Guest post: Driving digital exploitation, not just connectivity

Ian GentIn this guest post, Ian Gent, a director for Peninsula Enterprise, outlines the key components of business support that can maximise the benefits of digital roll out across the UK.

Faster broadband is now accessible to most of the businesses in the UK and infrastructure attention is now quite rightly focussing on the final 5 per cent of ‘hard to reach’ areas. Whilst new and innovative technology will help get a long way to realising the ambition of full coverage it is important that equal attention is paid to ensuring that all businesses secure the maximum commercial benefits that this new connectivity offers. Having delivered a number of business support programmes across the UK, we’ve found that there are some activities that are critical to this process.

Right information, right time, right format

Businesses, their owners and their teams require different levels of information to help them deal with three key questions: Why do I need faster broadband, how can it help me address key business issues, and  finally, how can it help me grow? It’s important that businesses can access this information in a variety of formats and with content that is relevant to their business and most importantly, their stage of business. If this information is not available then businesses simply don’t get the opportunity to understand the practical benefits of take up. This is especially true in remote, rural areas of the country.

Each business needs a plan

Information failure can be overcome by giving businesses access to their own digital ‘plan’.  Simple online action plans can be constructed, without requiring extensive advisory support, that are specific to the awareness, ambition, skills and capabilities of all businesses and that link them to local help as well as examples of where equivalent businesses have dealt with similar issues.  An action plan for SMEs could include a guide to making simple adaptations to the way they communicate with customers using social media,  reaching more consumers online with digital marketing, and as the business scales, developing larger, more transformative projects, and adapting the way they work, new business models, as well as other innovations.

Digital advice where it really adds value

Specialists and advisors can provide significant value where they ‘enable’ a business, or group of businesses, to understand the necessary changes that are needed and then put in place the actions that will make these changes happen. Sometimes it’s specific activity, sometimes it’s a broader programme of change. The longer the adviser remains engaged with the business and the better the integration with local specialist network then the greater the likelihood that the changes will be implemented and benefits realised.

Support your local ICT specialists

Driving regional digital exploitation requires a supply chain that can support it. This isn’t infrastructure or ISPs. It’s the local specialists in cloud technology, software development, CRM systems, digital marketing, skills development and digital consultancy. It’s also more than just service provision, requiring the provision of leadership, skills, capacity and finance to give business the true capability to make critical changes. Regional organisations need to look just as closely at how they support the development of these networks as they do at how they support businesses.

New business models: new business support

Digital technology is breaking down traditional business barriers. The ability to start new, high growth potential small businesses or to access new international markets without location being an inhibitor presents significant opportunities for regional growth. More people are looking at self-employment or growing their business and digital technology is changing the way they want to access information and advice. This means that business support programmes need to look at different media, innovative partnerships and how they allocate funding to deliver maximum impact.

There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution. There are many factors that will be critical to getting the most from the infrastructure investment. These will be influenced by the priorities of LEPs and Local Government and the key to success in the rapidly evolving digital world is bringing together the best knowledge and expertise to design and deliver solutions. However, these solutions won’t necessarily look like the services we see now!

Ian Gent has over 15 years of experience in the development and delivery of regional economic development programmes at Peninsula Enterprise. Since 2012 Ian has led the development of seven regional programmes to help local businesses and communities exploit faster broadband infrastructure. He is a strong believer in digital technology driving the next phase of public services, economic and social development in our regions but believes equally that this requires innovative investment in advice and support to accelerate this process.

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