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Embrace Digital Or Be Sidelined

Why SMEs can no longer afford to stand on the sidelines of technological change.

Many small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in Pakistan keep on standing on the sidelines, watching the waves of technological advances race by at breakneck speed. They just stand there and look, somewhat scared of what is happening all around them, but in no hurry to take part. Until it’s too late – the ones who ride the wave will get the business, the ones who just look will drown.

Some other SMEs have taken the plunge and have invested in digitalisation. The ones who decided to ride the waves early are now being rewarded with improved productivity and improved returns. They have chosen to become more efficient and more competitive so they can grow their business far beyond the limitations of ‘we have always done it like this’.

Digitalisation of business is not about buying new shiny computers or other gadgets; these are just some tools to help in the process. Digitalisation is all about a change in mindset, especially when it comes to company-internal processes and adapting to an ever-changing customer.

Using technology to improve a company’s efficiency and productivity does not require massive investments.

A simple start could be to set up a company-internal ‘social network’ for employees to easily share and communicate across departments. For example, often product development, marketing, and customer service do not talk to one another. Products are developed because they seem to be a demand. Marketing pushes the products by highlighting their fancy features. On the other side, customer services get calls from users who don’t know how the product works or why it can’t do what they need it for. An internal staff platform would enable this kind of information to be shared among all relevant parties. Based on customer feedback, products can be improved and marketing messages can address actual customer needs. A simple process like this will definitely improve productivity at very little cost. And that’s just a start.

The next step is to move documents that contain information useful for others from those ugly steel cabinets to a shared online platform. These documents can be digitised and uploaded to a file-sharing platform, accessible to all or just to selected people. This is where cloud computing will help as all files can be accessed from anywhere in the company (or in the world for that matter) simply from an internet connection. This is relatively inexpensive. Small companies may get away with Google Drive, which is free for the first 15 GB of file storage and comes with a free word processor, spreadsheets, etc.

Streamlining internal processes takes some effort to get going but it doesn’t cost much to get started. The benefits clearly outweigh the effort. All it takes is a change in mindset and the breaking down of departmental barriers.

The second point I mentioned above was adapting to customer behaviour. Consumers shop with their fingertips, including B2B customers (Alibaba is essentially a B2B platform). They compare prices and features online and read product reviews before making a purchase decision. Setting up a simple e-commerce website is easy to do even without any programming knowledge. There is no need for any SME to hire expensive web developers to do this; any company staff who is a bit technically inclined can do this with a bit of training and time. With an e-commerce presence, any business immediately becomes a global player, reaching potential customers in every part of the world. Again, this is easy and cheap to set up and run, and again the benefits far outweigh the initial effort.

For those SMEs in Pakistan who still stand on the sidelines, watching the waves go by, there is no excuse not to get started, even if you have a limited budget. Take the first steps, see how it works and scale up from there.

Dr Frank Peter, PhD, is a global expert on digital transformation and a certified Google

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