Perseverance, collaboration and ‘quick wins’ were the focus of a workshop on SME digitalisation hosted by PPMI in collaboration with the European Commission on November 10.
The event was attended by approximately one hundred participants from more than 20 European countries. Attendees included representatives from businesses, Digital Innovation Hubs, public sector organisations, research and academia.
During the workshop, the participants discussed actionable best practices and advice that industrial SMEs can apply to accelerate their digitalisation journeys. This workshop was part of a series of events taking place in the scope of the Smart Industrial Remoting study. Recordings and presentations from the workshop are available on the bottom of the page.
The workshop was opened by Egidijus Barcevičius, Research Director at PPMI, and Heidi Cigan, Senior Policy Officer at DG CNECT of the European Commission. During opening remarks, speakers presented the objectives of the workshop: to present and collect participant feedback on digitalisation best practice principles developed during the study and to discuss how SMEs can advance in their digitalisation journeys more broadly.
Eight principles to guide SME digitalisation
Rūta Gabaliņa, Senior Researcher at PPMI, shared the company digitalisation best practice principles developed as part of the study. Her presentation drew evidence from case studies of companies in five industries – construction, textile, agrifood, automotive and retail – that successfully implemented digital technologies.
Based on these case studies, the research team developed eight best practice principles. The principles describe behaviours that can facilitate digitalisation regardless of the company size, digitalisation level or the chosen technology. A summary of the eight best practice principles is included below.
Panel discussion highlights perseverance as a key success factor
The first presentation was followed by a panel discussion on how SMEs can make these best practice principles a reality. The panelists included Irina Toma, Coordinator of FIT EDIH, Katrin Schade, Research Associate at the University of Leipzig, Cătălin Podaru, General Manager of Leviatan, and was moderated by Barbora Kudzmanaitė, Research Manager at PPMI.
The speakers highlighted the importance of considering company business processes, customers and needs carefully before embarking on digital transformation. As Katrin Schade explained, ‘companies develop very differently and at different times (..). There are companies that have been on the market for 20 years and digitalised when no one was thinking about interfaces yet. Then you have new companies that have all the opportunities and are totally different in their mindset.’
Panelists also emphasised how communicating the need for digitalisation is important for effective change management. Cătălin Podaru stressed the importance of change champions: employees who support and promote digital transformation inside the company.
‘It was important in our case that we had a group of champions or early adopters with a change mindset that were part of process mapping, process change and experimenting.’
Cătălin Podaru, General Manager, Leviatan
Furthermore, speakers addressed what companies can gain by engaging with the wider ecosystem. As Katrin Schade stated, ‘collaborations with academia, ministries, cities and other organisations and institutions are very important to promote change management.’
To help SMEs benefit from the ecosystem, European Digital innovation hubs (EDIHs) will play an important role as matchmakers. Irina Toma noted: ‘we must figure out how to become closer to companies and offer services that they really need to become more digitally mature. I think this is our mission as Digital Innovation Hubs. We are very excited to work with companies in the coming years on these issues.’ Panellists also highlighted how the EDIH Digital Maturity Assessment could help companies evaluate and benchmark their progress towards digitalisation, comparing it to a ‘navigation compass’.
According to the panel, the costs and benefits of digitalisation are not always possible to quantify. For example, the value of improved customer experience and increased awareness of a company’s offering can be difficult to estimate. Therefore, approaching digitalisation as a long-term endeavour and not giving up when technologies do not immediately ‘pay off’ is important. As Cătălin Podaru put it: ‘in our case, digitalisation is a long-term strategic decision in terms of benefits. One of the words I wrote down (during strategic planning) was ‘perseverance’, because this is very important.’
The EDIH network will help to reduce barriers to SME digitalisation
After the panel discussion, Heidi Cigan presented what the European Commission is doing to promote industry digitalisation best practices. She highlighted the importance of technology uptake in the European Union for increasing economic growth, competitiveness and resilience to external shocks.
Europe faces several challenges in digitalisation, such as the slow uptake of advanced technologies and the relatively low digital intensity of SMEs. In response to these challenges, the European Commission has set ambitious objectives as part of the Digital Decade policy.Heidi Cigan explained that, while the European Commission still focuses on the cutting edge and advanced technologies, the focus has shifted towards spreading the benefits of digitalisation throughout the economy and society.
‘In the past focus was on high-tech innovation and research, whereas a lot of the programmes and projects we are implementing now are going further in supporting the digitalisation of the economy overall.’
Heidi Cigan, Senior Policy Officer at DG CNECT of the European Commission
The EDIH network will play an important role in reducing the barriers to SME digitalisation. This will be achieved by using services such as the Digital Maturity Assessment, advice, test-before-invest, matchmaking and other services.
Need for approachable ‘best practices’
The final presentation of the workshop was by Julian Müller, professor at Kufstein University of Applied Sciences. He discussed how the concept of ‘best practice’ is often linked with state-of-the-art technologies, which are not accessible for many SMEs. ‘The question of ‘low-hanging fruit’ and approachability is one we often forget,’ Julian Müller explained, ‘not all SMEs are the same. It is kind of self-explanatory, but still, I cannot emphasise it enough: you cannot put SMEs which are more behind in the same observation or give them the same hints or programmes as for leading SMEs.’
Julian’s presentation highlighted how simpler and more affordable technologies can make digitalisation more accessible for SMEs. For example, instead of investing in state-of-the-art technologies, SMEs can choose to retrofit existing machinery or involve students in developing new solutions. Furthermore, SMEs can cooperate with the wider ecosystem to share costs for digital tools, infrastructure, maintenance and support.
Iteration and ‘quick-wins’ help secure buy-in for transformation
During the workshop participants had an opportunity to share their views on the best practice principles presented earlier in the day and actionable advice companies can use to successfully adopt digital technologies.
Workshop attendees highlighted that securing the skills and managerial capacity necessary for digitalisation were the most challenging principles to implement in practice. To ease the transition, SMEs can adopt new technologies through an iterative process and ‘learning by doing’. So-called ‘quick wins’ – simple initiatives with a high likelihood of being successful – were suggested as a good place to start to secure employee buy-in at the beginning of a transformation.
Some highlights from the session are available below.What’s next?
Keep an eye out for our future events! The next workshop in this series will take place in April 2023 and cover the results of five digitalisation experiments with companies. If you have questions for the team or wish to join our mailing list, you can always reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recording and the presentations from the workshop are available below.