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Rewiring Scottish SME and Private Business Exports for the Digital Age

Dr Jim Hamill


Scottish businesses have a strong history of exporting, and various initiatives through industry and public sector bodies have helped support. As the business landscape in Scotland evolves and we move towards a digital and post-Brexit future, what can be done to ensure SMEs and private businesses in Scotland make the most of overseas opportunities? Jim Hamill runs the globally-accredited Future Leaders Programme and lectures on MBA courses advising on digital exporting.


“Get exporting”

The promotion of SME internationalisation has been a major public policy objective in Scotland for the last 50 years or so. As a consequence, a wide range of Export Support Programmes have been introduced aimed at encouraging more SMEs to ‘get exporting’.

These have included online guides to ‘going international’; assessing your company’s readiness to export; one-to-one export surgeries; international marketing training and skills development; access to overseas market research reports; export finance and paperwork; export awards, events, workshops, conferences; trade missions; the Smart Exporter Programme and much more.

Unfortunately, and despite the wide range of support available, the expected increase in the proportion of our SMEs actively engaged in global markets has not materialised.

Time for radical change

In an increasingly digital world, it is time for a major rethink of our approach to SME export support.

It is widely accepted that SMEs face a range of internal and external barriers when trying to expand abroad – lack of resources, time, knowledge; fear of the unknown; product/service suitability for foreign markets; export paperwork and documentation; risks; tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade; export finance etc. Used effectively, digital technology and social media can help to overcome many of these barriers, leading to the more rapid internationalisation of the SME sector.

Despite decades of support, SMEs in Scotland are nowhere close to leveraging the full potential of digital for going global.

Three areas of digital supported globalisation

As the Scottish Government releases a new National Digital Strategy, there is an urgent need to digitise Export Support Programmes; to equip SMEs with the digital knowledge, skills and confidence for using emerging technologies to support globalisation.

This should include action in at least three main areas:

  1. External’ digitalIt is imperative that our SMEs utilise the full potential of digital and social media marketing tools for supporting sales growth in overseas markets.

    A wide range of issues are important here including: the use of digital and social media tools for export market research; building overseas brand awareness and reputation through content marketing; active participation in international marketing ‘hub’ sites, e-communities and e-marketplaces; building online relationships and partnerships; use of social selling techniques; digital and social media to support trade missions, making the right connections before you go; ensuring that your digital footprint projects the right brand image.

    In highly competitive global markets, you do not get a second chance to make the right first impression.

  2. ‘Internal’ digital

The application of digital technologies internally to improve efficiency, reduce costs and become more internationally competitive; to build a unique Digital Operating Advantage                       difficult for overseas competitors to copy, becoming a more flexible, agile, responsive business. Leveraging the full potential of opportunities being created by big data and predictive                 analytics, automation, additive manufacturing, Internet of Things and so on for improving global competitiveness.

3. Underlying business model
The opportunities presented by digital disruption for rethinking your underlying business model for overseas markets, whether an established company or disruptive start-up.

Building a strong base of SMEs capable of competing in international markets is critical to future economic prosperity and job creation, especially in an increasingly global, inter-connected, post-Brexit world. In my opinion, we urgently need more work done around Export Support Programmes fit for purpose in a digital era.

Thanks to PWC Scotland for allowing reproduction

Dr Jim Hamill

Director - Future Digital Leaders

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