A little automation goes a long way

Imagine this: You run a small business with a lean headcount of 10. There is the sales staff – hitting the phones to sell to existing clientele while chasing down new leads to convert. You have a finance head who doubles up as HR to keep track of payments, payroll and talent pipeline. As for you, perhaps you wear a multitude of additional hats. CMO, COO, CIO – pretty much anything else required to keep the business running.

Your team is constantly working long hours, crunching numbers in excel sheets, reviewing the rolodex to check who needs to be paid a visit, ticking off administrative duties and so forth. Then, you begin to notice a decline in profits and productivity, while your best employees move on to rival firms. It is a story that may sound all too familiar for many small and medium businesses (SMB).

But you may also notice a key missing link in the above – one that could make all the difference; and that is the implementation of technology. Much has been said about the number of SMBs turning to technology to transform their businesses and pull themselves out of ruts. However, there is still a vast number of them who remain unconvinced by the power of digital transformation. Common reasons cited include “lack of talent” or “lack of resources” – both here in Singapore and abroad. Governments and large firms have long extoled the virtues of technology and how it can boost productivity, staff retention and revenues, but why are there not enough SMBs buying into this?

Nuts about transformation

Of course, all of this is far easier said than done. There is, after all, a myriad of choices out there. According to an APAC SMB Digital Maturity Study done by Cisco, the top three technology investment priorities for SMBs include cloud, security and infrastructure upgrades. Equally, there could also be considerations around the likes of Artificial Intelligence, data analytics or even robotics. So, where do you start?

What is most crucial to remember is that “innovation” need not mean “overhaul”. Sometimes, it is small steps that can lead to big change. Let us consider, for example, local Singapore brand, Seng Hua Hng Foodstuff – better known as the manufacturer of beloved savoury snack, Camel Nuts. Their journey to digitalisation did not start with drastic changes to all levels of their business. Instead, leadership took the time to assess and prioritise where adopting technology would help the company address pressing issues.

They improved efficiency by taking arduous and manual processes (i.e. paper records, sales and inventory management) and converting them to automated, digitised systems.

Baby steps with automation

Automation may not present itself as the sexiest or most inspiring form of digitalisation, but there is a lot to be said for what it offers SMBs in terms of return on investment. For example, those with more mature technology divisions may have begun to branch out into areas such as customer engagement. Chatbots are increasingly being adopted to address frequently asked questions and to triage customer needs. This frees up employee time to focus on more unique cases that require dedicated attention.

Meanwhile, businesses at the very beginning of their journeys need not start so aggressively. Perhaps smoothing out the invoicing process, or even automating employee leave requests could make a difference in staff workloads, depending on your business. This ultimately means that your most valuable assets and resources – your people – can concentrate on higher-value tasks. This is ideal when talent is scarce, as is increasingly the case in our growing region. And nowadays, it need not cost an arm or a leg either. There are a plethora of apps available that can help automate these functions, many of which are free or available for a nominal subscription.

Rallying the troops

However, “automation” as a concept can be intimidating – if not for business leaders keen to innovate for the future, then for SMB employees that are fearful of change and being left behind in the past. Therefore, even when considering baby steps, it is important that small businesses have a clear vision of where they want to be heading. This could be aided by having more efficient processes that could help them to achieve that vision, along with communicating with employees on where they would fit into the mix.

Training and reviewing job scopes to make the most out of available human talent is key to successfully navigating the various steps of digitalisation. Indeed, the adage “leave no (hu)man behind” has never seemed more apt. Once troops are rallied and they are able to see positive results, they will understand where automation can help them to improve their own productivity.

Leadership also needs to be ready to acknowledge when the introduction of new technologies is not improving performance as anticipated. There is a brilliant example of a potato factory in Japan that gave up on having robots carve out potato eyes when the leaders realised that the machines did not have the required level of judgement to successfully complete the task.

Rome was not built in a day, but someone had to establish the first building blocks to get to the city that now stands. So why not take that first or next step? Simplify, start small, learn and scale and it could take you a long way.

Bidhan Roy | Managing Director, SMB, Asia Pacific, Japan & China | Cisco

Bidhan heads the Commercial and Small Business division at Cisco within the Asia Pacific region, Japan and China. He is responsible for driving the company's regional strategy. He has more than 20 years of IT management experience in the Asia Pacific region, spanning business transformation, M&A, strategic planning, partner lifecycle and stakeholder management.

Bidhan holds an Executive MBA from Harvard Business School and has called Singapore home for the last 10 years, where he resides with his wife and 12-year-old daughter.