Digitisation in SMEs. First steps to the digital transformation

03/12/2019 Consulting

In recent years, just one in four small and medium-sized enterprises has invested in modern technologies. This is clearly not enough, considering the numerous possibilities that arise, above all, for the added value of a company. In order to realize the fourth industrial revolution, small and medium-sized enterprises need two things in particular. They must react more quickly. And each individual company must develop an overarching digitalization strategy to avoid being overwhelmed by the multitude of possibilities. Why is there such scepticism in SMEs about digitisation and what could be the first steps towards initiating transformation in their own companies?

Does the middle class fear digitization?

In fact, the majority of these companies still have major deficits in terms of digitisation. Only almost one-fifth of German SMEs pursue a comprehensive digitization strategy. Although many companies are expanding their digitization, most of them are doing so in very small and vague steps. One reason for this are financing problems. Even if the costs for digitisation projects remain within reasonable limits, the impression remains that the costs are far higher than the benefits which are initially perceived. This is a deterrent.

Furthermore, there are concerns about data protection and data security. These issues naturally weigh more heavily on digitisation projects than on traditional innovation projects. This is accompanied by the fear of rising personnel costs and the concern as to whether the company can afford its own IT competence. In addition, low internet speed is also often quoted as the reason for a lack of digitisation projects.

Small and medium-sized enterprises are confronted with a number of aspects that make it difficult to decide in favour of digitisation and, in particular, slow down rapid action. For small and medium-sized enterprises, the first step is to remove these obstacles. But even if this happens, the fact remains that SMEs usually lack a comprehensive digitisation strategy. Many small, undefined steps have little impact.

It would be more important if companies learned from other pioneering companies and dared to shift their priorities. Instead of always investing in new technologies, it is worth relying on IT-related skills, networking and organisational strategies. The networking of information and communication within the company should definitely gain in importance. The use of new applications and the development of internal company competencies should be the focus of attention for medium-sized companies in order to tackle digitisation on a broad scale.

Tools and Gadgets for SMEs - What exactly makes sense?

Not every company needs to conduct employee calls via Skype or increase the dropbox volume monthly. It is less important for SMEs to be at the forefront of the digitisation wave. Rather, it is a matter of modernizing your own business processes in a meaningful and well thought-out way in order to increase efficiency in your daily work processes. Every company must therefore ask itself in advance what digitization can actually do in the company and for which areas it is useful.

For customer administration and communication, CRM tools can be used for customer care that are already useful for a small circle of customers. The time-consuming search for documents is a matter of the past with such programs as Odoo. Accounting and financial management can also save an enormous amount of time with tools such as FastBill. Quotations and invoices can be created faster, working times can be recorded and the complete financial management can be regulated without producing stacks of paper. Even for small companies such a program pays off, which can be used on the road. Applications such as Securesafe or Dropbox can be used for uncomplicated data and document management. In this way, all employees and managers can always access documents and keep them up to date. To improve self-management, employees could set up a "digital memory" and try Evernote, for example. The team version costs €12 per user per month and allows you to store, organize and search notes and ideas.

There are numerous opportunities for smaller companies to organise projects and work. With the web version and the app Asana, you can share to-do lists within a team. Up to 15 employees can use this solution free of charge to coordinate team work, share and assign tasks - and thus plan projects quickly and efficiently. Links, tasks and projects can also be listed and shared with Odoo, the Wunderlist and Trello applications.

Customer communication via e-mail is an important and effective marketing tool for medium-sized businesses. The Mailchimp program can help, for example, with the administration and sending of e-mails. It can be used to plan campaigns, use templates and manage newsletter distribution lists. The Cleverreach and Newsletter2go applications work in a similar way. And if the files and attachments are too large for the e-mail attachment, Wetransfer and Dropbox can help. These file hosting services allow you to send large files. Wetransfer in particular is a good alternative to Dropbox. This service is free of charge and it is not about permanently storing files, but only about sending large files of up to 2 GB to one or more recipients.

A further essential aspect for the mid-sized business is the own representation and external effect in the Social Web and on the company-owned web page. This topic is usually neglected with SME. But even here digital applications can bring some relief. With the Canva application, graphics for social media and blog posts - but also for flyers, posters and business cards - can be designed easily, free of charge and without design knowledge. Especially medium-sized businesses are often afraid of these challenges of image processing, because this is often cost-intensive and demands additional qualifications from the employees. With the help of editing programs such as Canva or Fotor, medium-sized companies can tackle this challenge.

But there are also tools for merchandise management and logistics that make the workflow more efficient. For example, small online shops that take care of all processes themselves can use the shop system from WooCommerce. The widely used e-commerce platform is based on the well-known WordPress website construction kit and offers numerous functions for individualization. The integration into WordPress is free of charge - only additional features are charged additionally.

SMEs need user-friendly solutions for digital processes

There are thousands of tools on the market, but not all of them make sense. And even less are suitable for the SME. Why? Because many SMEs have grown quite differently from start-ups, for example. And because they often hesitate to face the challenges of digitisation, and in some cases with good reason. It is therefore essential for the use of tools in companies that they are absolutely user-friendly. IT experts recommend paying particular attention to three criteria. In any case, the respective tool must be partially or completely cloud-based. Why? Because cloud solutions do not require their own IT infrastructure. This saves costs, the data is stored by professionals and small companies without IT competence avoid another challenge. However, companies that manage particularly sensitive data should consider investing a little more and storing the data locally on their own server.

Furthermore, the respective tool should be mobile. The times when every step of the process was performed on a desk with fixed programs have passed. Mobile solutions can be used on the go via smartphones and tablets and, even more importantly, by different employees at different locations.

In addition, it makes sense to use a mature tool, a number of services are now also available at a reasonable price. Numerous programs also enable complex processes such as project management and can be used free of charge or for little money. Usually a free sample month is offered, which leaves the possibility to the enterprise to decide whether the respective Tool fits or not. Most Abo models depend price-wise on the number of the users. This means that smaller companies can calculate with manageable sums.


Small and medium-sized enterprises should not rely on digitisation just for the sake of digitisation. If they can advance their core business with modern software solutions, then it makes sense to get involved with the various tools. However, it is absolutely essential to consider in advance what the innovations are actually supposed to achieve. For medium-sized businesses it is essential not to lose track of all the offers and to weigh up exactly which tasks require new software and which do not.

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