A survey by World Economic Forum indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased demand for more adoption and integration of digital technology among small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). However, they face numerous barriers to adopting technology at a critical time of need.
While 97% of global companies have accelerated adoption of technology to get through the pandemic, according to Forbes, Forum’s survey indicates that only 23% of SMEs were able to dedicate resources to new digital tools. SMEs are still scrambling to meet mandated health and safety measures, threatening their ability to stay operational.
“Three years ago, the Government of Brazil sounded an alarm on the urgent need to help support the modernization and competitiveness of small and medium-sized enterprises,” said Jeff Merritt, Head of Urban Transformation for the World Economic Forum. “The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified these challenges, underscoring the need for collective action from the public and private sector across the globe.”
“Having a better understanding on how COVID-19 is impacting SMEs is critical to the world economy,” said Lucas Camara, Executive Director of the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Brazil.
SMEs represent more than 90% of all companies globally and are the primary drivers of social mobility, creating 7 out of 10 jobs. Unfortunately, these companies are struggling to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution, endangering their own comparativeness in a global economy. The pandemic further emphasized the importance of business to be flexible and agile, and yet these digital resiliency tools are out of reach.
“The pandemic made it clear for many SMEs that to remain relevant, they must adapt quickly to our new reality and adopt technology that will allow them to stay in business,” said Erez Zaionce, Head of the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Colombia.
The survey of 141 SMEs from six countries that are part of the World Economic Forum’s Fourth Industrial Revolution Network – Azerbaijan, Brazil, Colombia, Kazakhstan, South Africa and Turkey – shows heightened demand among SMEs to integrate digital technology in business operations, particularly related to the industrial internet of things (IIoT), cloud computing, big data and artificial intelligence.
When asked about the different use cases most SMEs expressed interest in deploying technology to optimize processes, ensure safety and security, facilitate quality management, and manage workforce training and collaboration. Given the low level of automation and digitalization among SMEs, the report suggests an outsized opportunity for SMEs and digital solution providers to collaborate.
Despite the increase in interest in digital technology, only 23% of SMEs surveyed have said that the changes brought upon by the pandemic have led to the acceleration of their digitalization goals. While some of this investment was shelved due to the economic impact of the pandemic, the survey points towards the continued existence of barriers for a wider adoption of technology among SMEs. This includes limited availability and access to financial resources, lack of a skilled workforce and infrastructure to support digitalization.
Policy-makers have an important role to play in reducing barriers, aligning incentives for different stakeholders and creating an environment conducive to wider adoption and deeper integration of digital technology among SMEs. This will not only save jobs but also create new ones by raising awareness, supporting upskilling, providing financial assistance and building a collaborative environment to encourage wider adoption of technology.
“One of the priority directions of C4IR Kazakhstan is the implementation of IoT in various sectors of the economy,” said Pavel Koktyshev, Acting Head of the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Kazakhstan. “The centre has already formed partnerships with regional leaders and continues to work on forming a regulatory environment and a favourable ecosystem. These initiatives are effective on a country scale and provide great support for the recovery and sustainable development of SMEs after the pandemic.”