The challenge facing small UK businesses adapting to the new digital world

All businesses face challenges when they have to adapt to major changes in their competitive landscape.  This is no different for those adapting to competitive pressures brought about by digital technology. E-commerce, shorter lead times, changing customer expectations and competitors emerging from far flung corners of the earth.

From years of experience helping small businesses implement needed transformation, the more critical, urgent and radical the transformation that is needed, the greater the problems.

When you think about it there many reasons why some may be reluctant to embrace digitisation though:

  • It invariably requires different types of skills and an ability to interact with and utilise online processes. Although these skills are becoming almost second nature to the younger generation, not everyone has them or in some cases wants them! Employees will also worry that it could lead to job losses as processes are automated and those without the skills may no longer be perceived as valuable.
  • It can also radically change the way we interact and communicate with others. Arguably, we spend less time engaging and communicating face to face which has profound social and cultural ramifications.  It can affect employee morale and customers may feel they are no longer getting a personalised service (and by assumption an inferior service).
  • Service providers may fear that it will create opportunities for their services to be brought in-house or that their services will become redundant. Same for local suppliers who fear that their customer will be able to access product from almost anywhere in the world.

So what is the moral to this story?

That although we may assume the biggest challenge to transforming our business is the cost (e.g. capital expenditure, new technology, re-training) experience also tells us that the major roadblocks often come from unexpected directions!

Typically from people and other organisations who we will have to rely on.  Stakeholders if you like. Rick Maurer wisely highlights that organisational change frequently fails because “They don’t like it.  They don’t want it.  They don’t like you.”  That is key stakeholders won’t support the transformation needed because it threatens them, they can’t see how it will benefit them or perhaps feel that those pushing for things to change have selfish motives.

So, just because you may feel you have no choice but to radically transform the way things are done (the need may seem blindingly obvious to you) don’t be surprised when everyone doesn’t agree! Others may prefer the status quo because it better serves their immediate needs.

What can you do therefore to make this process easier and increase the chance of success?

Go into the process with your ducks in a row, the right team behind you and aware that it is unlikely to be plain sailing.  More specifically:

  1. Make sure what you are planning will meet the strategic needs of the business – no one likes change for change sake!
  2. Pull together a team of those with sufficient clout and commitment to support the roll out and champion the cause. A “guiding coalition” as John Kotter describes it. These “champions” can come from anywhere inside your organisation (not just senior management) and even outside the business (e.g. key customers, suppliers, bank).
  3. Make sure your organisation is capable of implementing your plan. Does it have the resources (e.g. finances, skills, manpower, technology)?  If not, you will need to have plan for securing those vital resources (e.g. outsourcing, new investment etc).
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate – we can’t stress how important this is. Letting others know what is going on and why is key to getting them on board.
  5. Working with your “guiding coalition”, identify potential roadblocks with key stakeholders (e.g. employees, customers, suppliers, investors) and have a plan to deal with them.
  6. Once you are clear on what needs doing and why and that it is capable of being implemented then be decisive and consistent with that implementation – anything less undermines trust and commitment from others and risks the good idea withering on the vine.
  7. Don’t rely entirely on short term wins as a barometer for success, albeit they are very helpful to keep others motivated. It is easy for things to slip back to the old ways of working.  Try and keep the momentum up. Use that transformation to identify and target further areas for improvement whilst recruiting, promoting and continuing to train to embed those new ways of working so your vision becomes reality and “the way things are done here”.
  8. Above all, don’t give up. Expect wobbles and bumps in the road. Radical transformation needs pragmatism, dogged determination, commitment and stamina from those leading it.

There are many scientific ways of approaching major transformation and John Kotter’s Eight Stage Change process is one of my favourites and a good starting point.  However, these steps may seem overly complicated, structured and overwhelming for those trying to get new things done in small and SME businesses.

However for SME’s, starting the transformation built on a foundation of sincere motives, consistent and committed leadership, excellent communication, a willingness to engage and empower others and to recognise their needs, will always improve the chances of success regardless of the overall approach. Transformation is invariably a team effort!

If you would like to find out more about how Bix can help your business face the challenges of tomorrow with the help of digital technology then please email us at [email protected] or by phone 01524 412167.

Digital Transformation