In 2018, the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) had identified low levels of productivity amongst businesses in the region, coupled with relatively low levels of digital maturity, reflecting a similar trend in the nation as a whole. As a rural area with a strong reliance on tourism, 99% of Cumbria’s businesses are SMEs and 89% are microbusinesses, with ten or less employees.
Because of their relatively small size, research showed that the majority of Cumbria SMEs did not have the internal resources and capabilities to effectively adopt digital technology. While many businesses were using digital technologies, the research found nearly all could be doing more to help realise their full potential.
As digital technology is recognised as a key driver to increase productivity and economic growth, Allerdale Borough Council, on behalf of the Cumbria LEP, proposed a programme to bolster its adoption among regional businesses. Their aims for the programme were to work with businesses to:
- Identify the obstacles and challenges to using digital technology
- Understand how technology could support growth and improvement
- Develop the implementation of a robust and affordable Digital Action Plan
- Support the development of internal skills and capacity
- Identify the digital tools and expertise required to implement the plan.
The LEP also identified the need to improve digital connectivity across Cumbria. There was no existing market for advisory services on connectivity for SMEs, and it was recognised that without support, there was little or no incentive for private or public sector Internet Service Providers to engage with SMEs.
In January 2020, as Covid-19 was beginning to make headlines across the world, Winning Moves launched the Digital Tech Cumbria (DTC) programme. On the 31st of the same month, the UK officially withdrew from the European Union and entered into a transition period. No one knew at the time that we were on the cusp of a seismic transformation in the adoption of digital tools for business. It became a time of economic upheaval with a focus on survival for businesses; but also a time of innovation that turbo-charged the adoption of digital technologies by several years.
At the inception of the programme, the research and evaluation team at Winning Moves conducted a survey of Cumbria businesses to better understand their digital maturity levels and the obstacles and challenges they faced on their path to digital adoption. This was followed by a Quality Service Survey that was conducted at the end of the programme.
Armed with the initial survey outcomes, Winning Moves took a multi-pronged approach to supporting Cumbria SMEs in their adoption of digital technology. At the core of the programme was one-to-one consultancy with highly experienced technology experts, which is proven to be successful in helping SMEs overcome barriers to digital adoption. Businesses were offered up to 12 hours of bespoke advice that helped them understand their digital maturity, find the investment areas that would produce the highest return and create a road map to ensure effective implementation of the solution.
Alongside the one-to-one consultancy, Masterclasses were offered on digital subjects ranging from website development and digital marketing to cyber security. These short courses offered the opportunity for businesses owners and staff to upskill, as well as learn from a peer community of digital learners.
As SMEs can be reluctant to join government-backed support programmes, either from lack of time or resources or ambivalence about the added value they will gain, Winning Moves launched an extensive marketing campaign to engage local businesses in Digital Tech Cumbria. The campaign incorporated bespoke promotional materials, including social media and brochures, as well as outreach to local media. Once the programme was running, video case studies of participants were produced to further engage businesses in the programme.
When lockdown commenced, the support quickly pivoted to offering all services online, helping Cumbria businesses gain the skills, tools and know-how to continue to grow during the pandemic and after.
Both despite and because of the pandemic, Cumbria SMEs were eager to upskill and adopt digital solutions to grow their businesses and grateful for the support provided by the Council.
DTC advisors worked with a range of businesses, from holiday accommodation to crafts businesses and manufacturers. The advisers assessed each businesses’ digital maturity and provided bespoke recommendations, as well as hands-on support and training. The assistance covered a variety of topics including improved e-commerce platforms, digital marketing tools and training, the development of new products and services, and effective financial management.
To ensure that the programme added the value required, participant feedback to assess the quality of support was baked into the programme. Nearly 200 participants responded to the Quality Service questionnaire which represented an 88% response rate. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive:
- Nearly all (95%) of the businesses surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that the support provided through the DTC programme was helpful to them.
- The majority of businesses (93%) agreed or strongly agreed that the support provided by DTC advisors has, or will, make a positive difference to how they operate.
- Every business said that they were likely or very likely to recommend the DTC support programme to other businesses.
- For more than half of the businesses that would recommend DTC, the quality of the advisors was the overriding factor, and 11 respondents stated that they had already recommended the DTC programme to other businesses.
“They dug me out of the dreadful hole I was in with an awful website. The level of expertise I found was just absolutely awesome and I am eternally grateful for what they did.”
“We have just upgraded the website. We are upgrading our IT system now, with the help of DTC and a Made Smarter grant.”