Ways SMEs can build agility and resilience in post pandemic world

Ways SMEs can build agility and resilience in post pandemic world

The pandemic has brought disruptions and economic uncertainties that exacerbated challenges that SMEs face when it comes to digital transformation. How difficult has that been? SMEs from this region share with iTNews Asia their experience from the ground.

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During the pandemic, many consumers have changed the way they used technology and moved dramatically towards online channels. SMEs in turn are realising that they must adapt their business model and improve their resilience and agility to survive and thrive post-pandemic.

iTnews Asia speaks with Dr Arun Singh, Global Chief Economist at Dun & Bradstreet, SME business leaders Jiten Pitkar, CEO of Disrptiv Exchange, Sharada Qureshi, COO of Star CRM (both from Singapore), Lee Kin Hong, General Manager of ManagePay Resources (Malaysia) and Angeline Lim, Cloud SMB ASEAN Lead of Oracle in a group discussion to find out how they are navigating these challenges and using technology in their favour, and what they have learnt from their technology adoption experience the past year.

iTnewsAsia: Before we speak to the SMEs in this discussion, Dr Arun, what is your view on how the pandemic is changing how companies work with the data from their databases or from customer engagement?

Dr Arun Singh: The use of digital channels to connect with customers has radically increased since the pandemic. The increased amount of digital customer engagement is generating critical data about customers. However, the volume, complexity, and the speed at which the data is generated is forcing organisations to have effective database management systems, which is where efficient cloud systems kick in.

Companies need to increasingly turn to apps like Customer Relationship Management tools (CRM), Cloud based HCM etc., which can analyse and process large quantity of real time data, to derive meaningful customer insights from such data, empowering sales & marketing teams with timely data to have purposeful conversations with customers.

Aside from generating more data than before, the new normal of remote working has elevated data and cyber security risks. To manage these risks, we see more companies relying on data security tools to secure home offices, moving to a cloud centric data strategy, while some are restricting access to data.

While most rely on one or the other, there are a fair number of companies that have elevated their security posture by adopting a combination of all three.

Having a sound data strategy can help businesses micro match demand and supply, optimise their operations, forecasts more accurately and be more innovative. Data is also an integral part of automation. Without the right data, automation cannot bring about the level of change that is desired.

-Dr Arun Singh, Global Chief Economist at Dun & Bradstreet

iTnewsAsia: The pandemic has brought many businesses online – some as a means of survival to keep up. What do you see are the differentiating factors that will determine if an SME is able to succeed in the long-term with their digital transformation efforts? How important is the right use of data? 

Dr Arun Singh: One of the biggest benefits of going online for any business is the access to near real-time data of their own operations and customers. But having the data and knowing what to do with it are two different things.

Not all data is true. Not all true data is true simultaneously. Data can contain bias that subtly or dramatically impact business decisions. It is imperative for businesses to formulate and implement a data strategy.

Among other things, having a sound data strategy can help businesses micro match demand and supply, optimise their operations, forecasts more accurately and be more innovative. Data is also an integral part of automation. Without the right data, automation cannot bring about the level of change that is desired.

iTnewsAsia: Jiten, Sharada and Kin Hong, tell us about your business challenges when the pandemic first occurred? How were you using technology to address the issues the business faced and how important was it to expand you digital presence and reach to customers? Perhaps, if relevant, can you also share your key considerations when looking for a cloud/technology provider?

Jiten: Our customers are spread across ASEAN and Australia, while our team is based in Singapore and Mumbai. Thus, when the pandemic hit our biggest challenge was to ensure continuity of the business model, customer service and other operations through remote working. We always used digital platforms for communication, governance and management.

However, the remote working conditions compelled us to improve and mature our processes so that we can maximise the use of these digital channels. This meant that we needed flexibility while adopting these channels and this was our primary criteria in choosing the right digital partner. 

Remote working will be the norm going forward. In fact, our assessment tells us that our internal productivity rose significantly when we matured our processes through digital platforms during the pandemic. We also saw a significant growth in both our top line and bottom line. We don’t see this as a challenge but an opportunity to further optimise cloud based digital technologies to further enhance our productivity and competitiveness. 

-Jiten Pitkar, CEO of Disrptiv Exchange

Sharada: Every business on the planet, be it Enterprise or SME have in some way or the other been affected by the pandemic — some more critically impacted than others. When the pandemic started, we were faced with the following key business challenges.

We had to quickly get our teams to start working from home ASAP.  This meant equipping them with the right tools and technologies to work from home. 

We had to ensure that there was no service disruption caused to our clients whatsoever which could have potentially impacted our revenues. Also, getting our clients to adapt to a new way of working was a little challenging. 

We had about 48 hours to figure out how we were going to break out of our culture of meeting face-to face and suddenly start collaborating and working virtually in a structured, organised manner, not to mention how we could only virtually engage with our employees. 

With all the financial uncertainty looming over us as a SME company, we were nevertheless clear about wanting to support our team members and not downsizing or cutting salaries etc. We wanted to figure out cost efficiencies with other areas.

The solution was clearly pointing towards the digitalisation of the business and adopting technologies that increased productivity and gave us maximum cost efficiencies. As a CRM Software company, we were one of the more fortunate SMEs that were already equipped with the correct tools to quickly adapt to the new normal.

Our entire software business runs on the cloud. Even prior to the pandemic, we had invested heavily in the digitalisation of our business and adopted a very sophisticated cloud infrastructure.

Using digital tools, we can do business from anywhere in the world, providing CRM software solutions without breaking the bank. Our support desk can now receive calls from over 6 different markets in APAC from the comfort of their homes. And everything is being seamlessly recorded, tracked, and monitored.

Kin Hong: Business survival is one of the biggest challenges that affected us and the majority of businesses. Everyone panicked with the uncertainty of the lockdown. Being a part of the essential services, as a technology provider, it was business as usual for us where we are expected to be always ready to serve our customers.

Online transactions increased drastically during the pandemic and the digitalization pace has picked up significantly. We think it is very critical now to expand our presence into digital domains in order to engage with both our customers and potential ones.

We evaluate a provider in terms of flexibility, scalability, and cost-effectiveness before engagement. Considering we are not a big organisation at the moment, we need to be cost savvy to scale. Hence, we need to go with a technology provider that can enable us to start small and grow when needed.

In terms of pricing, we look for the most competitive numbers from our technology provider to ensure that we can continue using the solution while supporting them long-term.

iTnewsAsia: As an SME owner, do you feel that SMEs were/are generally reactive when it comes to digital transformation? Post digital transformation/implementation, how did you optimise your business strategy to cope with challenges faced?

Jiten: I feel that this is sector specific. The technology sector that we operate in is very native with internal use of digital platforms. In fact, we have been using cloud-based platforms since our inception 8 years ago. We don’t have any on-premise systems. All our operational, management and production systems are on the cloud exclusively. This made it easy for us to then strengthen this practice further during the pandemic as our company is very natively digital.

Sharada: The SME landscape is wide-ranging. Traditional bricks and mortar SME businesses have had to rapidly digitise their businesses in order to survive. Compared to them, tech SMEs like us were already equipped for digitalisation.

Having said that, SMEs have been very resilient globally. Most SMEs I know have very quickly turned around their businesses and made the leap to digital, with or without government grants. It is a chicken and egg situation. How do you invest a whole lot of money into digitalisation when your cash flows are crunched and you’re trying to pay salaries?

At the same time, you know you need to go digital and be actively reaching your customers online. The beauty of such a challenge is that it always unveils news opportunities to innovate, market and reach newer audiences. As we did. We were able to adapt our products to a much larger audience and make CRM affordable for SMEs as our infrastructure costs with OCI have made it more sustainable for a wider audience.

With all the financial uncertainty looming over us as a SME company, we were nevertheless clear about wanting to support our team members and not downsizing or cutting salaries etc. We wanted to figure out cost efficiencies with other areas. The solution was clearly pointing towards the digitalisation of the business and adopting technologies that increased productivity and gave us maximum cost efficiencies.

-Sharada Qureshi, COO, Star CRM

Kin Hong: Yes, due to cost and ownership, not all SMEs can afford to participate in digital transformation. It seems that only big organisations have the funds to invest in digital transformation. Despite the need to change, businesses still need to consider costs and mindset change is critical in order to adopt digital transformation. Without a strong determination for change, businesses may not survive into the future due to competition.

Sufficient planning must be in place and an enterprise-wide approach is required. Otherwise, we might face integration issues across departments. Digitalisation must be done in line with our business needs. We must know our challenges and limitations to determine the right strategy to adopt. 

Since one may not be able to address all challenges concurrently due to either time or cost constraints, it is vital to prioritise the critical initiatives that we can start with and then implement the rest progressively over time. A constant review of digital transformation efforts is also required after implementation.

iTnewsAsia : Looking ahead, and with the future of work uncertain and many companies pivoting to a hybrid work model (as opposed to a full remote work situation), what challenges you foresee for SMEs like yourselves?

Jiten: Remote working will be the norm going forward. In fact, our assessment tells us that our internal productivity rose significantly when we matured our processes through digital platforms during the pandemic. We also saw a significant growth in both our top line and bottom line. We don’t see this as a challenge but an opportunity to further optimise cloud based digital technologies to further enhance our productivity and competitiveness. 

Sharada: A full-on remote work model will not work for a SME like us on a permanent basis, despite our teams having been quite productive thus far.

We are still too small a company to be far flung out in different parts of the country, be it Malaysia, Singapore or India. We don’t believe our team members can sit in a small town somewhere and remotely manage their respective teams across the country on a permanent basis. As a client-centric CRM software business, we work in a highly collaborative and inter-dependent environment. It is also extremely difficult to train and onboard junior level developers and testers remotely. Junior level teams need hand holding and briefings that are clear as day. For a SME of our size, it is important for us to have everyone back in the cities.

We will be adopting the hybrid work model starting January 2022 as it offers the best of both worlds. We believe human connections are important to mental health. The sense of camaraderie and bonding that you have face-to-face, or the amazing solution that develops when you’re sipping on that 3rd coffee in the meeting room and drawing on the white board…. well, there’s still a lot of magic in that.

Kin Hong: We believe investment in technology is essential should the need to work from home remains. However, it could be challenging due to cost and mindset. Some SMEs may be reluctant to invest in a hybrid work model, while some are keen to have all their employees working under the same roof. In short, a hybrid work model has its pros and cons depending on the individual environment.

As an SME, productivity and effectiveness at work are important to thrive in the future. As long as deliverables are being fulfilled, we don’t see drawbacks in the hybrid work model. However, in order to achieve a win-win situation, both organisation and employee need to gear towards a more efficient method of working.

Sufficient planning must be in place and an enterprise-wide approach is required. Otherwise, we might face integration issues across departments. Digitalisation must be done in line with our business needs. We must know our challenges and limitations to determine the right strategy to adopt. 

-Lee Kin Hong, General Manager of ManagePay Resources

iTnewsAsia: From a tech provider perspective, what SMEs should look out for when looking for a cloud provider in their digital transformation efforts, to stay competitive and cost-effective even after initial implementation?

Angeline: Agility is a key factor for SMEs to consider when taking on digital transformation. In the initial rush to digitally transform and innovate, companies adopted a combined approach of on-prem legacy solutions along with cloud implementation, which has since shifted to become a deliberate hybrid strategy incorporating public and private cloud offerings and has now extended to incorporate multi-cloud solutions.

This need to adapt to shifting requirements, innovate, evolve their digital strategy, and swiftly onboard new capabilities are key asks that SMEs need to make of their cloud providers. This is especially pertinent with the shifting hybrid work patterns, where a company’s cloud and digital requirements will need to be able to suddenly shift with the escalation of the pandemic or a change in local regulations. 

Also, as SMEs scale their businesses and deal with growing data volumes, they will need providers that can support them with the right infrastructure and tools to help them make sense of it all in a meaningful manner that adds value to their business. Of particular importance is the need for providers to help customers keep their data where they need it and provide them with autonomous technologies that allow them to manage it themselves. 

SMEs need to understand that digital transformation is not a one-time solution or single destination to guaranteed success or growth. If anything, it should be viewed as a journey, needing to be constantly reviewed and optimised to ensure it aligns with their strategies and desired outcomes. Getting the initial adoption right is key, but so is the need to be adaptable and agile in response to ever-changing business requirements. 

-Angeline Lim, Cloud SMB Lead of ASEAN, Oracle

Providers should also understand that SMEs’ interaction with data does not differ from their bigger corporate counterparts. SMEs are actively searching for AI and ML solutions to assist with their interactions with data, improve forecasting accuracy, flag customer needs, enhance marketing capabilities and further refine R&D processes.

iTNews Asia: based on your experience working with companies, what are some common pitfalls that SMEs should look out for after transformation efforts and important factors for SMEs to consider when re-optimising their digital strategies to keep pace with bigger players?

A common pitfall is around perspective – SMEs need to understand that digital transformation is not a one-time solution or single destination to guaranteed success or growth. If anything, it should be viewed as a journey, needing to be constantly reviewed and optimised to ensure it aligns with their strategies and desired outcomes. Getting the initial adoption right is key, but so is the need to be adaptable and agile in response to ever-changing business requirements. 

With hybrid infrastructures in play, security often gets overlooked or relegated as an afterthought. When re-optimising their digital approach, SMEs would do well to consider providers that allow security by default. By ensuring these are included with their providers, this removes the burden and complexity of security from the businesses so they can focus on what matters more within their companies.

Lastly, moving to the cloud should not be an IT decision. The most valuable tip here is to work with the business to use cloud as a competitive advantage, to differentiate the company’s operations and services from tough competition in the market.

The constant re-optimisation of digital strategies helps SMEs staying ahead of the curve even in the most turbulent business environments. A simple, cost effective and logical approach for SMEs would be to consider working hand-in-hand with providers that are constantly innovating with new updates and new offerings, and are responsive to market developments.

SMEs tend to look for providers who act as ‘partners’ in their transformation journey – not simply a ‘ride’ to the next destination – with key traits such as constant support, flexibility and accessibility to drive positive outcomes for both parties. After all, SMEs are focused on securing quick wins with minimal risks, which will help them gain confidence to scale and explore future implementations in the long run.

iTNews Asia: Thanks everyone for your insights.

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