By now, you’ve probably heard the anecdote that ‘ten years of digital transformation happened in ten weeks’ due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
By now, you’ve probably heard the anecdote that ‘ten years of digital transformation happened in ten weeks’ due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a pithy saying – and also quite perceptive. Out of necessity, the world was a dramatically different place at the beginning of June 2020 than it was when UK lockdowns were first introduced in March of that year. As shops were shuttered, offices closed and remote working became widespread, it also became increasingly clear that this moment marked a wholesale shift from bricks to clicks for Britain’s small businesses.
This shift to digital has created huge new opportunities for the country’s small business community to reach a dispersing and diversifying audience. As everything and everyone moves online, customers across the country and around the world are closer than ever – literally just a click away. But it has also introduced new digital skills demands on small business owners, and the pace of change has been so quick that some are finding it difficult to keep up. SMEs must now leverage a far greater range of digital tools than ever before to reach a new generation of digitally-savvy customers. Without targeted support, they risk falling behind. That’s why we’ve also partnered with Enterprise Nation to launch business.connected, a new initiative to upskill the digital capabilities of up to 100,000 small businesses within a year.
New technologies rely on the application of new skills – and perhaps a new way of thinking about how SMEs should develop and deploy them. Back in 2016, a report from the government’s Science and Technology Committee warned that the country was already facing a digital skills crisis, SME’s included. It can be tempting to picture high growth start-ups in cutting-edge fields of technology and imagine the entirety of the UK’s small business sector to be technologically advanced, but the reality is a much more diverse ecosystem of shopkeepers, SoHo enterprises and beyond, all with varying degrees of digital familiarity. Our research found that a third of SMEs simply aren’t clear on which digital tools are right for their business needs, while a quarter are investing in new technologies and not activating them. This reveals a disconnect between the calibre of tech solutions available today and the comparative lack of knowledge around how best to deploy them.
That’s a problem, because it’s now increasingly clear that these more advanced capabilities are what small businesses will need to compete for the hearts, minds and wallets of their customers. The thousands of butchers, cake shops and greengrocers across the country who quickly pivoted online last year are now realising that setting up a website and sharpening up their Excel spreadsheet skills was only step one. They, like many home office entrepreneurs, must now look beyond the basics and start developing enhanced skills like computer programming, data analytics and photoshop design. The effect of pandemic-era digital transformation has been to emphasise the need for levelling-up digital capabilities on an ongoing basis, to get ahead and then stay ahead. Across the 130,000+ businesses who accessed the Vodafone V-Hub digital support platform in the past year, for example, it was the cybersecurity resources that occupied the top spot in terms of popularity.
Whatever the requirements, it’s clear from conversations with small business owners that many feel they need more assistance when it comes to navigating today’s increasingly connected business environment. Perhaps that’s why almost two thirds of them would prefer to hire a ‘digital native’ with limited work experience over a ‘digital novice’ with strong work experience credentials, according to our research. Targeted support such as government grants for upskilling and training courses that more accurately reflect the dynamic and digitised nature of modern enterprise will also be vital. It’s hard to build a business for tomorrow’s world when you’re relying entirely on yesterday’s teachings.
That’s not to say that strong leadership, sharp presentational skills and a keen eye for finances will ever go out of fashion. But as businesses become increasingly digitised, a greater proportion of digital skills will become ‘must-haves’ for successful business leaders, rather than ‘nice-to-haves’. The direction of travel in terms of digital disruption and innovation isn’t going to change any time soon. If business leaders had to adapt during the pandemic to help their companies survive, it’s now time for them to adapt once again to ensure they can thrive beyond it.