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What digital transformation means for small businesses

Technology is part of every organisation, whether it's a small family-run business or a multinational that employs thousands of people. Whatever the size of a company, technology should be front of mind when it comes to delivering on business goals.

A recent survey by Yorkshire Bank found that clever adoption of technology is already having a substantial impact on companies at the smaller end of the scale. Technology-driven SMEs were more likely to say they find it easy to access funding for growth, according to the research. What's more, technology-driven SMEs were likely to be high growth, with most agreeing that technology is a key driver in the expansion of their business.

These findings show SMEs are at a turning point when it comes to technology – many of those surveyed said they find technology is now more important to their business than people.

While there are many strands of technology – both emerging and established – that are attracting interest from SMEs, there's one trend that underpins a great deal of any strategic IT change: digital transformation.

While often subject to some freewheeling definitions, digital transformation is fundamentally a drive to improve operations through the use of new digital technologies across the business as a whole.

Digital transformation can be done gradually and with step-by-step improvements, or through a rip-and-replace of entire systems. There's one thing that unites all approaches to digital transformation, however: a desire to do business better, be that by opening up new markets, improving back-end processes, outpacing rivals or going above customer expectations.

While digital transformation may conjure up images of huge IT spend, that doesn’t have to be the case: successful digital transformations should be structured as a way of saving costs or generating revenue – money that can be reinvested into the business, or used to finance the next stage of the transformation.

While digital transformation has been an established trend among larger companies for a number of years, SMEs are now also waking up to its possibilities. And there's good and bad news for small businesses looking to embrace digital transformation.

There's no set playbook on what strategy to pursue or which technologies SMEs will need to achieve their aims. Instead, digital transformation should be approached on a company-by-company basis.

That said, there are still lessons that small businesses can take from other SMEs – as well as larger businesses – that have already embarked on digital transformation. The first is to have a clear idea of what any digital transformation is trying to achieve, and then work backwards from there to identify which technologies are best suited to achieving those goals. Getting input from across the business ecosystem – from staff to partners, suppliers to customers – can help SMEs refine the strategy they're working towards.

For example, for those looking to cut back office costs, robotic process automation could be one solution. For those looking to streamline their financial processes, switching to cloud-based accounting and cashflow systems could be worthy of further investigation. For those looking to branch into new markets, digital payments technology could be the answer to making cross-border business a great deal easier. And if it's cutting IT costs and streamlining the tech function, it may be a case of replacing legacy systems with more agile, cloud-based alternatives.

It's important to view digital transformation as an ongoing process, rather than a one-and-done project. Changes in circumstances often prompt businesses to undertake a digital transformation, and change is the only constant in business, as the saying goes.

Once a small business has begun a digital transformation plan, it needs to ensure there's enough flexibility within the plan to ensure it can be adapted to future changes in the market, products, regulatory environment or customer needs.

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What digital transformation means for small businesses
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