Last year, we witnessed the business sector weather extremely tough times. The pandemic changed the landscape for organisations of all sizes and forced them to focus on simply staying afloat.
And they did.
If last year was the year of uncertainty, this year signposts hope and opportunity. We've seen great examples of businesses that have risen to the challenge, survived the pandemic and are looking ahead at their future potential. So much so, that 800, 000 new businesses were registered in the UK last year, a 12% increase since 2019.
This sense of optimism and opportunity is also reflected in our latest annual survey for business leaders which launched today.
This year's survey - which studied over 1, 200 UK businesses on their digital transformation habits - found that more business leaders are recognising the role of technology to future proof their business. Whilst there's still some hesitancy towards some technologies and a clear digital divide between SMEs and corporates, businesses still tend to agree: technology is the way forward.
Recognising the power of emerging technologies
Emerging technology can transform a business's fortunes - whether big or small. This year, we've seen that many leaders recognise the power of emerging tech to help them achieve their goals. For instance, 35% of respondents agreed that 5G was an enabler for flexible working and roughly a quarter (23%) are planning to use 5G in the next 5 years. This is particularly encouraging given the 5G rollout is still in its infancy and expected to aggressively expand in the next few years. And, as the network expands and more 5G devices become available, we'll see a sharp increase in the adoption rate.
In the public sector, 76% have adopted at least one of the 14 technologies we surveyed, and looking to the SME sector, we found that leaders from SME organisations are the most likely to embrace change…and at speed. They're also often the least affected by organisational issues such as lack of skilled personnel.
This puts them in the ideal position to take a greater lead and drive forward future change. Because there's one thing the pandemic has shown us: when a need is clearly understood, UK companies have proven themselves adept at embracing technology to drive change.
Shifting from survival mode to long-term thinking
35% of business leaders see 5G as an enabler of flexible working, while 26% say Voice over IP can help them reduce costs. But that doesn't always translate into concrete investment - more than a third of leaders have no plans to invest in emerging tech in the next five years.
After 12 months of leaders focusing on keeping their businesses going, it's great to hear that much of UK plc is now focused on the next stage of their tech development. And in this spirit, our survey does show plenty of cause to be optimistic about tech investment in the future.
More than two thirds of the leaders we interviewed told us they have a planned tech strategy in place for the next five years. Digital transformation is high on the business agenda, and rightly so.
But a portion of UK businesses aren't there yet and most of these are SMEs. Roughly 30% of the business leaders we spoke to said they had little or no five-year plan in place. Some say technology is not relevant to their business, is costly or too complex.
Plugging the growing skills gap
Many leaders see 'insufficient internal skills' as the main challenge for the next five years. Numbers are particularly high in the public sector (35%) and among SMEs (31%). Skills gaps appear in the areas of 'system integration', 'product development', and 'automation'.
It's why many leaders want to build their companies around technology specialists.
But hiring the right people is challenging. As the Institute of Directors reports, many companies claim Brexit is making things harder when it comes to hiring. In July this year, the CBI even called on the government to relax its immigration policy to attract more foreign professionals.
To plug the skills gap, employers must now rethink the entire employee experience, and technology may be the way forward.
Read our report
As the country gradually re-emerges from the pandemic, it's time to start planning for what comes next. Organisations now have a huge opportunity to build on this extraordinary period of digitalisation. And put digital technologies at the core of their future strategies.
We see great benefits particularly for smaller businesses - the backbone of the UK economy. And as we've seen, there's a growing appetite towards long-term adoption of emerging technologies. But that's just the beginning.
Many are still unconvinced of the benefits technologies like 5G and AI can have but as the network roll out expands, we'll start to see the true business benefits come to life in a powerful way.
If you'd like to know more about our survey and read the full report, you can find it here: The Future in 2021 | BT Business