while business leaders value training and technology, time and money barriers stand in the way of upskilling. Only 50% of business leaders say they plan to address gaps in skills in the next 12 months.
The value of technology isn’t clear to all business leaders, with only a minority seeing it as having a positive impact on increasing efficiency (39%), revenue (31%) and profit margin (27%). However, rapid technology adoption over the past 15 months of the Covid-19 pandemic by SMEs demonstrates there is an opportunity to maintain the uptake of technology and digital skills.
The Open University (OU) has jointly published a report with Be the Business titled Skills for Success: supporting business leaders with digital adoption. The research involved surveying 1,500 business leaders of SMEs from across the UK and listening to the experiences of businesses which have needed to make drastic changes to adapt to the challenges presented by the pandemic.
Covid-19 accelerated the adoption of collaboration and e-commerce software, for example, in more than half (54%) of UK SMEs. Of the business leaders who adopted new technology or accelerated its use due to Covid-19, at least 85 per cent plan to continue using it at the same level once restrictions are fully lifted.
Large companies have the resources, often at an integrated departmental level, to deliver skills and training, and successfully adopt technology. However, as many as 30% of business leaders surveyed said time and cost can make digital adoption too expensive and too time consuming.
On the other hand, the report found that even without dedicated resources, many small and medium-sized businesses have shown themselves to be flexible and resilient around digital skills and training, with 70% of business leaders expressing an interest in some form of learning and development in the next 12 months.
In addition, approximately a quarter of business leaders turn to technology providers for direct support across the four stages of tech adoption – objective setting, purchase, implementation, and ongoing maintenance – but a higher proportion rely on internet searches at the objective-setting (31%) and purchase (28%) stages.
The report’s other key findings include:
- Two thirds of business leaders (67%) say they are confident in adopting technology, although only half (54%) think they make good purchasing decisions about technology.
- Business leaders value basic digital skills (33%) or technical understanding of technologies (20%) ahead of the leadership skills required to successfully implement technology (12%).
- One fifth (21%) of all business leaders don’t think adopting technology could have a positive impact on their business at all.
Interestingly, contrary to popular belief that young people are more tech savvy, leaders aged 35 and older report being more generally knowledgeable about cloud-based computing, online accounting, video conferencing and cyber security. In contrast, younger business leaders (18-34) are more knowledgeable about marketing automation and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, highlighting differences in understanding according to the type of technology. Younger leaders are also most receptive to training.
SMEs know that being ahead on technology adoption is a crucial factor in determining their competitiveness and productivity, yet the UK lags behind its competitors in this area.
The Skills for Success report makes a number of key recommendations for business leaders looking to adopt technology successfully, including:
- Identifying the right digital tools to tackle a company’s biggest challenge
- Securing time and budget to enable an attitude of continuous learning
- Empowering SMEs to embrace a digital culture
- Recognising the power of a varied skillset in an organisation
Jane Dickinson, Digital Skills Lead at The Open University said:
“The pandemic has forced many business leaders to rapidly reassess how they do business and the role of technology. Digital skills are now front and centre to current thinking across all sectors as businesses look to successfully adopt digital technologies. If we are to make levelling up a success and assist SMEs in developing the skills they need, then it is essential that everyone plays their part.
SMEs provide great environments for talented workers to fulfil their potential through lifelong learning. If business leaders can adopt a ‘grow your own’ approach, then it is a win-win-win for the employee, employer and the economy. But there are some barriers to overcome – not least the time and cost investment and our report reveals how SMEs can chart a path to grow their digital skills for the future.”
Anthony Impey, Chief Executive at Be the Business said:
“Great leadership combined with productivity enhancing technology is at the heart of our most successful businesses. But adopting new digital technology can be challenging, even for the most confident business leaders. That is why getting the right skills and training – focused on both digital and leadership capabilities, is essential.”