Leveraging digitalization to punch above your weight as an SME

Bidhan Roy, Managing Director, Commercial Enterprise & Mid-market Segment, APJC, Cisco

Amid the reopening of global economies and as we settle into some semblance of normalcy, businesses have to embrace agility in their operations, so they can continue to thrive, not just survive, in today’s digital era. Markedly, business transformation is key to avoid being left behind in a post-pandemic world, according to Singapore’s Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong.

In navigating the post-pandemic landscape, many small and medium businesses (SMEs) have turned to digital transformation as the go-to strategy to cope with unforeseen disruptions. With vaccine optimism on the rise and recovery on the horizon, businesses are starting to forecast a more positive outlook. Singapore recently upgraded its GDP growth forecast for 2021 to 6 to 7 per cent, amid a “better than expected” performance in the first half of the year.

That said, this upward trajectory is not necessarily reflected across all businesses. There remain some sectors, including those in tourism, events, F&B and retail, that have been unable to make a full rebound due to the ongoing social gathering and travel restrictions as the pandemic situation continues to evolve.

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For SMEs which lack the pool of resources that large corporations have at their disposal, what should they focus on in their business continuity plans? Major corporations are already ramping up their recovery and digitalization plans in preparation for not only the next phase of recovery, but also to adapt, transform, and improve their business as 2022 draws closer.

In riding out these uncertainties, having in place a robust digitalization strategy has emerged as the blueprint for success.

Revolutionizing business operations through technology

It is not an exaggeration to say that the pace of digitalization over the past year has been unprecedented. Global spending on digital transformation could hit US$2.4 trillion by 2024, more than double what was spent in 2019, according to Statista. Technology has the potential to revolutionize the way SMEs work, by driving higher productivity and efficiency, and lowering costs.

One great example is in the deployment of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies. These disruptive technologies greatly help in streamlining operations by largely eradicating manual tasks and processes. Not only that, but they are also becoming increasingly accessible and affordable for SMEs through solutions like cloud-delivered AI.

Further, the adoption of cloud-based platforms has been a game-changer for SMEs looking to build agility in a fast-moving business environment. Cloud offers SMEs the flexibility to upscale or downscale operations quickly according to evolving business needs. In addition, it minimizes fixed costs, thus enhancing cost-effectiveness for businesses in the mid- to long-term. 

These cost savings serve as a key benefit for SMEs who were financially impacted by the pandemic and have had to rely heavily on continued government support. Fortunately, research by Cisco and Analysys Mason revealed a strong interest among Asia Pacific SMEs in adopting and upgrading to cloud and managed solutions. Against this backdrop, we are seeing more SMEs embracing emerging innovations to sustain business operations and thrive in 2021 and beyond.

Redefining social interactions and employee empowerment in the new digital age

Apart from harnessing digital tools and solutions to smoothen business operations, another aspect that SMEs should not neglect is how they can empower employees to perform their best in their roles. The same research by Cisco and Analysys Mason highlighted a startling statistic – four in 10 SMEs in the region struggle with improving employee productivity in the workplaces of the future.

Compared to larger corporations that have bigger budgets and seemingly more attractive benefits, SMEs might have a harder time attracting and retaining talent. As such, cultivating an inclusive, dynamic work environment should be a key priority for SMEs in order to keep the workforce well-engaged and avoid significant impacts on the bottom line.

In a hybrid workplace where employees are working remotely, enabling effective communication and collaboration is becoming all the more crucial in promoting employee engagement and wellness.

With remote working becoming the mainstay in today’s workforce, the boundaries between work and personal life are increasingly blurred, giving rise to an always-on culture that perpetuates an unhealthy work-life balance.

Most recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) has highlighted that the mental health impact of the pandemic will be “long-term and far-reaching”. Followingly, experts and business leaders have highlighted the need for action on pandemic-linked anxiety and stress.

The workday has become longer, and while productivity may have increased, so has fatigue. Looking ahead, the onus is on business leaders to help their employees overcome these challenges and cultivate a healthy work culture that values trust, flexibility and inclusivity.

This can be done through providing employees with the right tools and emotional support to navigate the hybrid workplace, giving SMEs the opportunity to redefine employee engagement and uncover new ways of working in the new digital age.

Mapping out a digitalization roadmap to recovery

With the understanding that technology holds the key to success, SMEs need to start mapping out their digitalization roadmap as they position themselves for growth in the face of challenges and opportunities ahead.

Too often, businesses fall into the trap of employing new systems and tools as and when a need arises, without having in place a comprehensive plan that gives them complete oversight of their capabilities and any potential gaps.

Rather, SMEs need to go beyond implementing app after app to take a deeper dive into what their core needs and objectives are, so as to come up with a strategy that encompasses all their core needs and goals.

Equipped with a well thought out plan and a macro-view of their business priorities and capabilities, SMEs are well-poised to capture the opportunities of tomorrow. The pandemic has undoubtedly shone a spotlight on the importance of digital transformation and resilience. Faced with this once-in-a-generation crisis, it is crucial that SMEs continue to leverage technology as an important enabler of sustainable growth and recovery, so they are not left behind when the dust settles.