Rural businesses see digital technology as key to growth but face skills and training barriers

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Rural businesses are embracing the digital economy but face barriers to digital adoption due to a lack of skills and access to training in rural areas, according to new findings from Rural England and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) commissioned by Amazon.

A consultation of over 800 rural businesses by Rural England and SRUC found that almost four-in-five rural business owners believe digital tools and services are important to their future growth potential. Cloud computing is seen as the biggest driver (62 per cent), closely followed by 5G mobile networks (54 per cent), the Internet of Things (47 per cent) and Machine Learning/Artificial Intelligence (26 per cent).

Rural business owners who export say e-commerce plays a big role, with 80 per cent using digital tools and services to trade goods and services abroad. The top export destinations for rural businesses are the EU (84 per cent) followed by the U.S. (45 per cent). In addition, 43 per cent of all rural businesses specifically sell online through their own site or via a third party site, with the top two sectors using e-commerce being retail (80 per cent) and the accommodation & food sector (71 per cent).

“The research finds that rural businesses are typically family-run, home-based, owned by people aged over 55 years old and employ less than ten people – exactly the type of businesses I believe can gain most from digital technology,” said Doug Gurr, UK Country Manager, Amazon. “Every day, we see digital technology levelling the playing field between businesses operating in urban and rural parts of the country, whether that’s exporting locally produced goods or using cloud computing and big data in farming.”

Three-in-five (62 per cent) say they use cloud computing for their rural business. One example is IceRobotics, who provide data collection and analysis products for monitoring dairy cow behaviour to the farming sector. IceRobotics harness cloud computing and sensor technologies to monitor the fertility and health of cows used in dairy farming, enabling farmers to see alerts and visualisations of how their livestock are moving so they can manage their herds more productively.

“Cloud computing provides compute power, storage, analytics, content delivery and other functionality to help farmers move faster, lower IT costs, and scale globally in minutes, so it’s key to driving innovation in business,” said Douglas Armstrong, CEO of IceRobotics. “The growth potential cloud computing brings to the agricultural sector is significant, so the faster we get rural businesses adopting new technology, the more globally competitive rural Britain will be.”

However beyond issues with internet reliability and speed, over half (52 per cent) of rural business owners say they face a variety of skills-related obstacles to adopting digital to unlock more growth, such as recruiting people with appropriate skills to finding training for their existing workforce. Almost a third (30 per cent) have difficulty finding external or outsourced digital connectivity support, 14 per cent have difficulty accessing appropriate external digital training for the existing workforce and one-in-five (20 per cent) say their existing workforce lacks sufficient skills and struggle to recruit people with appropriate digital skills.

Brian Wilson, Chair of Directors at independent think tank Rural England, said: “What is striking in this research is the ambition and willingness of rural businesses to embrace new technology that could increase the global competitiveness of our rural economy. Whilst connectivity remains a concern, it is clear that more needs to be done beyond this in terms of more proactive support and skills development. We need a clear roadmap for fulfilling that potential – something we hope the final report will identify when published.”

Rural England and the SRUC, with funding from Amazon, will publish their final report – Unlocking the Digital Potential of Rural Areas – in 2018.

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