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Why addressing the Black Country’s digital skills gap is vital for firms embracing automation?

Matt Weston is a highly accomplished technology professional and a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) with a demonstrated track record of success in his field. With over a decade of experience working with Microsoft technologies, he has established himself as a thought leader in the industry, known for his deep expertise in Power Platform and cloud computing.

Matt’s passion for technology began at an early age, and he pursued his interest by earning a degree in computer science. Since then, he has continued to develop his skills through a combination of academic training, professional experience, and a commitment to staying on the cutting edge of the latest technological advancements.

As an MVP, Matt is recognised for his exceptional technical expertise and his willingness to share his knowledge with others. He has been actively involved in the Microsoft community for many years where he provides guidance and advice to other technology professionals.

Matt is also a gifted communicator and has a talent for distilling complex technical concepts into easy-to-understand language. This skill has made him a sought-after speaker at industry events, where he has delivered numerous keynote addresses and technical presentations.

How vital is the role that automation plays in ensuring business success in 2022? How has the pandemic affected the shift towards automation?

Business automation is the use of technology to automate complex, or otherwise costly or time-consuming, business processes, such as employee onboarding, leave and holiday requests, auditing, and customer support. Automation is often adopted by firms with the objective of streamlining the organisation for simplicity, achieving digital transformation, enhancing service quality, improving service delivery, or containing costs.

The pandemic has taught us that time is one of the most important commodities to businesses. With employees now regularly working remotely, ensuring that everyone is working on tasks that are adding value to their organisation – rather than spending precious time on common, manual, and repetitive tasks – is absolutely key. Automation provides firms with the mechanism for offloading these tasks without having to increase their headcount to do so.

With more and more companies embracing automation technologies to streamline their processes and practices, those organisations that are slow to adapt will likely find their productivity trailing that of their competitors ultimately.

How important is upskilling for successful business automation?

The people who best understand the time consuming and tedious nature of manual processes and tasks are those who are assigned to complete them. Upskilling employees so that they are able to create their own automations is essential for ensuring that processes are both fit for purpose and robust.

Once employees have gained the skills necessary for business automation, they generally do not contain their skills to one area and start to look for other areas where they can also add value through automation. In this sense, upskilling staff is a vital part of encouraging a company-wide digital culture, which puts firms in a far stronger position to embrace automation.

Do you see a big divide in digital skills within the Black Country when compared to other parts of the UK? If so, why do you think this might be?

Typically, the Black Country is still a region dominated by manufacturing, construction, and other sectors that are generally further behind the technology curve than others. In the region, there is still an overreliance on performing tasks in the same way that they have been performed for decades, with many organisations continuing to rely heavily on the use of pen and paper to record important information, without any kind of formal filing system.

In other areas of the UK, such as the South East, companies are embracing technology at a far greater rate, with solutions designed to automate the creation of documents, and replace manual data capture processes with mobile apps, proving particularly popular. As these technologies can be built using no-code/low-code platforms, businesses that do not have expertise in software development can – with some guidance – create their own solutions that can be tailored to their specific requirements.

With technology continuing to shape the future of the UK’s business landscape, Black Country businesses run the risk of falling behind their competitors from different corners of the country if they fail to adapt through digital transformation. Only when organisations in the area who are yet to address the shift towards automation have done so can the Black Country begin to level itself up alongside the innovations and successes being achieved elsewhere through the use of technology.

What solutions could raising digital skills in the Black Country help to achieve on a local level? What new opportunities might it open up?

Automation at all levels of an organisation, when correctly implemented, can open up a huge number of opportunities – not only for the organisation itself, but for the wider community too. For example, the creation of apps can help to reduce the reliance on the use of paper or other waste material. This can help to reduce a business’ carbon footprint, which can have wider benefits for the local environment.

The combination of apps and automations will allow businesses to increase their throughput of work, in some cases to an exponential level: apps returning data to back office processes in seconds, rather than hours or days, automations processing the data to build the required outputs in seconds, and distribution of the outputs happening within seconds or minutes rather than hours. All of this can help reduce the time from delivery to invoice substantially, which ultimately helps businesses to scale.

With the Black Country committed to its ‘Repowering the Black Country’ scheme, which is part of the national drive to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, initiatives like this made by local businesses are likely to be a huge help.

How can firms prepare themselves and their staff for business automation?

The first element of any automation is for the business to build and document their processes. Processes should be robust and tested thoroughly before trying to automate. Once a process has been proven, then automation can be introduced to streamline and drive efficiency. Running it manually first also allows you to measure how successful the automation is.

For example, it can take six hours to carry out all activities related to onboarding a new employee. This might include the generation of offer letters, gathering data to formulate the contract, creation, approval and delivery of the contract, and follow on activities, such as preparing user logons or emails. With automation, this can be dramatically reduced, where all of the non-essential human interactions – e.g., generation of the documents – can be automated. In our own case, we have seen this reduce to as little as 30 minutes.

With the before and after times recorded, we can then assign a monetary figure to this to really identify the saving.

How can the digital skills gap begin to be addressed in earnest?

The key part of addressing the digital skill gap is, first of all, to understand the benefits that are there for you and your organisation. There are still many businesses that do not realise the potential that investing in technology can bring for them, and as such are falling behind when it comes to embracing automation and training staff. The sooner that these organisations learn the time and cost saving benefits of technology, and having a workforce that is well equipped to work alongside it, the sooner the digital skills gap can begin to be bridged. With training readily available, either physically or virtually, businesses can even build those skills internally, making the process that much more seamless. Organisations such as Vantage 365 are there to provide assistance if needed to those businesses that implement technology into their existing processes and practices, ensuring that they get the absolute most value possible from their investment.

How do you anticipate businesses’ use and relationship with technology evolving over time if the skills gap is tackled?

Correct and effective use of technology is paramount for organisations to stay current and to be able to hold their own against the competition. Good processes and automation drive efficiency. Efficiency allows quick turnarounds, reduced processing time, less admin and more time given to valuable tasks. Even though the initial thought is that this comes down to money, it actually comes down to time. If businesses automate processes, they have more time to spend on other, more mission-critical tasks that add value and help them to thrive and stand out from their competitors.

Why must firms take the lack of digital skills seriously, and why should they invest in automation technology?

Organisations of all sectors are now going through a revolution in terms of their use of technology. Some sectors are moving more quickly than others, and those companies who lag behind in this period of transformation risk becoming obsolete. In this sense, it is of paramount importance for the survival of these organisations that they take the digital skills shortage seriously, and act quickly to catch up with their competitors. Investing in automation and the digital skills of their workforce is an essential part of this.

The potential benefits of technology are seemingly endless – businesses just need to recognise what they stand to gain by dipping their toe into the digital pool.

what is vantage academy?

Vantage 365 Academy is an apprenticeship program designed to support young people in the West Midlands region following their A-levels. The program provides a one-year apprenticeship, which includes on-the-job training and the opportunity to undertake and pass Microsoft qualifications. The program aims to develop young people’s IT skills and abilities, helping to shape the future of the UK’s technology industry.

The West Midlands region has a long-standing reputation as a hub for innovative technology companies, and the Vantage 365 Academy is proud to support this growing industry. The apprenticeship is specifically designed to provide young people with the skills and experience required to succeed in the IT sector. The program is open to individuals aged 18 to 24, who have recently completed their A-levels and are looking to start a career in the technology industry.

We are thrilled to be working closely with King Edwards College and Halesowen College, and we look forward to continuing to build strong relationships with educational institutions across the region. Together, we can help young people to achieve their full potential and support the continued growth and success of the West Midlands’ technology industry.

The Vantage 365 Academy’s apprenticeship program includes a combination of on-the-job training and classroom-based learning, providing apprentices with a well-rounded experience that prepares them for the demands of the industry. The program focuses on developing technical skills, as well as communication and teamwork skills, which are essential for success in any industry.

Apprentices who successfully complete the program will be awarded a range of Microsoft certifications, including MS900700100 and 101. These certifications are highly regarded within the IT industry and will give apprentices a competitive advantage when applying for jobs.

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