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OU emphasises the importance of digital skills for SMEs in FT webinar

The Open University (OU) recently took part in a webinar called Accelerating the digital transformation of SMEs: How to drive innovation, productivity and growth. Hosted by FT Live, the webinar covered four key areas of digital transformation: the business case for technology, the realities of tech adoption, risk management and security and bridging the skills gap.

Jane Dickinson, Digital Skills Lead at the OU, was one of the panel members, alongside speakers from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Huawei UK and the trade organisation techUK. Jane’s opening comments focused on how technology can and is helping small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to grow and how Covid-19 has accelerated the pace of change. 

There’s a strong business case in terms of tech’s power to drive productivity, create competitive advantage, open up new markets, better support customers and increase resilience and agility. And the pandemic has been a real catalyst for businesses in that they have been encouraged to embrace digital technology faster than they otherwise would have.

Jane Dickinson
Digital Skills Lead, OU

She referenced a recent OU report, Skills for success: Supporting business leaders with digital adoption, created in conjunction with the not-for-profit organisation Be the Business, which found that the move to digital has moved up the agenda of many businesses. As a result, 85% of business leaders who adopted new technology or accelerated its use because of the pandemic plan to continue using it at the same level when restrictions are fully lifted.

However, 21% of the 1,500 plus UK SMEs surveyed in the report also said they don’t think technology could have a positive impact on their business. Lack of time and money are preventing some business leaders from investing in technology and associated upskilling, but as Jane said, sometimes there is also a lack of understanding of technology’s potential that is holding businesses back: “Some are struggling to understand what technology could do for them.”

The report identified a significant skills gap from leadership level downwards, with less than a quarter (23%) of business leaders believing they have all the necessary technical skills to successfully adopt and implement technology. Jane said it’s vital that SMEs gain a better understanding of how technology could help them and their business. “We need to talk about solutions and technologies in plain language. It’s all about focusing on the opportunities technology can create or  the challenges it can solve, rather than talking about the technology itself.”

Digitising might enable business leaders and their employees to have more time to work on rather than in the business, for example. In the webinar, Jane emphasised the point that it’s not just about technology – it’s about choosing the right technology, how it’s implemented, nurturing the right culture and making sure staff have the right skills. Every SME is different, with different needs and pain points, so they need advice and support to help them find the best technology for them and then implement it in the way that makes sense for them.

A lot of business leaders feel very confident about investing in new technology, according to the Skills for Success report, but then feel dissatisfied with the results, with only half feeling they’ve made the right decision. There’s still work to be done to help SMEs access the advice and information they need to make great decisions, implement solutions and build the skills they need to turn their vision into reality. Our research shows that three quarters of SME businesses in the UK this year didn’t feel like they had the right technology skills and half didn’t feel that they had the right leadership and management skills.

Jane Dickinson
Digital Skills Lead, OU

Towards the end of the webinar, Dickinson discussed the UK’s growing digital skills gap and the need for employers to invest in constant upskilling and reskilling in order to stay abreast of change. Apprenticeships, for example, can be a useful vehicle to support SMEs to develop talent. As Dickinson said: “ There’s a really strong support structure associated with apprenticeships, which can be particularly helpful for SMEs. Plus given they are work based programmes, employers find that there’s a positive return on their investment as the benefits of the new learning are realised quickly.

Jane summarised by underlining the importance of focusing on building up skills and talent pipelines, developing employees and creating a culture of continuous learning. Digital transformation will keep evolving as will the skills required, so SMEs need to keep upskilling and reskilling.

Watch webinar

To find out more about the Skills for Success report, please visit our website.

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