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Survey: SMEs need support to achieve digitalisation and sustainability

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A European Commission survey on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) has revealed that 62% of European Union (EU) SMEs confront barriers to digitalisation and 70% say they are facing at least one obstacle to becoming sustainable.

The survey, commissioned by the Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW), was conducted among more than 12,000 companies from all EU countries (plus more than 3,000 companies from 12 non-EU countries) between February and May this year.

It shows that 42% of EU SMEs say that the availability of support to help them become more sustainable is poor.

The survey was conducted just before the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis was fully felt by EU businesses and at the time of the adoption of the new EU SME strategy in March this year.

The findings also reveal that more than one in ten (14%) of SMEs are members of an industry cluster or another SME business support organisation in their region.

Membership varies widely across the EU, however, with more than half (51%) of all SMEs in Sweden being members of such groups, followed by 38% in Belgium and 36% in Spain. Overall there are twelve countries where at least one in ten SMEs are members. In contrast, just 1% in Romania, Hungary and Lithuania also say they belong to an industry cluster or other SME support organisation.

In relation to membership of an industry cluster or another SME business support organisation, the survey also revealed:

  • SMEs that are members of an industry cluster or another SME business support organisation are more likely to export than those that are not (30% vs 25%). The same pattern applies comparing those that are and are not members of a global value chain (44% vs 24%).
  • SMEs that are part of an industry cluster or another SME business support organisation are much more likely to have innovated than those that are not (74% vs 55%). The same pattern applies comparing SMEs that are part of a global value chain with those that are not (77% vs 56%).
  • SMEs that are members of an industry cluster or another SME business support organisation are more likely to have adopted advanced digital technologies than non-members (78% vs 59%). The same applies comparing SMEs that are part of a global value chain with those that are not (85% vs 60%).
  • SMEs that are members of an industry cluster or another SME business support organisation (78% vs 68% that are not) and those that are part of a global value chain (79% vs 70% that are not) are more confident about accessing external finance.
  • Members of an industry cluster or another SME business support organisation are more likely to be planning to grow turnover than non-members (74% vs 65%).

Other key findings:

  • About one in five SMEs cite lack of skills among the barriers to engage in more sustainable practices, digitalise, and innovate. 
  • Stimulating demand for green products and services is also an issue in the transition to sustainability, as a lack of customer demand (30%) comes out on top of the barriers to sustainability that SMEs face. The most mentioned barrier to digitalisation is uncertainty about future digital standards (24%). In terms of both sustainability and digitalisation a lack of financial resources is the next most cited barrier.
  • There is a need to help SMEs take advantage of the growth opportunities offered by international markets, within and beyond the EU. Only 26% of EU SMEs exported their goods or services in 2019, nine in ten of these only to other EU countries.
  • SMEs report that the biggest problems they face are regulatory obstacles or administrative burdens (55%), payment delays (35%), poor access to finance (21%) and a lack of skills (17%), all of these being among the key areas of the new SME strategy.
  • The survey confirms that start-ups and scale-ups have the same major needs as SMEs, but there are some nuances. For instance, compared to SMEs, a higher share of start-ups and scale-ups have problems with access to finance and skills. Among those planning to grow, a higher share of start-ups (28%) and scale-ups (24%) than SMEs in general (17%) plan to grow in other EU countries. A larger share of start-ups and scale-ups (about 30%) than SMEs (about 20%) have a strategy or action plan to digitalise. A similar pattern is observed in terms of having a strategy or action plan to become sustainable, as four in ten start-ups and scale-ups have it, as compared to three in ten SMEs in general.

The full survey report and associated documents can be accessed here, the summary and an infographic are attached below.

The findings will support evidence-based policy-making at both EU and national level and benefit the implementation process of the Recovery Plan for Europe.

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