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Digital Transformation Is a Business Differentiator in This Digital Age


Written by: Martin Dale Bolima, Tech Journalist, AOPG.

Businesses of all sizes have two choices: Digitalise and stay ahead or stick to the status quo but get left behind. This is the reality of the digital age, and organisations must be willing to embrace it.

It is particularly important that micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) stay the course in terms of digitalisation because the 71 million MSMEs in Southeast Asia comprise 97% of all businesses in the region. Meaning, these smaller businesses are essentially the lifeblood of the Southeast Asian economy, which means their success will largely determine whether or not the region will be making economic progress in the coming years.

That success, in turn, will rely in part on how these MSMEs go digital in this digital-first world. In fact, according to Don Howren, President and Chief Operating Officer at Altec, digitalising may very well mean the difference between being competitive and being run-of-the-mill.

“Small businesses around the world have to be nimble and be able to change at the slightest moment in order to remain competitive. And those organisations that embrace digital strategies have a chance to really outmanoeuvre their competition,” said Howren in an exclusive interview with Disruptive Tech Asia. “And if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that small businesses need to learn how to manage information in a very disparate workforce . . . . There’s a whole different set of requirements that businesses need to be flexible with—and one of the ways to be flexible is to be able to digitise.”

Setting Off Digitalisation With Automation

One way digitalisation serves as a game-changer is by expediting and streamlining the flow of content—or data—throughout the business, leading to information getting to the right person at the right time so they can “make smart, informed decisions.” Improving this information flow, incidentally, is among the many benefits of automation. In fact, the more businesses can automate the flow of data, the higher their chances are of outmanoeuvring their competition.

But herein lies the rub: How do businesses even start?

Howren’s first recommendation is to identify business processes “ripe for automation”—specifically, those processes that see lots of manual interaction between content and paper. The goal then should be to streamline these same processes as doing so will allow the business to “move a lot more content faster” and do it “with a higher degree of accuracy.” This, again, will allow people to make more informed business decisions that are more likely to benefit the organisation.

“Small businesses around the world have to be nimble and be able to change at the slightest moment in order to remain competitive. And those organisations that embrace digital strategies have a chance to really outmanoeuvre their competition,”

MSMEs, in particular, can start by automating their financial back office processes, particularly in the accounts payable and purchasing aspects. Most MSMEs, according to Howren, are “drowning in paper” in these areas, and this can be problematic as the business grows since said processes will be more resource-intensive. Automation addresses that problem by converting information from these areas into digital formats, thereby allowing organisations to “do more with less”—ingesting more content, reducing human errors and serving customers better.

A Journey, Not a Destination

Businesses, however, cannot treat digitalisation and automation as a sprint and try to do everything all at once. Instead, MSMEs need to take a longer view approach, automating one process at a time only (or maybe even two), benefitting from it and then moving on to the next process. And a business can start this journey by putting or integrating all its content or data into one place, as doing so opens up a variety of other benefits. Among these benefits are ease of doing work, faster document/information retrieval and cost savings.

Howren cites an example, the seemingly mundane act of retrieving a document, like an invoice or a purchase order upon the request of a customer. This task, according to Howren, often “sets off a cascade of challenges” because said document may not be readily available, or it could be somewhere else or have been misfiled. In this situation, the cost of filing the document and retrieving it, which is usually USD $20, can go as high as USD $120. That is not to mention the effort that comes into searching for said document and the time it will take to complete the task.

The said scenario seems rather simplistic but it happens more often than businesses would care to admit, and it is resource-intensive—costing the organisation plenty in the way of money, effort and labour. It is also a scenario that automation, with the help of AI and Machine-Learning (ML), can help prevent.

“The idea that an organisation can put all their content in one place, have it integrated into their ERP system and streamline the flow of that content in the business is a powerful saving [means] and an ROI that you can enjoy very quickly,” said Howren. “That’s a great place to start, and from there, you start looking at other processes. It is a journey, not a destination. It is something you will constantly be refining, and small businesses will have the opportunity to take small bites out of this problem instead of swallowing it whole all at once.”  

Rethinking Routines, Finding a Means to an End

Ultimately, the overriding idea in all of this is to let machines take over routine, repetitive tasks. The rationale, as Howren so eloquently puts it is, “If it’s routine, why do we have to interface with it?” The idea in this case is simple enough and makes perfect sense. The problem is the execution. How exactly can businesses, particularly the smaller ones, do away with routine, repetitive tasks?

The answer, it turns out, is just as simple: Find the right technology partner, one with the means to the end—the end being automation and facilitating digital transformation. Fortunately for businesses, there are plenty of tech companies with the capability to help organisations with their automation, AI and digitalisation needs. And one of them happens to be Altec, whose expertise as explained by Howren, is on business processes and around understanding how content flows within a business—and streamlining and automating that flow.

“Businesses cannot treat digitalisation and automation as a sprint and try to do everything all at once.”

Finding that tech partner is one thing. Actually starting that digital transformation journey is another. It is the first step, and it is admittedly hard, which is why quite a few business leaders are hesitant to even begin. But as Howren pointed out, it is “a necessary journey to be competitive,” and business leaders will have to be ready to make the investments needed to get this journey off the ground.

“The biggest piece of advice I would give to [business leaders] is to recognise this [digital transformation] is a journey and not a destination,” Howren advised. “Take small bites of the apple, pick something that you can put your arms around, that you can measure, something that you can deploy at a relatively reasonable amount of time and start seeing a return on that investment. You have to be ready to make this investment and do it in a structured way. ”

It is not going to be easy. But the journey will be worth it.