SMEs in the digital age

The rise of technology has brought the promise of automation and simplification of many tasks and is boosting the productivity of businesses. However, there are numerous challenges involved in implementing the digitization process.

A data center.

The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced SMEs' interest in digitization: according to the DigiBarometer, 92% of them said they wanted to accelerate their digital transition in 2021. However, a study conducted by the consulting firm PwC revealed strong disparities in this respect. While sectors such as media and telecommunications unsurprisingly show a particularly high degree of digitization, the energy and healthcare sectors are lagging behind. Another important factor is the average age of the management: the older the management, the less advanced the digitization process. Finally, the size of the company is a decisive factor, with large companies generally having greater digital maturity than SMEs.

"I have noticed that certain managers perceive digital transformation as an expense and not as an investment", notes Sébastien Kulling, director of the Digitalswitzerland Foundation. "A digital transformation strategy generally requires significant resources in terms of time and personnel", adds Bramwell Kaltenrieder, co-leader of the SwissICT digital transformation expert group. " This delay can also be explained by the resources, both financial and human, available to SMEs. For SMEs, setting up a new initiative with 10 people is a huge challenge, whereas it would be a relatively simple process for a large company."

Long-term transformation

Being part of a larger international network helps to avoid risky investments by following in the footsteps of sister companies. Thomas Hollinger, Managing Director of Elis Switzerland, a small rental and care company specializing in professional textiles, has chosen to embrace the digital revolution. The Zurich native admits, however, that being part of a larger group is an important advantage in implementing this development. "We can make use of processes that have already been tested and approved by branches abroad, which guarantees the quality and usefulness of a new tool." But that doesn't come without slowing the pace of the transition. "The process takes time, and our sector lacks the attractiveness of the profiles needed for the digital transition, so recruiting them is proving very complicated on an SME scale."

"Digital transformation consists of changing processes step by step", explains Sébastien Kulling of Digitalswitzerland. "This can be a source of some reluctance, as the Swiss business culture of perfectionism often seeks a perfect and immediate solution." Thomas Hollinger confirms that, despite how far Elis Switzerland has come, the digital transition is not over. "We have made the customer experience more fluid and personalized through better data management. Now we need to address the logistics aspects, implementing a cargo tracking system, which allows us to better organize deliveries."

A new field of expertise to explore

With so many new tools available, the question of staff adaptability arises in many companies, especially those that fail to attract the most qualified talent. Digital skills, while encompassing a wide range of abilities, sometimes with only computer interaction in common, are occasionally lacking, and the lack of mastery of these tools by staff is an impediment to their implementation and proper use.

For Bramwell Kaltenrieder of SwissICT, however, SMEs can play the flexibility card, an asset they a priori have more often than their larger counterparts. "Their strategy can be specifically to look for someone with advanced digital skills when filling existing or new positions, and thus be able to provide a new impetus in this area." Sébastien Kulling of Digitalswitzerland, meanwhile, proposes the creation of a digital skills assessment scale, much like the one that exists for foreign languages. " Cyber security and communication on social networks, for example, are two totally different areas. It's important to define as best as possible which skills the company needs and to what extent."


On the theme

Corporate Digital Responsibility

Digital transition also raises ethical questions. Companies, both large and small, are hosting an increasing amount of confidential personal data. In addition, the modernization of digital processes is often accompanied by massive data use for the purposes of efficiency and profitability.

To support this evolution, the Geneva School of Management has launched a training workshop for entrepreneurs wishing to strengthen their knowledge in this area. In addition, the institution provides a tool to evaluate the digital responsibility of its company (only in French) according to several criteria. While waiting for the new Federal Act on Data Protection to come into force on September 1, 2023, entrepreneurs can familiarize themselves with best practices for using digital resources in a way that is more in line with their values and customer concerns.

"In the context of digital transformation, public authorities play an important role in raising awareness," explains Sébastien Kulling, director of the Digitalswitzerland Foundation. "These best practices are highly recommendable, but they will have more effect if they are implemented by large organizations first."

Last modification 01.02.2023

Top of page

News and useful information for founders and entrepreneurs.