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Opinion: Why developing digital skills is so important


By Martin McTague, FSB Chairman, Policy and Advocacy

Developing digital skills among the small business community is essential if firms are to adapt to changes in the way we live and work.

When I started my first business back in 1987, it was in the days when people were playing Rick Astley on cassette tapes, watching Dallas on square tellies, and the main form of electronic communication was advertised by Maureen Lipman.

Good old British Telecom. These were analogue days – a far cry from the fast-moving digital era we find ourselves in now. I employed a secretary to type letters for me (on a typewriter); when fax machines first came out, I remember telling her they’d never catch on. 

One innovation I did adopt early on was the carphone. In 1990, after a few years of pulling in at red phone boxes to make business calls, I decided to invest the money and install a hulking piece of kit on my car roof so that I could have a phone inside. It wasn’t cheap, but it made a massive difference to my ability to communicate with clients.

For smaller businesses, digital innovation often involves a mixture of costs and benefits. It can also be a challenge for a busy small business owner to keep up, and I don’t think any of us should be afraid to admit that. From artificial intelligence to social media, online global sales platforms to digital accounting systems, things have moved at a rapid pace. Even the VAT system has now gone digital. 

App-based systems have brought digital competitors for estate agents and cabbies; the takeaway industry has been transformed by food delivery apps; the travel and hospitality industries are now dependent on review sites and booking platforms; robotics has transformed many production lines; and marketing your business has gone from putting an ad in the local paper to search engine optimisation. 

While digital transformation can bring money in, it can also mean more going out. As we put more aspects of our business online – from websites to cloud storage – the cost and disruption of a cyber-attack grows. Small firms must get used to factoring in cyber-crime prevention and insurance measures.

Despite costs, digital innovation provides enormous potential both for individual businesses and for improving UK productivity. But these benefits can only be realised if small business owners are able and confident to take advantage. That is why support to improve digital skills among small business owners is so important.

Given how much has changed in the 32 years since I started that first business, it’s mind-blowing to think how much more will change in the next 32 years. My LinkedIn 
blog posts will look as old fashioned as a quill-written message on parchment. My 
smartphone will be as much a relic of history as that massive carphone. 

Or perhaps the pace will slow, and our nostalgia for the past might have some influence among the digital advances of the future. Video didn’t kill the radio star; vinyl records came back into fashion as the iPod went out of it. Even Rick Astley had a comeback! So for business technology, I’m confidently going to predict a retro-revival of the fax machine. And you know how good my predictions have been on that front!