Robust digital strategy key to success for exporting SMEs

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Conor O'Donovan

After the challenges of the last 18 months, recovery is most definitely on the agenda and it’s time once again for companies to look at ways in which they can grow and increase business now and into the future.

While exploring new markets continues to be a vital strategy for growth, another important consideration is optimising your business offerings through digitalisation.

According to the World Economic Forum, more than $3.1trn (€2.6trn) in productivity gains could be added to the global economy by digital initiatives by 2025.

Clearly, adopting a digital transformation strategy should be a priority for businesses — but it’s vital to ensure your strategy is both effective and sustainable into the future.

Digitalisation can bring Irish businesses many benefits. For instance, on a more basic level, business processes can be streamlined by implementing a CRM or cloud-based technologies. At a more advanced stage, automation could be used to streamline manual repetitive tasks, or data analytics and AI could predict trends that impact business and provide real-time customer or supplier information.

Implementing an effective and sustainable digital strategy can present some challenges for Irish SMEs, however. For instance, many businesses that don’t have prior knowledge or experience in the digital world might not know where to begin or who to consult about their digital strategy.

This can make them fearful about wasting money on the wrong product or advice.

Accessing strategic and technical skills is another key challenge, along with adopting a digital mindset across the company. And, not surprisingly after such a tough 18 months, financing a digital strategy can be difficult for Irish SMEs.

The good news is that Enterprise Ireland has a number of aids, both financial and advisory, to help Irish SMEs adopt and adapt a successful digital strategy.

Utilising these supports can help and the benefits that come from implementing a successful digital strategy are substantial. Furthermore, such a strategy is essential for the sustainability of businesses in a future in which digital technologies will play an increasingly important role.

The first step in formulating a digital strategy is to pinpoint why you need one. What business objective does it address? Will it find new customers or optimise sales with existing ones? Could it make production more efficient or produce valuable data that could inform strategic decision making?

These are just some of the questions to ask when first looking at a digital plan.

A key preparatory step is to review and optimise processes to ensure your business is maximising value and minimising waste before implementing any digital technology – as an inefficient process will stay inefficient after digital.

This may require your business to adopt a ‘Lean’ business model; both Enterprise Ireland and the Local Enterprise Offices offer Lean programmes to support this.

Thirdly, you need to ensure that everyone in the company is onboard with digitalisation.

Digital strategies will only work if people at the senior levels and across the organisation understand the possibilities with digital, see the benefits to the business and champion its adoption.

Developing a digital mindset is key; multiple programmes to help with this are available from Skillsnet, the Irish Management Institute and others.

Finally, it’s vital to research thoroughly the type of technology you are planning to use to make sure it’s the best to suit your strategy.

You must also assess it as part of a multi-year overall business plan to ensure interoperability as new technology comes on stream. Otherwise, you may encounter expensive and time-consuming integration and data extraction issues.

To help Irish exporters in formulating a digital strategy, Enterprise Ireland offers the new ‘Digital Ready’ scorecard, a short self-assessment online tool enabling businesses to assess their current digital readiness. The tool also signposts supports from Enterprise Ireland, the Local Enterprise Offices and across Government.

Enterprise Ireland also offers eligible companies a €9,000 fully-funded voucher for spending on independent advice when developing their digital strategies.

Conor O’Donovan is head of marketing communications and the client digitalisation unit at Enterprise Ireland. Full information on these and more supports from Enterprise Ireland is available at