Project summary

An interregional cooperation project for improving SME competitiveness policies

SKILLS+ aims at advancing public policies promoting information and communication technologies (ICT) skills among SMEs in rural areas helping them seize fully the opportunities offered by a digital single market and benefits of a digital economy. 

The project is co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund and Norwegian national funding through the INTERREG EUROPE programme. The project together twelve partners from Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Norway, Poland and Spain.


from 1 Apr 2016
to 31 Mar 2021

SME competitiveness

What policy instruments does the project address?

Within the Strategic Objective 2, R&D-related projects carried out by single SME, partnerships between SME and partnerships between SME and research entities are supported („FuE-Einzel-, Gemeinschafts- und Verbundprojekte“). About 139.5 million Euro are available for this measure, representing 9.8 per cent of the total ERDF funds available to Saxony-Anhalt in the 2014-2020 financial period. The objective of the measure is to trigger and accelerate entrepreneurial innovation processes leading to the introduction of new and improved products, methods and services. SMEs are the measure’s main target group. The measure is directly linked to the Regional Innovation Strategy for Saxony-Anhalt which defines the region’s lead markets (e.g. medicine and health services, mobility and logistics) and identifies ICT as a key enabling technology and potential for innovation. Another key action of the RIS focuses on innovation potentials of SME. The LP is one of three ministries sharing the responsibility for the selected policy.


From a spatial planning point of view, it is desirable that especially SME in rural areas benefit from the programme as their competitiveness is most endangered. Given Saxony-Anhalt’s particular challenges imposed by demographic change and depopulation of rural areas, it is of uttermost importance to secure existing and create new competitive work places in rural areas’ SME. Yet, rural areas’ SME had been underrepresented in previous similar programmes. 

Which partners are working on this?
  • Ministry for Infrastructure and Digital Affairs of Saxony-Anhalt

The overall objective of the policy is to increase the number of growing, innovative and internationalising companies in Finland. In principle, this will happen by increasing the capacity of SME to deliver innovative products and services, with utilising ICT smartly been regarded as major source of potential. The policy furthermore aims to promote the (re)positioning of rural SME in supply chains. To that aim, new business operations are necessary.


The Regional Council of Kainuu acts as ERDF Intermediate Body (IB) for Northern and Eastern Finland Structural Funds. Kainuun Etu Oy is the regional development company of Kainuu. It is public equivalent organisation, owned by the Kainuu municiplaities. 


In the past, similar programmes were contributing successfully to very high percentages of SME using electronic information sharing, cloud computing and social media, underpinning Finlands ambition to be a leader in the digital economy. Yet, the incorporation of ICT among SME has not led to the anticipated growth - Finland's economy has even shrunk recently (GDP decrease by 0.1% in 2014, 0.2% in 2013). Traditional ways of using ICT appear to be no longer efficient to contribute to growth and employment, hence new approaches must be elaborated and practiced to help especially SME to re-invent their business models to remain competitive and to grow (again).


Finland's 2014-2020 structural funds programmes total about 2.8 billion Euro, 28 per cent of which for SME support.

Which partners are working on this?
  • Kainuun Etu Ltd.

The policy instrument addresses SMEs, public administrations and NGO and offers financial assistance totalling 128 million Euro in the 2014-2020 financial period. Its aim is to promote an business-enhancing environment that is based on available information (data), integrated ICT solutions for both the public and private sector and full inclusion of Latvia in the single European digital market. The policy promotes e-skills among both the public sector and the private economy and shall contribute to provide to anyone the opportunity to take the best use possible of modern ICT solutions. The policy is therefore aligned to Latvia's goal to improve the quality of life bx contributing to national competitiveness, increasing economic growth and accellerating job creation. 


Given Latvia's geography (in average only 33.6 persons per km2; 25% of municipalities have only 10 persons/km2), the success of the policy implementation will be decided in the country's rural areas where SME face the challenge to not only integrate ICT solutions in their daily business routines (e.g. in communication, data management) but also to take use of new opportunities in the development and introduction of new services and products. The implementation of the policy instrument therefore needs to be optimised to make sure that rural areas' SME take full use of the available opportunities and that financed interventions lead to durable impacts to the benefit of Latvia's overall economic competitiveness.

Which partners are working on this?
  • Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development of the Republic of Latvia

The policy's objective is to improve electronic services for citizens and businesses and addresses both SME and the public sector. About 10,36 million Euro are available to finance e-solutions (ERDF) and 400k Euro for the enhancement of e-skills (ESF). The policy is part of the ROP of Western Macedonia, which is managed and implemented by PP4.


The policy contributes to the region's objective to become a "digtal region" with innovative businesses. Funding from the programme is meant to be used to reverse the decreasing course of the business sector accellerated by the ongoing economic crisis, to address the consequences that come from an economically deprived region such as Western Macedonia is considered to be, and to improve the quality of life and innovativeness of business operations by taking advantage of modern ICT. with regard to the region's SME, the policy shall contribute to create a "culture of openness, strengthening the development of tools for the promotion of the Greek enterprises and products through the internet, aiming to expand in international markets".


Despite the overall increase in broadband connectivity, access to both remote and rural areas still remain restricted due to high costs resulting from both the low population density and the aspect of distance. Businesses and citizens of peripheral parts of the region alike experience the negative impacts of the digital and broadband gap in relation to urban centres and the rest of Europe.

Which partners are working on this?
  • Research Committee - University of Western Macedonia (partner from 1 March 2017)

Priority axis 2 of Malopolska's RIS focusses on accelerating business growth through SME's ability to innovate, to respond to new market trends, and to incorporate new technologies in their strife to develop and introduce new products and services. Its measures will be financed especially by Malopolska ROP, Priority Axis 3. Entrepreneurial Malopolska, which provides about 30 million Euro per annum in subsidies and loans to SME. A substantial part of the funding is handed out to SME aiming to innovate, incl. the introduction and uptake of ICT-based technologies allowing companies to promote new products or services. The policy is managed by the Malopolska Entrepreneurship Center of the Marshall Office.


At present, and in the previous programme alike, the majority of the available financial resources has been dealt out to SME from the Kraków metropolitan area whereas companies from rural areas outside the urban agglomeration have struggled to put good applications for funding forward, often due to a lack of necessary resources and infrastructures hindering their strife for innovation. By contrast, Malopolska region is second among Poland's voivodships in employment in the ICT sector (after Mazowieckie, the capital region), foremost due to the presence of major international companies (Ericpol, Comarch, Motorola). In terms of employment, 95.4 per cent of companies from the regional ICT sector are microcompanies, representing an enormous reservoir for future economic growth. 

Which partners are working on this?
  • Malopolska Regional Development Agency

eTrøndelag is the Sør-Trøndelag County's policy for the digital development of its territory. It was launched 10 years ago. From being a vision has eTrøndelag evolved through a program of limited scope and duration, to become a permanent initiative that collaborates with actors locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. eTrøndelag is organized as a regular part of the Unit for Regional Development, and belong to professional group Industry and Innovation. eTrøndelag will contribute to the digital value creation potential exploited. The ICT industry itself is not the main focus, but rather it is the use and exploitation of ICT across industries and sectors. eTrøndelag consists of four areas: Digital Infrastructure, Digital Municipality, Digital Innovation and Digital Literacy.


Back in 2007 Sør-Trøndelag County Authority and regional partners developed a Regional Research and Innovation Strategy in co-operation with R&D institutions and financed through the EUs 6th Framework Programme. One of the conclusions was that Sør-Trøndelag County has an advantage in natural resources and a well-educated population. The strategy also stressed that this is a small region (when it comes to the number of inhabitants), and with a strong center-periphery structure. Growth tend to strengthen the Trondheim-region, while the more remote areas struggle to maintain their settlement pattern. This analysis is still relevant and calls for action to promote rural areas' digitalisation.

Which partners are working on this?
  • Trøndelag County Council (until 31/12/2017 Sør-Trøndelag County Authority)

The ERDF-financed policy aims at improving the competitiveness and efficiency of enterprises through ICT. It provides financial support to enterprises for

- introducing and implementing e-business solutions provided by ICT;

- optimising business processes, integrating business functions, streamling workflows and enhance interactions with clients and suppliers;

- improving SME's market position and increase their competitiveness;

- creating and launching e-services, including customer relationship management and those between enterprises (B2B), e.g. ICT solutions aimed at establishing processes that extend beyond the boundaries of the enterprise such as supply chain management;

- training of employees to work with new ICT systems;

- implementing supporting initiatives aimed at digitalisation of business services and products.


SMEs from Croatia can apply for funding at the Croatian Agency for SMEs, Innovation and Research in an open call for proposals until all financial support has been allocated. 


As rural development agency of the Zadar County Authority, PP7 aims to enable companies from its territory to propose smart projects to the programme. Since there is already a large gap in the digitalisation of the Croatia between the Zagreb capital region and the rest of the country, PP7 in collaboration with the institutions involved in the Stakeholder Support Group aims to propose earmarking a large share of the available funding to support SME from rural areas.   

Which partners are working on this?
  • Zadar County Rural Development Agency

Within its Priority Axis 2, the Specific Objective 2.1 aims at "Improving the survival rate of SMEs including through stimulating entrepreneurship". Here, the introduction and uptake of ICT in company daily practices and new product/service development is included as an aim. Furthermore, Thematic objective #3 addresses the competitiveness of SME. The policy is managed by the Bulgarian Small and Medium Enterprises Promotion Agency (Implementing Body) on behalf of the Ministry of Economy of Bulgaria. Per annum, about 150 million Euro are available to support SME (programme total).


The different financial instruments to support entrepreneurial innovation nevertheless need to be diversified to better encourage new products and services in those areas related to European and regional challenges and sectors defined in the National Strategy for Promotion of SMEs. In many sectors, the available instruments, given their one-instruments-fits-all-sectors approach, the proposed interventions do not match the expectations of entrepreneurs and instruments need to be adjusted.

Which partners are working on this?
  • Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI)

Under the selected specific objective 2.3.2 of the ERDF OP of Castilla y León, regional SME can receive funding through this programme to introduce and capitalize modern ICT applications. The regional government should further promote access to this resource as strategy to compete as a region in the new European digital single market defined by the Digital Agenda for Europe and the new knowledge economy as a way to a sustainable economic recovery. It’s related to the information given in territorial context.


Following this objective (that is for the whole regional government), the regional ministry of culture and tourism in its strategy (PAHIS Plan 2020) has assumed in its axis 1 the objective to standardize and extend the application of ICT to cultural heritage SME and entrepreneurs. Castilla y León is a large region characterized for huge rural areas where the ICT tools are a need for SME in order to be more competitive. Bearing always in mind this aspect, although to be a SME from rural or from urban area won’t be selection criteria, the benefits will be higher for those SME from rural areas.

Which partners are working on this?
  • Castilla y Leon Regional Government  - Regional Ministry for Culture and Tourism

P10 will focus on the Investment priority 2b of the Economic Development and Innovation Operational Programme for Hungary (EDIOP): enhancing access to, and use and quality of, ICT by developing ICT products and services, e-commerce, and enhancing demand for ICT of the above mentioned policy instrument on the measure, aiming at increasing the usage of ICT solutions among SMEs. The national measure is supporting companies to take part in the digital economy and motivating to use ICT solutions in their everyday working life (online appearance, marketing, sales, process management, e-commerce, ERP systems and so on) as an opportunity in their growth and innovation.


Since medium-sized companies and those from the Budapest capital region, where ICT services are concentrated, have easier access to funding, more needs to be done to support small-sized companies from rural regions (f. ex. through better project preparation and information services). At the same time, the scope of the programme should be widened to extent the capacities of a typical SME beyond electronic communication and social media use towards cloud solutions and mobile directions. In that regard, their readiness to engage in open innovation processes needs to be enhanced in order to allow new approaches being introduced.


The ultimate aim of the programme's interventions should be to support growth among rural areas' small companies.

Which partners are working on this?
  • Pannon Novum West-Transdanubian Regional Innovation Non-profit Ltd.

The OP for the Czech Republic in the 2014-2020 financial period is managed by the Ministry of Industry and Trade. Priority 1 funding totals 1,342,600 Euro. Its specific objective 1.2 "increase of intensity and effectiveness of the cooperation in research, development and innovations" foresees, among others measures, the promotion of the uptake of ICT and the development of new ICT-based products and services in Czech SME. The key activity of the respective OP priority is the support of research in the industry focused on development of new know-how necessary for development of new products, materials, technologies, software, this is linked with creation of new working places. Supported activities include joint research and technology transfer projects between several SME and/or with R&D institutions as well as innovations in single SME. 


As the programme is a national one, no specific measures have been designed for the Moravian-Silesian Region or for SME located in rural areas. The Moravian-Silesian Region's strategy has the objective to increase the competitiveness of its SME in view of their ability to compete in international markets. The capacity to use modern ICT is seen as a key prerequisite to achieve this objective.


Though the programme is in line with the regional strategy, its focus on R&D activities hinders the full participation of companies from rural areas which are often too small to engage in R&D but which nevertheless need support for their innovations. 

Which partners are working on this?
  • Technical University of Ostrava