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How to develop a digital strategy

Ben Dowd _ feature

Every business faces its own challenges, but one of the concerns I hear most frequently from small businesses is: “we’re not big enough to feel any significant benefits from implementing a digital strategy”.

But this just isn’t true. The opportunity for digital to drive growth is not just the preserve of large corporates. In fact, in the current business environment, not having a digital strategy means not having a strategy at all.

Whatever the size of your business, embedding digital tools will help improve service delivery, get you closer to customers and reduce administration time and cost. Our research shows that embedding business software, apps and services can save UK businesses 6 million hours and £2 billion per week. So how do small businesses go about realising these benefits in practice?

Embrace technology

The idea of developing a digital strategy from scratch can sound daunting, but it doesn’t need to mean an entire business overhaul. Integrating digital is as straightforward as giving employees devices such as smartphones or tablets so they can work in a way that suits them and helps them to save time.

A recent pilot we ran with St Helens Council tested the extent to which technology could make a difference in a predominantly “analogue” community grappling with challenges like poor productivity.

As part of the pilot we gave local small businesses free digital makeovers. Unite Healthcare, which offers social care to local people, was struggling to grow because time-consuming processes and limited resources restricted the number of patients the team could care for. We gave the business access to tablets, laptops and a mobile printer.

This streamlined admin time from two hours to just 30 minutes, improved staff communication and sharing of patient information, and resulted in almost doubling their staff’s daily patient visits from six to ten per day.


Small businesses shouldn’t be afraid of embracing new ways of working and, as the old adage goes, two heads are better than one.

With the right tools and equipment, colleagues can work collaboratively regardless of where they are. Two-thirds of businesses are using online tools such as white-boarding portals, idea-sharing forums, instant messaging and video conferencing because they see it leading to greater efficiency and improved sharing of resources.

That said, software and hardware won’t be the silver bullet. Developing a truly collaborative working culture is just as important, whether that’s making sure senior managers take time to share ideas with junior colleagues, or apprentices and graduates fresh to the workforce feeling able to contribute valuable new ideas to the business.

Improve digital skills

We see too many time-poor start-ups and small businesses failing to make the most of technological opportunities due to a lack of resources and a lack of skills.

We know from our research that small businesses are twice as likely as larger organisations to describe themselves as “hopeless” when it comes to digital.

Small businesses need digitally competent people who can take the potential of technology and translate it into tangible business growth. That means looking towards young people, our digital natives, who possess the natural skills to harness the potential of technology. We need to invest in and nurture that talent, and businesses and government must work together to inspire young people about the opportunities that the future brings for them, including developing skills for jobs that don’t even exist today.

Now is the time to ensure that, no matter what the size of your business, you can make the most of digital technology and its benefits. Developing a digital strategy shouldn’t be an afterthought – the businesses that succeed will be the ones that make it integral to their strategy from the start.

Ben Dowd is business director at O2