No small potatoes: Supporting rural SMEs with digital skills

30 Mar 2016

A1 Community Works, a community organisation in Richmondshire providing employment support and IT training, has been helping businesses and sole traders across rural North Yorkshire improve their digital skills - becoming more efficient, finding new income streams and making their businesses thrive.

Funded by Prince’s Countryside Fund and managed by Good Things Foundation, the Digital Advice Hubs programme aimed to improve the digital skills of rural SMEs across the UK. A1 Community Works was one such hub, helping small businesses to manage their organisations more effectively and efficiently, and to extend their reach to customers.

One of the first companies to receive support from A1 was Ibbotsons Produce Limited, a potato merchants and produce packer, operating in nearby Colton. After investing significantly in technology to increase productivity and reduce waste, they soon found that the skills of the workforce needed developing to keep up.

James Hopwood, Company Director at Ibbotsons explains: “In any business, standing still is really moving backwards. We knew we needed to move forward and invest in equipment to keep the company competitive. In practice that meant new technology that keeps the process of sorting, moving and washing produce, making sure it’s checked and free of defects, as efficient as possible.

“As a result, what had been a completely manual process suddenly involved digital data input and analysis, and this revealed a bit of a skills deficit in the workforce. Fortunately, A1 Community Works had a piece in a Yorkshire Agricultural Society newsletter about providing digital skills to SMEs and it sounded perfect for us.”

After an initial meeting to discuss the support they could provide, Tanya Cook, from A1 arranged several group sessions to introduce Ibbotsons staff to spreadsheets, data input and more.

Tanya says: “We ran several sessions over 5 weeks, working with small groups. They had mixed levels of experience - some had barely touched a computer before - so we started with some basic using Learn My Way and introduced them to some of the basics.

“Learn My Way was ideal because they could carry on their learning and reinforce their new skills between session, in their own time. Later, we moved on to using Microsoft Excel and the systems Ibbotsons had installed and we soon saw their confidence increase.”

James agrees: “Improved confidence in the workplace has been one of the biggest benefits. It was really key that the staff bought into the training, but it was clear Tanya and her team really knew what they were doing so it was never a problem. The staff here really saw we weren’t just investing in the business, we were investing in them.”

The training has already started to reap benefits for the company. James tells us: “The training involved some really long standing members of staff with years of experience but occasional human error is inevitable. Now we’ve already started to see fewer mistakes when it comes to sorting and handing the produce. It just proved how important it is to continually develop the skills of your workforce.”

Working with Ibbotsons has been just one aspect of the Digital Advice Hubs project for Tanya and A1 Community Works - they’ve also worked with counselling services, hotels, online shops, a self employed digger driver and more.

Tanya explains: “One business gained new funding partly thanks to an increased social media presence that we helped them develop, and a man who drove a 360 degree digger was at risk of losing his license as the renewal process had moved online. Without our support he wouldn’t have been able to work at all.

”There’s a huge opportunity for small businesses in rural areas to grow and extend their reach with the help of technology and digital skills, and it’s especially important when lots of businesses are struggling. We’re so proud of the difference we’ve made to local businesses, and look forward to seeing them to continue to thrive.”