Commentary

Digital-first mindset key to small firms maximising Budget 2019

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) play an essential role in the health of Singapore's economy, accounting for half of the country's gross domestic product and employing 65 per cent of its people.

It is therefore not surprising that Budget 2019 included specific measures to help small businesses embrace digital technology and improve the skills of their employees.

As Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said in his Budget speech last week, the measures were part of industry transformation efforts to position Singapore as a "global-Asia node of technology, innovation and enterprise".

Two major Budget 2019 initiatives for businesses are a Scale-up SG programme by Enterprise Singapore to help high-growth local firms innovate, grow and venture overseas, and an additional $100 million for a new SME Co-Investment Fund III.

Meanwhile, the SMEs Go Digital programme, which began in 2017, will be expanded to include a wider range of pre-approved digital solutions that small businesses can adopt readily.

Under this programme, small businesses can continue to apply for the Productivity Solutions Grant for funding of up to 70 per cent of the total cost when applying for a pre-approved solution, which lowers their cost of digitalisation.

A survey that United Overseas Bank (UOB) conducted late last year, with more than 500 small businesses in Singapore, found that more than half of the respondents had used the Productivity Solutions Grant in 2018.

Four in five respondents also said the grant was effective in such areas as raising productivity and strengthening digital capabilities.

THINKING DIGITAL

But while these measures are important, to succeed in today's digital economy, small business owners need to possess a digital-first mindset. This requires them to take the time to understand the benefits of technology for their business.

For owners who are uncertain about how to start their digital transformation, there are many avenues where they can seek advice.

For example, UOB and the labour movement's NTUC U SME have joined forces to organise monthly consultation workshops to help small businesses and their employees understand how they can use solutions like UOB BizSmart.

They can also receive practical guidance on how to use digital solutions to improve their businesses. Such workshops give small businesses a guiding hand, enabling them to adopt new technology more quickly and effectively.

Small business owners also need to develop an action plan to drive the adoption of digital solutions at the workplace.

The productivity gained through these solutions can help to overcome challenges such as rising costs, lack of manpower and limited budgets.

Meanwhile, businesses that are strengthening their technological capabilities can enrol for the SMEs Go Digital programme announced in Budget 2019.

Solutions such as UOB BizSmart under the SMEs Go Digital programme's Start Digital Pack can offer small businesses a simple and cost-effective way to manage and automate operational processes such as payroll, invoicing and inventory management more efficiently.

With UOB BizSmart, we have seen businesses almost halve the time spent on administrative tasks. This time can be directed to other more critical areas of the business.

By using the Start Digital Pack in the SMEs Go Digital programme, small businesses can also access and adopt e-commerce, customer engagement and online marketing solutions to increase their sales and revenue growth.

Together, these solutions can help a small business identify the right audience for its products, increase its customer base or retain existing customers by improving their experience.

More importantly, a digital-first mindset is one that seeks and develops ways to engage employees in the transformation journey.

KEY ROLE OF BUSINESS OWNERS

Based on our experience of working with small businesses, we see that owners with a positive mindset towards digitalisation are more likely to inspire their people to be open to the benefits of technology.

They are also the ones who will encourage their employees to upgrade their skill sets through initiatives such as the national SkillsFuture programme and Professional Conversion Programmes, which offer training for mid-career switchers.

The UOB survey also showed that three in five small businesses prioritise equipping their workers with digital skills this year.

The new Professional Conversion Programmes in the 2019 Budget will provide small businesses with more options to upskill their employees.

Mr Heng said in his Budget speech that "leaders of successful companies are those who are committed to raising the capabilities of their workers by redesigning jobs and reskilling their staff".

Similarly, a small business' digital transformation journey is successful only if its employees are on the same path too.

The 2019 Budget measures are a positive step to help small businesses accelerate their digitalisation journey to remain relevant, resilient and progressive.

But for that to take place, small business owners must first build a digital-first workplace culture and help their employees embrace the benefits of digitalisation.

They also need to know they are not alone in this process as they have the support of the Government, financial institutions and industry associations at every stage of their digitalisation process.

• The writer is the country head of business banking Singapore at United Overseas Bank.