The Growth Hub Network: At the forefront of delivering the UK Government’s Digital Skills Strategy for the small business sector

Written by Gary Coyle, Chair of Digital Leaders LEP/Growth Hub Digital Group

Is this blog title an ill-conceived aspiration or a distinct possibility? In my role as Chair of the Digital Leaders LEP Digital Group, I have met many of the senior management teams tasked with ensuring their regional Growth Hub is both identifying as well as supporting SMEs that are growing and deemed to have “scale up” potential. However, to keep pace with the fast-moving digital age, the biggest challenge and focus I would argue, is to support those small businesses that do not yet see the benefit of adopting digital and consequently are not growing at the same pace as a digital business.

In the latest Lloyds Bank Business Digital Index published in October last year, research showed that 1.44m SMEs do not have basic digital skills, 49% of small businesses do not have a website and 75% of SMEs invest no money in improving digital skills for themselves or their employees. Also worryingly, 69% of all businesses admit they need to improve their cyber security. Much more needs to be done to understand why small businesses do not yet see the real benefits of adopting digital. Is it more about changing mindsets and motivating “time poor” small businesses rather than classifying them as lacking basic digital skills?

Encouragingly, there is a growing commitment from some of the UK’s largest businesses and Digital Leaders partners to try and figure out market solutions to help small businesses adopt digital. Google have just launched a Summer of Skills programme in coastal towns across the UK and pledged to offer everyone in the UK 5 hours of digital skills training free of charge through their Digital Garage programme. Also, Lloyds Bank is to give face-to-face digital skills training to 2.5 million individuals, small and medium businesses and charities by 2020. Do It Digital is campaigning and working closely with several partners including Nominet to target 1 million small businesses to become more digitally active in 2017. And the Good Things Foundation are helping 10,000 small businesses to improve their digital skills through various projects.

Joining up activity and ambition

Working at Digital Leaders has provided me with the opportunity to work closely with several government departments, large corporates and other key stakeholders on the digital skills agenda. As highlighted earlier, there are some excellent digital skills programmes out there but it would be fair to say not enough thought has been given on how best to engage local stakeholders with whom to collaborate with and to help identify those regional small businesses that need most help. There are simply too many silos out there and more needs to be done to join up this activity and shared ambition.

Positioning Growth hubs at the centre

It is recognised that the network of the 39 regional Growth Hubs in the UK provides a valued business support function to small businesses. They attract experienced, smart and passionate people and many have run, or are running, small businesses themselves. They design, develop and deliver innovative world class support programmes to help small businesses grow and prosper. However, there are areas in which they can all improve – they need to talk to each other more and share best practice, be more collaborative, and most importantly, shout from the rooftops the additional value that Growth Hubs bring both individually and collectively as a regional and national network in order to engage with SMEs. I am continually amazed when I speak to senior executives from large UK organisations who have little or no knowledge of the role of the regional Growth Hub. It is very easy to get their attention when you start by saying the Growth Hub Network provides access to a sizeable percentage of the 5.4 million UK businesses.

The government must also do more to help position Growth Hubs at the centre and ensure that any future pilot programme or policy involving digital and small business has some level of input and involvement from Growth Hubs.

Developing a National Digital Skills hub

Over the last few months I have been speaking to government, academia, corporates and other key stakeholders around supporting a number of regional SME Digital Skills Test and Learn Pilots that could help form future policy thinking on what works best to encourage and enable a small business to adopt digital. In my view, it will be important to ensure that Growth Hubs will be around the table shaping the various Test and Learn Pilots and providing input to the potential of developing a regional Digital Skills Hub that could be scaled through the Growth Hub Network. Growth Hubs are up for the challenge – at the recent Digital Leaders LEP/Growth Hub Digital Group, we received strong expressions of interest from eight Growth Hubs who wished to be involved in any regional pilots.

Digital Leaders will shortly be forming a small steering group of Growth Hubs in order to start shaping and designing some exciting and innovative digital skills pilots in collaboration with government and corporates. Interested in contributing to the challenge? Contact [email protected]

A Digital Skills Hub available in every Growth Hub region is the ambition, and can be achieved if Growth Hubs are at the centre of designing and collaborating with existing and future innovative Digital Skills Programmes.

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