Embracing digital transformation for SMEs

Incorporating digital technology into an enterprise of any size can be a dauntingly costly and complex exercise, but it’s an essential investment in the future of the business


Group of colleagues discussing and using laptop together in coworking office.

The past 16 months have shown the importance of digital technology to companies up and down the UK. As the Covid crisis closed commercial premises nationwide in 2020, enterprises of all sizes were forced to shift online. Four in 10 small firms responding to a recent poll by Cisco Systems said that they wouldn’t have survived the year if they hadn’t gone digital.
Even as offices start reopening and old ways of working return, some elements of pandemic practice will remain. But, with their budgets tighter than ever, many SMEs may be approaching further tech investments with some trepidation.

“You’ve got to take a strategic stand and say: ‘Look, if we’re going to do this, it has to be all or nothing,’” urges John Hargrave, chief operating officer at law firm BP Collins.

Three years ago, his business started adopting a more digital way of working as part of a four-year transition plan. “That sounds a bit Stalinist, but it’s not,” he says. “It’s just giving you the framework to grow.”

When he was scoping out the firm’s future digital requirements and how these would be met, Hargrave had to forecast the business’s medium-term growth trajectory. “You first have to imagine yourself in four years’ time as that bigger, better company, then look at the steps you need to take to get there,” he says.

Persuading people to part with money when they think things are working can be hard

Digital marketing agency Emerging Communications has gone through a similar set of exercises. The firm’s commercial director, Rachel Clarke, has been overseeing the project. She observes that SMEs “by their very nature, often don’t have a wide selection of choices with digital transformation. Budgets for custom-built digital platforms rarely exist, but there are options to choose from that can be tailored to your requirements, to some degree.”

Clarke scrutinised the company’s communications needs carefully before entering a contract with any supplier. Emerging Communications has offices in both London and Shanghai, meaning that some of her colleagues sit behind the Chinese firewall of internet censorship. Because Google is banned in China, the company adopted Microsoft’s digital workspace platform.

“That option gave us broadly what we needed and could be configured for some specific needs,” says Clarke, who thought she’d made the right choice when commissioning a contract with Microsoft 365. It was only after the technology was rolled out that she realised that it didn’t work as well with the company’s standard-issue Mac laptops as it would have done with PCs.

“In hindsight, we should have done some more research based on the hardware we’d be using, although I’m not sure we’d have ended up making a different choice,” she says, acknowledging that it might have proved a more serious issue for another company in a similar position.

Treat digital transformation as a priority

Hargrave believes that there’s a tendency among SMEs to view digital transformation as a non-essential project, rather than a business-critical priority.

“This is about future-proofing the business. It’s also part of continuity planning,” he says, referring to tasks such as procuring the right IT equipment to ensure that staff can work at home in an emergency – something that prepared BP Collins particularly well for the Covid lockdowns.

Presenting the importance of digital transformation in such terms can often help to win over sceptical colleagues, who are often those holding the purse strings.

Clarke acknowledges that “persuading people to part with money when they think things are working already can be hard. Budgetary constraints can be an issue. Fortunately, our CEO is very forward-thinking in this respect.”

When BP Collins was choosing a provider of a public-private cloud server, it sought out a similarly sized company. It’s an approach that Hargrave would recommend to any firm considering an IT partner.

“It’s important to match the size of their business to the size of your business,” he says. “There’s no point in going with a company for which you’d be among the smallest 10% of its clients. You need to be an important client to your provider, so you can get that meeting of minds.”

Clarke adds that it’s important to take the lead in this relationship, rather than being railroaded into accepting a solution that’s poorly suited to your firm’s needs.

“We identified our own working processes and what was important to us as a business,” she says. “Then they helped us to identify the solution that best met our requirements.”

If he had his time over again, Hargrave would have embraced the digital revolution even sooner. “I think we could probably have started this six months to a year earlier and reaped the benefits of that,” he says.

Striking when the appetite is there is one way to ensure a smooth digital transformation – so what are you waiting for?