Digital Leaders Blog

Following the Cut the Spin theme of Post 1, we need to ensure that the updated National Digital Strategy 2017 is built on measurable business objectives, KPIs and targets. The spin of ‘becoming a world class digital nation’ and/or ‘punching above our weight in global markets’ (whatever that means) are NOT business objectives.

Two Decades of Digital Business Support

The need for measurable business outcomes is particularly important in relation to the wide availability of digital support programmes aimed at Scottish SMEs. Without doubt, this will be a major component of the new updated national strategy. However, doing the same thing and repeating paste mistakes will not produce different results. As a starting point, an honest assessment needs to be undertaken of the economic and business impact of previous and current support programmes.

Publicly funded digital support for small businesses has been widely available throughout Scotland for almost two decades. I was instrumental in establishing the first ever programme in this area - ‘Net Exporter’ launched by Glasgow Development Agency in December 1997. Two decades later, we still do not have an SME export support policy ‘fit for purpose’ in a digital era.

Since ‘Net Exporter’, a very large number and diverse range of other digital support programmes have been launched and made available throughout Scotland. These fall into three main categories:

  • Digital education and training through workshops, conferences and events.
  • One-to-one support and advice.
  • Direct financial assistance.

In terms of the former, it would be hard to count the number of digital workshops and events that have been held in Scotland over the last two decades (probably in the thousands); with topics ranging from ‘get connected’, ‘get broadband’, ‘website best practice’ and ‘SEO’ to the current focus on social media and e-commerce. A 2013 tourism study listed no fewer than 188 different types of workshop available to Scottish tourism SMEs. Soon after publication of this report, Scottish Enterprise, with ScotlandIS, launched a major e-commerce initiative which further increased the number of digital workshops available.

Extensive one-to-one support has also been made available to small businesses in different parts of Scotland. Several local authorities have offered funded digital support on a one-to-one basis; Business Gateway and Scottish Enterprise have provided early stage free digital advice; a number of innovative one-to-one support programmes have been launched over the years including Digital Accelerator Programmes, Scottish Enterprise e-Commerce Initiative, ‘Byte the Bullet’ Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Glasgow City Council’s Digital Exporter Graduate Internship programme. We have also had digital support programmes targeted at specific industries e.g. Digital Tourism and Skills Initiatives for training software developers.

More recently, the following programmes have been or still are in operation:

  • Interactive Scotland which provides support to the digital sector.
  • The Digital Scotland Business Excellence Partnership (we do love grandiose titles in Scotland) set up in 2013 to coordinate digital support. DSBEP claims to have invested £13.6 million in delivering initiatives designed to help Scottish businesses increase their digital awareness use and capabilities.
  • The Digital Boost programme (valued at £7m) delivered in partnership with Business Gateway and HIE.
  • A three year digital support programme aimed at helping Scottish tourism businesses to become more digital ready (valued at £1.2m).
  • An announcement in March of this year of a further £6.5 million to boost innovation and global competitiveness in tourism, with a strong emphasis on digital.
  • A Digital Voucher Scheme providing grants of £5,000 (no longer available).
  • Google’s Digital Garage Initiative.

Given the broad range and wide availability of the programmes mentioned above, it would be reasonable to conclude that few other areas of business have attracted as much public sector support, over the last two decades, as digital.

What Has Been Achieved?

It is a legitimate question to ask, what impact has all this support had on the digital maturity of Scottish companies, especially SMEs? What has been the economic and business impact?

In terms of the first question, the Scottish government’s own statistics would support the view that the vast majority of Scottish companies remain woefully unprepared for the coming digital tsunami. Despite the wide range of support available over the last two decades, only 3% of Scottish SMEs come anywhere close to the level of digital maturity required in an era of turbulent digital change and digital disruption (Source: Digital Economy Business Survey 2014, Scottish Government).

The short answer to the second question is that we don’t know. Despite two decades of publicly funded investment in digital support programmes, to the best of my knowledge, there are no published statistics evaluating the economic and business impact of such support.

We have a tendency in Scotland to tick boxes rather than measure outcomes.

A good example of this is the current Digital Boost flagship programme. At the time of writing, the programme’s web site reports the following KPIs: 423 Digital Boost workshops held across Scotland; eight digital topics in play; 95% of workshop attendees rated them as good or better than good; number of attendees - 1961; 1057 digital health checks completed; 57 local offices offer Digital Boost support; over 91% of entrepreneurs who received one-to-one support would recommend it.

Somehow I think this rather misses the point.

What have participants actually done with the advice delivered? How many are digitally transforming their business to remain relevant? To avoid being disrupted? How will the economic and business impact of this programme be measured? Will it be measured? Would better outcomes have been achieved by using programme resources to support 'Digital Leaders'?

In a follow-up post next week, we will discuss the business objectives, KPIs and targets that should underpin future digital support programmes in Scotland. To achieve these objectives, we need to apply the 80/20 rule. The days of ‘raising digital awareness’, 'undertaking digital health checks' or trying to convince SMEs to become more digitally mature are surely over. This is 2016. We should be focusing resources, time and effort on those businesses with the ability and motivation to become ‘digital leaders’.

We will also question whether the level and type of support available in Scotland is ‘fit for purpose’ in an era characterised by turbulent digital disruption. Having a better web site or making better use of social media will not, on their own, make Scottish SMEs immune from the threat of being disrupted. Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We need to up the ante. Urgently!

As always, comment and feedback are very welcome.

PS A big thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read, like or comment on Post 1. We are currently sitting at 84 likes, 25 comments and 19 shares. I really do appreciate this very much. Its good to know that i am not alone in my thoughts. Thank you.

PS again - at the time of writing, it has just been announced that 500 jobs are at risk due the potential closure of Kwik Fit Insurance in Uddingston. My heart goes out to everyone involved in this. Unfortunately, it will not be the last announcement of this nature. What is our labour market strategy for dealing with a sustained period of structural unemployment as a consequence of digital disruption - in KF's case, the changing nature of how insurance is purchased.

Take care.

Jim H

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