It has often been suggested that smaller firms – especially more risk averse family-owned firms – may be reluctant to invest in new technologies or innovation. The Evolve Digital scheme, a business support programme for family run businesses, was developed through 2019 to address this issue. Evolve Digital was implemented as a Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) designed to test the effectiveness of the scheme. The scheme involved six peer-learning sessions and facilitated access to a range of on-line materials relating to digital technologies and their value to businesses.

But why might smaller firms be more reluctant to adopt digital technologies?

Confidence in being able to implement new technologies may be an issue in some cases, as might firms’ awareness of the benefits of digital technologies. Through facilitated peer-learning, Evolve Digital aimed to strengthen firms’ intention to adopt digital technologies and increase their confidence in adopting new technologies.

Planned before the COVID-19 pandemic the programme was originally designed as a face-to-face, cohort-based programme with a central peer-learning element. The idea was that members of each cohort would learn together and from each other. The pandemic changed our plans. The scheme moved on-line but still with strong facilitation and an attempt to build strong peer relationships

This worked well, and compared to a control group, those attending the seven cohorts of the trial programme did end up more likely to adopt new technologies and were more confident about their ability to use digital technologies. For some firms the programme was transformational, leading to radical changes in their business model and ways of doing business. In other cases it helped improve operations and flexibility with positive implications for productivity.

Participants valued the information provided on digital technologies, but they also valued the opportunity to see how digital technologies might specifically help them and their business. Peer engagement within cohorts was extensive often facilitated by social media. This led to broader reflections on how the participating firms were managed and organised, with some participants being particularly positive about the management learning that the Evolve Digital scheme provided.

So, Evolve Digital works. Why is this important?

Well, the Evolve Digital trial was run as a Randomised Controlled Trial, often seen as providing gold-standard evidence of the effectiveness of the interventions being tested. The Evolve Digital trial therefore provides very strong evidence that that facilitated, peer learning delivered on-line can work effectively as a type of business support. The original rationale for the Evolve Digital trial reflected the reluctance of some family firms to embrace new technologies. As an effective, online programme Evolve Digital could be readily scaled to provide support for the digital transformation for family firms across the country or smaller firms which are not covered by other initiatives such as Help to Grow Digital. It can also provide cost-effective support for digital transformation in situations where face-to-face interventions may be more difficult to use, such as remote or rural areas.

Stephen Roper, Director, ERC


Notes: Materials for the Evolve Digital scheme were developed by Lancaster University and delivery was through partners within Start and Grow UK. Financial support was provided by BEIS Business Basics programme. The full evaluation of the scheme is available here

Please note that the views expressed in this blog belong to the individual blogger and do not represent the official view of the

Enterprise Research Centre, its Funders or Advisory Group