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SMEs in the digital world: reboot or robots?

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Wilson P. Tan

Suits The C-Suite

With the dizzying speed of digital disruption occurring in the global business environment, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are increasingly realizing the urgent need to explore digitalization. Incorporating digitalization in their business will help expand and create new sources of value for their enterprises to remain competitive and relevant to their markets.

In my recent article, I wrote about the findings of a recent EY study, Redesigning for the digital economy: A study of SMEs in Southeast Asia. In the report, almost 370 SME executives expressed as their top priorities leveraging digital technology and prioritizing the improvement of their customer service. However, to properly implement digitally-enabled operations and meet the consumer’s increasing demand for personalization and convenience, businesses will need the support of a modernized workforce to actualize their strategies.

The function of modernized talent is critical to a company’s digital transformation. This increasing demand for appropriate digital services gives rise to new digital roles, such as digital marketers, data scientists, and automation engineers. At the same time, current employees will, by necessity, be disrupted by digital solutions that replace repetitive tasks, such as intelligent automation technologies and robotics process automation (RPA). While the use of intelligent and automated platforms to enhance efficiency will require the traditional workforce to adapt, these new and enhanced roles present the opportunity for companies to reboot their people programs and help employees focus on strategic, more value-added tasks.

THE CHALLENGES OF WORKFORCE ADAPTATION
The same study on SMEs had identified two main constraints that enterprises face in adapting their workforce to enhanced, digital roles. First is capacity and second is resources. SMEs specifically lack access to digital talent and face challenges in upgrading the skills of their employees, which understandably creates a gap between smaller enterprises and their multinational counterparts.

Many SMEs also have the disadvantage of looking less attractive to potential candidates with the right digital skills compared to larger companies with more established names and deeper pockets. In addition, they face the struggle of prioritizing effective development programs to upskill their current workforce in light of other competing business priorities.

REDESIGNING THE MODERNIZED WORKFORCE
Challenges aside, SMEs will need to go beyond identifying the roles and skills required to achieve their digital transformation. They are expected to also dedicate employees to specific digital roles instead of merely assigning these roles to existing employees as secondary positions. For example, the role of social media manager can often be a full-time job, yet some companies simply assign this task to existing sales or marketing personnel who may not have the experience and exposure to maximize and manage social media assets. SMEs will have to consciously take active steps to evolve their current workforce into one that can maximize digital investment insights and productivity gains.




One means to achieve this is by developing a clear view of critical digital roles, functions and skills instead of falling into the trap of blindly following hiring trends. SMEs need to assess and identify what roles are specifically designed to support their own digital transformation strategy. These roles and skills should then be adapted to form the career pathways of an organization, allowing management to conduct effective strategic workforce planning for the company’s future needs.

A clear overview of their talent needs also allows management to further maximize their limited pool of human resources by deploying them into strategic roles. Furthermore, this allows management to address capability gaps through targeted employee skill development initiatives and talent attraction.

For companies to effectively redesign job functions and business processes, they must leverage insights from the analysis of people data to support changes and decisions. SMEs also need to consider how to best incorporate digital solutions into any redesigned roles to improve efficiency as well as employee and customer satisfaction. This alleviates the pressure on talent shortages by expanding the workforce’s capacity to take on enhanced roles.

PRIORITIZING THE ROLE OF DIGITAL
Over and beyond considering technological or digital solutions, what is more essential is for SMEs to adopt a digital mindset and develop a digital work culture. This mindset and culture will effectively develop agility and further drive innovation. Attaining this end-goals will entail an assessment and the transformation of traditional policies, processes and platforms to better adopt and support digital thinking.

As an organization undergoes digital transformation, SMEs will benefit from engaging their employees by working together with them to minimize resistance and drive the necessary behaviors to integrate digitalization into the company. They can achieve this through effective change management and positive reinforcement through rewards linked to performance and employee recognition, both of which can go a long way in nurturing a digital work culture.

The leveraging of transformative technologies should serve as an enabler for SMEs instead of a complete replacement of their human workforce. Disruptive forces will continue to challenge SMEs in the digital age, making it increasingly apparent that digitalization cannot be relegated to a one-off project — it is by necessity a continuous and evolving journey with great impact on the entire workforce.

SMEs that prioritize digital roles and fully embrace a digital mindset will, in all likelihood, achieve a competitive edge that leads to success in the digital economy. The question now for individual SMEs is, is it better for you to reboot your digital people strategy or invest in robotic processes? Or find a solution that combines both?

This article is for general information only and is not a substitute for professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant. The views and opinion expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of SGV & Co.

 

Wilson P. Tan is the Vice Chairman and Deputy Managing Partner of SGV & Co.

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