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A guide to how business leaders can win with digital technology

By Jane Dickinson, Digital Skills Lead, The Open University 

As we look to the future and how to equip businesses for the multitude of changes affecting them – from technological developments to the post Brexit / post pandemic environment – training and development will be an essential ingredient for success. 

Successful SMEs are vital to our economy, and the leaders running those businesses must invest in technology to help them grow and profit in this uncertain economic environment, and ensure their workforce has the skills to make the most of the technology.  

In research the OU conducted jointly with Be the Business for our new report Skills for success: supporting business leaders with digital adoption, we found that three quarters of SME business leaders (75%) agree that everyone will need to have an understanding or knowledge of digital technologies in the future. In addition, 72% think that workers need to become more agile so they can change roles as new technology develops and 70% believe that workers will need to retrain regularly to keep their skills up to date.  

But elsewhere in our report the findings were more concerning. Only 57% of business leaders think embracing new technology is essential for their organisation to survive. So, it looks as though there is still some way to go to support business leaders to realise the potential value of technology and its role in supporting agility in a dynamic and ever-changing environment.   

In a digital age, to be a good leader you need to be confident in seeing the value of technology, purchasing it, implementing it and continuing to evolve it to benefit your business. Business leaders need to be equipped – or know how to fully equip their team – with the right skills. In other words, the digital skills of business leaders and their employees are only as good as the ability to embrace and embed them across the organisation. 

So, here are eight steps that SME business leaders and their HR departments should be taking to improve the take-up of digital technology within their organisations to help boost productivity and skills: 

1. Examine the biggest business challenges and the value of technology  

By identifying the problem that needs to be solved and using this information to select the right technology and partner, success is more likely. It is also important to explore the value digital tools can offer. For example, technology is crucial in improving productivity such as CRM, cloud accounting, HR software, ERP and e-commerce. 

2. Reflect on past technology adoption to identify where additional skills are needed  

If technology has not been 100% successful for the business previously, it’s important to examine what caused any failure or challenges so it can be remedied going forward. Was it a lack of technical skills, an inability to effectively engage employees or the wrong choice of digital tools? By honestly answering these questions, it’s possible to upskill accordingly and increase the chances of success next time.  

3. Plan for you and your team to improve, and set a budget  

Once areas for upskilling and individual training needs have been identified, put a plan in place to deliver on these requirements over a defined period. If money is needed for learning and development, prioritise setting funds aside as part of the budget process.  

4. Identify what’s causing time pressures  

If setting aside time for learning and development within your organisation – or investing time to bring teams up to speed on new technology – is a problem, focus on what’s causing that pressure and identify ways to free up capacity to allow time for training. 

5. Adopt continuous learning 

With the world changing rapidly and unforeseen events altering the way both the economy and society operates, it’s important to be resilient. By establishing a culture of continuous learning at all levels, a willingness to adapt and grow is more likely to flourish within the organisation. 

6. Embrace a digital culture  

It’s not enough to adopt technology once. Putting in place a continuous improvement plan, which adapts to the needs of the business across both technology use and skills ensures that a digital-first approach becomes engrained in the organisation.  

7. Recognise the importance of a varied skillset  

Business leaders know the value of digital skills, particularly when adopting the right technology. However, it’s crucial to also invest in leadership and management skills to bring employees along on the digital journey and recognise when to delegate to more technically minded teams.  

8. Ask for help if you need it and learn from others 

Business support and advice on digital adoption and training is widely available for free to small- and medium-sized businesses. A range of resources, tools and advice to help leaders overcome challenges is available – learn from those who have been in a similar position and succeeded. 

From ecommerce to CRM, accounting to enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, technology can improve productivity for businesses, with the knock-on impact of improved nationwide level productivity. It will be down to Digital technology and skills adoption, in terms of the UK’s ability to come out of this pandemic strong and growing – indeed, the CBI has estimated that firms adopting key technologies could add £100bn to UK gross value added (GVA).

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