Digital transformation: Key lessons from the pandemic

Digital transformation: Key lessons from the pandemic

COVID-19 forced businesses to accelerate the adoption of digital technologies – transforming some organisations forever. RMIT and industry experts reflect on some of the key lessons learnt from the pandemic when it comes to digital transformation.

The pandemic prompted European small and medium-sized entreprises (SMEs) to rethink and transform their business models and operational systems in ways to adapt and respond more effectively to the current global environment.

According to the European Commission report Unleashing the full potential of European SMEs, SMEs represent 50 per cent of Europe’s GDP – they’re key to the economy but before COVID-19, few had embraced the digitalisation needed to face the global pandemic.

As part of RMIT’s recent webinar series on business resilience and transformation during challenging times, European industry experts Virginia Lin and Joan Guasch Corominas joined RMIT’s Professor Anne-Laure Mention at an event hosted by RMIT Europe and facilitated by Dr Andrey Molotnikov to share their insights on the digital transformation of SMEs in Europe during the pandemic.

Remote working has skyrocketed

Mention, Director of the Global Business Innovation Enabling Capability Platform at RMIT University, said that the pandemic forced change in business across all industries.

"Back in March, our local shops and businesses closed indefinitely, and many of us moved to online working to start working and collaborating only virtually," she said.

"We've seen that digital transformation has shifted from being a strategic priority that maybe wasn't implemented or wasn't implemented to its fullest extent, to being a necessity; there was simply no other way to do business than to do business digitally.

"Many people claim they've maintained or improved productivity during COVID-19, especially when working on individual or managerial tasks, but fewer have done so on collaborative tasks," Mention said. 

"Employers need to unlock productivity on collaborative tasks – this is something companies will have to address."

Mention said that new models of working will offer greater access to talent but they'll also generate new challenges in terms of team interaction and social cohesion.

"We're going to have increasingly cross border workers, international workers and it'll be a real challenge for companies to make sure they can maintain team cohesion in that context, especially in hybrid models of working," she said.

"It's also about the empowerment of individuals and how we manage this net depletion of social capital through the lack of social bonds and social connectivity."

Digital transformation is a human affair

According to Mention, digital transformation is not just about technology – it's about putting people at the centre and facilitating the acquisition of digital skills.

"The reskilling and upskilling of workers should be an urgent priority for businesses and governments," she said. 

"There were fears that digital technologies were substituting rather than complementing human beings but over the last few months, we've seen that this isn't the case – digital technologies are only there to augment the capabilities that we as humans can provide.

"Digital transformation is a human affair – it's about putting people first and thinking and strategising about how digital transformation can help us and having humans at the centre of that.”

Alt Text is not present for this image, Taking dc:title 'Experts in Europe shared their views at RMIT's global webinar on SMEs embracing digitalisation during the pandemic.' Experts in Europe shared their views at RMIT's global webinar on SMEs embracing digitalisation during the pandemic.

Using digital technologies to improve business operations

Joan Guasch Corominas, Director of International Development and Public Programmes at Eurecat, shared examples of SMEs that have successfully used digital technologies during the pandemic.

"We've identified that during the pandemic, there have been many developments, not very disruptive, but differential in innovation," he said. 

"We've seen a lot of interest from industry when it comes to augmented and contactless realities to avoid human contact and virus transmission."

According to Guasch, regional government market analysis showed that during the pandemic 84 per cent of SMEs looked to expand to international markets, 69 per cent of SMEs implemented technologies necessary for working remotely and almost 30 per cent started developing new products and services with embedded digital technologies.

"One example of a local company successfully incorporating digital technologies has been a small winery that added a sensor to the label of its bottles to be able to monitor the humidity and the temperature during the life of the product," he said.

"From an app, customers can check the properties of the bottle to ensure optimal conditions at the time of consumption; it also has benefits in terms of transport and other logistic aspects."

Shift in customer experience and sentiment 

Virginia Lin, Business Director – UK, Europe and MENA for consultancy BrandsEye, said that the global pandemic has had a significant impact on the ability of businesses to provide products and services to customers.

"Studies conducted using public Twitter data showed that changes in supply chains due to COVID-19 impacted customer satisfaction," she said. 

"Customers became increasingly sensitive to pricing, stock levels, product choices and origins of products.

“Retailers in particular were criticised for not providing adequate protection for staff and customers when shopping in store while initiatives geared towards employee wellbeing had a positive impact on customer sentiment and brand reputation.

"Consumers have become very conscious of personal hygiene and wellbeing, so brands need to continue to provide security and comfort in the customer experience for both customers and employees.”

Lin, who is also an RMIT alumnus, concluded with some key lessons that SMEs can utilise from these studies.

“SMEs should understand and act quickly on customer needs across all channels traditional and digital, adopt digital tools to improve customer service and the customer experience across all journey points, use public data to research competitors and identify market gaps, as well as to communicate clearly with customers when there have been any issues or changes that could impact service delivery,” she said.

“Lastly SMEs should not forget that looking after their employees translates to happier customers.” 

Story: Patricia Lora

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