Why the future really is now

How smart technology can assist small businesses in the transition to future net zero 

As we reach the end of 2021, no one would disagree that the world is a very different place from two years ago.

Here, Angela Tooley, Enterprise Development Manager in the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences at the University of Derby, explains why businesses need to embed the learning gained over the last couple of years and use it to exploit new opportunities that have arisen from the rapid shift in both the economy and society.

Despite the constant firefighting and uncertainty, we’ve made a quantum leap in terms of how we live and work; with many people developing new skills and becoming more enterprising.

Innovation and change are now a way of life. To keep the world turning, we were forced to accelerate change through being resourceful, agile and brave. As we adjusted, we’ve learnt to work smarter not just harder, how to make better decisions, and importantly trust and empower those around us.

We’re all hoping for a more predictable and steadier pace of life in 2022, however, it doesn’t mean we should take our foot off the gas. This is an exciting time for business: new markets, many driven by changes in consumer behaviour and demand, have created opportunity, and rule books and traditional sector supply chains no longer exist.

SMEs are crucial to the future of the UK economy

SMEs are acknowledged as the engine for the development of increased innovation, regional economic growth, and job creation. The latest data from BEIS shows there are 5.5 million small businesses (with 0 to 49 employees), which account for 99.9% of the business population (5.6 million businesses). SMEs represent three fifths of employment (16.3 million) and around half of the turnover in the UK private sector (£2.3 trillion). Employment in small businesses (with 0 to 49 employees) was 12.9 million (48% of the total), with a turnover of £1.6 trillion (36%).

Small businesses are agile, innovators and disruptors, challenging the market and ensuring healthy competition. Their leaders who have a scale-up mindset are well placed to take advantage, bringing fresh ideas and working collaboratively with large and medium-sized businesses, through regional and supply chain clusters, to rapidly scale innovation and access global markets through their established networks.

Where should I start and what actions can I take as an ambitious small business leader?

Here are my top eight priorities for leaders who are ready to move to the next level of growth:

Invest in yourself – take time out of the business to develop a clear vision and plan for growth…and act upon it

Invest in your workforce – it’s not just about upskilling but creating a culture that empowers, supports continuous improvement, and focusses on well-being and inclusion. With a global skills shortage, you need to “grow your own”, investing in those with potential to lead the business in the future. Small businesses need to be better at promoting their values and ambitions to potential employees

Seek out and grow new markets in response to changes in consumer behaviour, business models and ways of working, then identify potential partners who can help you access them

Adopt and embed technology and learn how to use your data to gain market and customer insight, solve problems and aid decision making. Start by learning how to use the full functionality of existing software to improve the way you do things as a business, develop new services or improve customer and employee satisfaction

Be a responsible business – not only is the growing demand for green and sustainable products creating new markets, but adopting sustainable and responsible practices helps reduce costs, drives innovation, and makes you an attractive employer to Gen Z

Innovate – create value from your inventions by turning ideas into opportunity. Inspire and support your staff to do the same
Grow and use your network, see what others are doing, get a different perspective and fresh ideas – learn, share, and collaborate
Understand your business support ecosystem – including universities, chambers, investors, and professional services – and be an active contributor in your own regional ecosystem

Those businesses and leaders who can shift their mindset from survival to scale-up, that develop and empower their employees to do same, and are agile and confident enough to push boundaries and take calculated risks, will be best positioned to take advantage of these opportunities.