This study arose out of a three-year longitudinal study exploring the values held by community business leaders and how these values impact on the financial and social sustainability of their businesses. The final wave of interviews with leaders took place in May 2020 during the first lockdown in England during the COVID-19 pandemic and while some community business leaders highlighted how they had adapted their business models to continue to deliver goods and services to their communities while following social distancing and lockdown restrictions, others were forced to close.
In August 2020 the researchers secured a contract from Power to Change and grant funding from the Digitally Enhanced Advanced Services (DEAS) Research group to further explore how 24 community businesses had adapted their business models to digitalised advanced services during the lockdown and social distancing restrictions. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 29 participants in 24 individual businesses across England in October and November 2020. The interviews were conducted via Microsoft Teams and by phone, as social distancing measures were still in place and the second period of lockdown (November) was just being introduced.
This study explores how some community businesses were able to respond to the needs of their communities in challenging and uncertain times, through rapidly adapting their business models to offer digitalised services. This new business model enabled many to offer key support services to their communities throughout the lockdown. This report discusses how these new services were funded, the enablers and barriers to their adoption, their long-term sustainability and the response by the community.
• Digitalised servitization is defined within the context of community businesses and its role in creating financial value for the business and social value for communities.
• The community businesses’ ability to offer digitalised services was limited by the access to digital tools and levels of digital literacy within the communities that they serve.
• The cost of adapting business models to digitalised services was not identified as a barrier to community businesses, with many utilising widely available free and relatively cheap digital resources.
• The willingness of funders to make the terms of their grants and commissions more flexible was a major contributory factor in community businesses’ ability to change business model to offer these new services.
• Adopting digitalised services helped to enhance the perceptions of the role of community businesses and their ability to respond on a hyper-local level by statutory agencies like health and local authorities.
• The COVID-19 lockdown has highlighted the need for training and support within the businesses to allow them to fully benefit from the new opportunities that offering digitalised services can bring to their long-term sustainability.
• New customers were won and business opportunities were opened as a result of the digitalised services.
• COVID-19 and social distancing regulations highlighted the need to strengthen backroom digital services, e.g. contactless payments and Wi-Fi improvements within the community business.
• Community businesses highlighted the importance and strength of partnership working to meet the needs of the community during the pandemic. Previously, community-based organisations had competed for the same pots of funding but during the initial COVID-19 lockdown organisations worked together, utilising each other’s strengths to serve the community.
• The COVID-19 pandemic has made community business leaders question their service delivery and think about ways that they could innovate and adapt their business model to incorporate digitalised services. Such services offer low-cost solutions to meeting the needs of communities and monetising these services may help to ensure the long-term economic sustainability of many businesses.
• The digital divide was a major factor limiting the roll-out of digitalised services by community businesses.
Bradley, P., Gardner, M., Parry, G., & Webber, D. (in press). Helping ensure survival: Digitally enhanced advanced services in community businesses. Repository: Power to Change and DEAS