Muz Mumtaz

As a programme tasked with supporting digital growth and resilience of SMEs, Digital Enterprise (DE) itself had to pivot when the pandemic hit, to ensure it could continue to support those who relied on it. Here, head of the programme Muz Mumtaz explains the role of DE in delivering that much-needed assistance.

The challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic have been many, and rapid response has been needed to give the best chance of overcoming them. This has certainly been true for businesses, but it has similarly been the case with the organisations tasked with supporting them.

Since its foundation in 2016, the Digital Enterprise (DE) programme has worked with thousands of SMEs throughout the Leeds City Region to support their digital growth and resilience, helping them to identify key priorities for investment and access funding to improve their digital capabilities – whether that is undertaking a digital transformation project or improving their digital/broadband connectivity.

But amid the pandemic, when demand for DE’s resources and support was higher than ever before, DE itself had to react quickly so it could assist those businesses who had never needed the programme and its bespoke guidance more than now.

“The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns opened the eyes of many business owners to the vital role technology can play in ensuring they can continue to operate during a crisis - but we also needed to adapt to ensure we could provide the vital help they so desperately needed,” says Muz Mumtaz, Head of Digital Enterprise.

“We had to grow and pivot, or else businesses wouldn’t be able to engage with us - and there had never been such a hunger for what we do, the level of engagement absolutely rocketed.

“It quickly became clear we needed to create a new funding scheme focused specifically on helping businesses to survive the COVID-19 crisis – resilience for many businesses had become much more important than growth.

“After a few phone calls in late May and early June with the key players in the region, we were able to set up the Digital Resilience Voucher funding programme, a new £1.5m fund which has gone on to give emergency aid to over 500 businesses to enable them to exist remotely and, ultimately, survive.

“From a standing start, we set this funding scheme up from scratch, with support from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, and were able to help businesses buy the hardware and software their staff so desperately needed to work from home - you could say it’s the business equivalent of giving school kids access to laptops and technology so they could continue their education at home.

“There is also a need for employees to improve their digital skills, especially when they find themselves using new technology as they had to work from home, and as an organisation, we also took our physical Digital Knowledge Exchange workshops online to enable businesses to continue to access the help and support they needed. We are also keen to improve how we interact with our clients and we are about to launch a new CRM registration process and client portal, which is a self-service area for clients to access information such as the progress of their funding application.

“Looking back over the last 12 months, we responded very quickly to what was needed and it’s fantastic that we’ve been able to work with so many businesses to enable them to stay in the game.”

Through its quick and decisive action, DE has been able to respond to the surge in demand for its support, with SMEs that had never previously considered digitalisation now taking the crucial first steps.

“My father used to say ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, and I think that is true of the past 12 months,” says Muz.

“When you’re forced to do something, you have to change, and many businesses have discovered digital for the first time because they have had to. I think a lot of businesses have now changed forever and are equipped to move away from their outdated previous model.

“For many, the penny dropped and they realised the need to invest in digitalisation. Having an online presence, making their website e-commerce enabled and having the ability for remote working was often the difference between survival or not. It also enabled businesses to stop their competitors overtaking them - there is nothing like your competitors doing well to spur you into action.

“I think that now that these businesses have invested in digital, many will become hybrid, and continue to operate from premises as they used to, but with the big difference being the new adoption of digital technology solutions. That will make their lives a lot easier.”

Digital has been adopted much more widely over the past 12 months, and Muz hopes this is a trend that can continue to enable the digital resilience and ongoing transformation of the Leeds City Region.

“A lot of businesses have moved out of their comfort zone, but they’re now set up with different ways of working for whatever challenges come in the future. If there was to be another pandemic, they can react quickly and are already equipped,” says Muz.

“They have invested that time and effort, and while for many businesses it may be all about survival at the minute, now they have helped their business to be more resilient in their digital capabilities, there will be opportunities in the future.

“The government is making a lot of money available at the minute for digital projects and a lot of programmes are referring businesses to us. We can work together to find the way forward that works for them, so they can develop and innovate for the long-term.

“DE is the impartial and objective friend to small businesses - we’re publicly funded and not operating on a commercial basis. We are advising them solely in their best interests, so they are fit for purpose now and into the future.

“Down the line, in 12 to 18 months, hopefully they will be able to look past survival and recovery and towards growth and expansion - but by investing in tech now, they will have the skills they need to do that.”

While the inaugural DE Top 100 was warmly received in 2019, given the vastly different circumstances of 2020, Muz was not sure how the latest Index would be greeted - but the response has exceeded his expectations. “In 2019, the world was a different place, conditions have changed beyond recognition since then. But despite that, there was a fantastic level of response from businesses, it was higher this year than last year. I was blown away,” says Muz, who was also one of five judges.

“I’d say overall, the quality of entries was higher too, and I was very impressed with how so many businesses have innovated and responded to the challenges they have faced.

“I think one of the things that really struck me was how the DE Top 100 is held in such high regard by so many businesses. Despite everything that has happened over the last year, we have become an established form of recognition which businesses are so keen to be part of.

“Being part of the DE Top 100 is a fantastic endorsement and businesses really see the gravitas and prestige associated with it - hopefully it can inspire even more businesses to enter in future.”

This profile interview features as part of the Digital Enterprise Top 100 special report, which showcases the most digitally transformational, resilient and innovative businesses in the Leeds City Region. Read the full report here.

Alison Cowie
Article by Alison Cowie
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