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Smart firms needed smarter support to grow

Business support technology is evolving quickly, but SMEs still need more advanced digital pathways, says Enterprise Nation's Emma Jones

Computer programmer working with male colleague in office

I was invited by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to take part in a global SME and entrepreneurship panel in Paris in May. This was to share data from Enterprise Nation’s digital platform to inform and offer recommendations on the future of business support. 

It’s the second time Enterprise Nation has taken part in this important global conference to talk about the evolution of digital business support and its vital role in supporting growth and sustainability in modern economies. This is a topic we understand through the work we do every day and it lies at the centre of most of the conversations we are having with corporate partners right now. 

Our view on this is simple – and one that I shared with the OECD gathering of partners. Business support technology is a powerful resource that is evolving quickly. At Enterprise Nation we have a vision for the future that sees universal access for small firms to a digital self-serve business support platform which, powered by AI and Open Finance, identifies firms that are eligible to be onboarded into funded and more accelerated/in-person programmes. I believe the UK could be the technology superpower to realise this vision. 

If our economy is to be given a fighting chance to feel the full benefit from the innovation start-ups can bring, we need to spend some time developing the next generation in iterative business support. That needs to offer secure and frictionless access to resources to ensure businesses get the best start, with unrivalled digital technology built in.  

This could see small businesses that take on their first employee and start using PAYE functionality, for example, trigger access to advice around employee benefits and human resources. Or companies that start to trade overseas, with global transactions appearing in their digital accounts, seamlessly fed information and guidance around exporting. 

The development of a digital pathway would not only be helpful for modern economies, it could also help entrepreneurs develop resilience to future shocks that are beyond their control. 

Businesses are already looking for this type of intuitive support. And when Enterprise Nation hears that small businesses have a challenge, we like to act and respond with a solution.  

We are already making strides on this with private sector partners including Google, Cisco, Sage and Vodafone on an initiative called Tech Hub that assesses what digital support businesses need and matches them to relevant events and resource. We know it’s critical to work with the private sector in supporting businesses to adopt new training, tools and business behaviours by linking universal support, for example, to their own APIs.  

Our own research on SME AI adoption as part of the Tech Hub initiative found that more than half (57%) of UK SMEs are already using mostly generative artificial intelligence to run their business. But skills and confidence are low. 

We must remember business leaders are busy getting on with the business of the day. They are time poor and while they are focused on their own long to-do list, they also have to insure themselves against economic and political instability. 

This is one of the reasons we must act now before the gap between large and small businesses widens. Imagine a world where a small business could have frictionless access to cutting-edge support technology wherever they are located. 

With 95 per cent of all businesses in the UK start-ups and micro firms with between one and nine employees, the impact on our economy alone would be significant.  

Over the next 12 months we will be testing approaches to see what works when it comes to digital adoption and evolution for small firms. That could range from subsidised training through to AI-powered diagnostics, with the realisation that failing to tackle these issues now is storing up problems for years, and possibly decades, to come. 

Let’s take the lead on this global mission and deliver high-quality support in the form of a ‘made in the UK’ global digital pathway for business. 

Emma Jones is the founder and chief executive of Enterprise Nation, the small business support platform

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