The pivotal role digital skills play in today’s rural business landscape - Business Gateway

The rise of remote work and digitalisation has transformed the entrepreneurial landscape, offering new opportunities for residents of the Outer Hebrides, says MacLean. Picture: contributed.The rise of remote work and digitalisation has transformed the entrepreneurial landscape, offering new opportunities for residents of the Outer Hebrides, says MacLean. Picture: contributed.
The rise of remote work and digitalisation has transformed the entrepreneurial landscape, offering new opportunities for residents of the Outer Hebrides, says MacLean. Picture: contributed.
Norman MacLean, Business Gateway manager in the Outer Hebrides, reflects on rural entrepreneurship and the pivotal role digital skills play in today’s business landscape.

The Outer Hebrides is home to more than 5,000 businesses across all sectors of industry. Historically known as the home of Harris Tweed, the region has evolved its economic landscape and expanded its development of key sectors including food and drink, aquaculture, tourism, creative industries, and renewables.

The area has an impressive 89.6 per cent rating for “good or very good life satisfaction” in the 2022-23 SLAED Economic Indicators Framework Report, the highest among all local authority areas in Scotland.

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One of the biggest challenges facing businesses in the Outer Hebrides, and other rural communities, is connectivity, physically and digitally. The departure of young talent for higher education, coupled with the influx of retirees, has created an environment made up of an ageing workforce, housing shortages and, in some cases, restricted growth due to a limited workforce pool.

However, opportunities remain, fuelled by the growing digital landscape. The rise of remote work and digitalisation has transformed the entrepreneurial landscape, offering new opportunities for residents of the Outer Hebrides. Individuals can now blend island life with opportunities that were once confined to mainland Scotland.

Rural businesses are leveraging their tradition, culture, and resources to achieve differentiation in the market. From artisanal distilleries to fishing, businesses across the Outer Hebrides celebrate their unique heritage, while catering to a global audience and its growing demand for authenticity and craftsmanship. For example, the famous Stornoway Black Pudding, which was awarded protected status in May 2013 by the European Commission, receiving Protected Geographical Indication, stands as a culinary ambassador served in the finest restaurants worldwide.

While seasonal fluctuations pose challenges, the transition into spring/summer brings a new set of opportunities, especially for tourism-dependent operators. While supply-chain disruption and changing consumer spending habits remain exacerbated by the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a silver lining to be found. There is a degree of optimism sustained by the resilience of the rural business community, and in response to the evolving landscape, particularly post pandemic, Outer Hebrides Business Gateway is actively addressing the continual need for digital skill development.

To advance the drive towards digital, Outer Hebrides Business Gateway offers an engaging range of in-person workshops and remote webinars. Popular topics include TikTok and Instagram Reels, LinkedIn for Business, Facebook for Business, Canva and more recently topics around Artificial Intelligence.

Outer Hebrides Business Gateway offers funding packages to enhance digital capabilities. The Outer Hebrides Youth Enterprise Programme (funded by the UK Shared Prosperity Fund) provides tailored support for business-owners aged 18-40, bridging the gap in youth-driven economic growth and offering a suite of services. Meanwhile, the Outer Hebrides Young Enterprise Support Scheme, which is aimed at young businesses trading for fewer than five years, ensures businesses on the brink of success do not have their progress hindered by financial constraints.

The rural business sector holds a broader significance within the Scottish economy, embodying resilience, resourcefulness, and community spirit. The Outer Hebrides have always faced enduring challenges in living, surviving, and thriving. Consequently, the local business community has evolved to become resilient and adaptable.

Norman MacLean, Business Gateway manager in the Outer Hebrides

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