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Over three quarters of SME leaders lack skills to successfully implement new technology

A new report has revealed that 77 per cent of SME leaders do not have the skills required to successfully implement new technology into their businesses.

Be the Business has jointly published a report with The Open University (OU) 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.

Key findings:

  • While business leaders value training and technology, time and money barriers stand in the way of upskilling
  • Only 50 per cent of business leaders say they plan to address gaps in skills in the next 12 months
  • 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 per cent), revenue (31 per cent) and profit margin (27 per cent)

The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the adoption of collaboration and ecommerce software, for example, in more than half (54 per cent) of UK SMEs. Of the business leaders who adopted new technology or accelerated its use due to coronavirus, 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 per cent 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 resource, many small and medium-sized businesses have demonstrated an ability to be flexible and resilient around digital skills and training, with 70 per cent 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 per cent) and purchase (28 per cent) stages.

The report’s other key findings include:

  • Two thirds of business leaders (67 per cent) say they are confident in adopting technology, although only half (54 per cent) think they make good purchasing decisions about technology
  • Business leaders value basic digital skills (33 per cent) or technical understanding of technologies (20 per cent) ahead of the leadership skills required to successfully implement technology (12 per cent)
  • One fifth (21 per cent) 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 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 the digital skills for the future.”

Anthony Impey, CEO 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.”

Notes to editors

To read the newly launched “Skills for success: Supporting business leaders with digital adoption report” visit the Open University’s website.

The research was carried out online by Opinium throughout 20.04.21-04.05.21 amongst 1,500 directors working in companies of 1-249 employees, excluding sole traders.

For more information, please contact Linda Phanova on or 07455 518530.

About The Open University

The Open University (OU) is the largest academic institution in the UK and a world leader in flexible distance learning. Since it began in 1969, the OU has taught more than two million students worldwide and has over 174,000 current students, including more than 7,000 overseas.

Over 76 per cent of students are in full-time or part-time employment, and three out of five FTSE 100 companies have sponsored staff to take OU courses.

The OU works with over 2,400 organisations and is the largest provider of degree apprenticeships based on 2019/20 starts.

Regarded as the UK’s major e-learning institution, the OU is a world leader in developing technology to increase access to education on a global scale. Its vast “open content portfolio” includes free study units, as well as games, videos and academic articles, which have reached over 36m people.

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