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Availability, cost and training: the main obstacles to ICT implementation by SMEs and the self-employed according to a survey by eAPyme and ESADE

Josep Lluís Cano, ESADE professor, “The ICTs that contribute most to PMEs and the self-employed are those related to mobility, providing they are available”

“The digitisation of SMEs, and particularly its success or failure, will be a key factor in the future evolution of Spain’s economy,” said Mario Buisan, general manager of Industry and SMEs in the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness, during the presentation of the report “The digital transformation of SMEs and the self-employed” by eAPyme and ESADE in conjunction with the entities that represent the seven industries belonging to this association. Against this backdrop, Buisán added that “the Department of Industry supports the digital transformation of SMEs by providing lines of credit and advisory programmes specifically designed to facilitate their transition to the digital world.”

Álvaro Carrillo de Albornoz, president of eAPyme, pointed out during his speech that “it is necessary to establish reliable communication channels between the authorities and industry representatives in the realm of private enterprise in order to provide robust and exact information about the needs to be catered for by funding and subsidies, and also to enable them to be even more useful to the Spanish business ecosystem.”

This study, under the auspices of eAPyme and drafted by the ESADE professor Josep Lluis Cano,  complements the results of the 2016 e-SME Report by ONTSI (Spain’s observatory of telecommunication and the information society). It compiles opinions from seven industries – accommodation and hotels, food and beverages, logistics, urban distribution of goods, crafts, information and communication technologies, and professional services – that belong to the eAPyme association or have helped with the report, such as the FIAB, about the extent to which ICTs are currently incorporated into companies, the extent of their digital transformation and what they need in order to increase their optimisation.

Josep Lluís Cano considers that, “SMEs and the self-employed are adopting ICTs from a strategic standpoint. They know they add value to their in-house management, customer relations and supplier integration, but they still face obstacles when it comes to resources, digital training for staff, availability and a lack of standards.” The ESADE professor added that “the ICTs that add the most value are those related to mobility – providing they are connected.”

Benefits of ICT investment

The report “The digital transformation of SMEs and the self-employed” emphasizes that both SMEs and the self-employed understand how important ICTs are for their companies. In this respect, the study reveals that SMEs and the self-employed use ICTs in their companies mainly for in-house reasons and other reasons related to their customers, market, brand and communication, and also in themselves as tools for working with third parties, and for vertical and strategic integration.

From an in-house, corporate viewpoint, those surveyed consider that ICTs not only improve and facilitate their work, but also streamline their daily procedures and operations and, therefore, improve their productivity and traceability. However, this aspect is critical for some subsectors such as the food industry and logistics considering the need to automate certain processes.

Companies also believe that another advantage of ICTs is their ability to improve customer relations by enabling faster and more direct communication, and providing more in-depth knowledge of the market, its segments and potential value. Companies are also aware of the value they add to their brand image, reputation, positioning and visibility.

Another aspect also mentioned by the companies surveyed regards staff training in digital skills. They think this is essential so that their workers can generate direct sales without the need for technological platforms and also to create more opportunities for SMEs and the self-employed to collaborate with third parties.

Main obstacles and demands

The report “The digital transformation of SMEs and the self-employed” reveals that supply, costs and in-house staff and training needs are the main obstacles faced by SMEs and the self-employed when incorporating ICTs into their business model.

According to the SMEs and self-employed surveyed for this report, these difficulties are due to the plethora of available solutions which, they say, do not always cater for their needs. Another factor which they say affects the implementation process, is a lack of personnel and financial resources. They emphasise that in order to reverse this trend, public subsidies are needed for ICT acquisition and upkeep and for digital training for their employees, because they are aware of the positive impact that these tools have on the positioning and visibility of their companies, both on-line and off-line.

Another aspect that SMEs and the self-employed deem essential in order to make ICT more effective is connectivity, i.e. internet access. They regard it as vital for their day-to-day activities but in some of the realms they work in, internet access is sometimes insufficient and drags their productivity down. SMEs and the self-employed also feel that if ICTs are to perform well, they must be implemented from the top-down, i.e. by understanding the value they contribute to the company and by defining their use and the goals to be achieved with them.

On the other hand, the companies surveyed said that companies themselves must be less reluctant to change, that suppliers must incorporate as many services as possible and cater for the needs of each sub-sector, that the authorities must establish homogeneous processes and technologies, and that employees must have greater access to training.

In this respect, Carrillo de Albornoz emphasised the need for further training which would facilitate the digitisation of smaller companies. He pointed out that “there is a significant technological gap between SMEs and the self-employed on the one hand, and big companies on the other, bearing in mind that the solutions and tools on the market are designed mainly for big companies with more resources and overlook the specific needs of SMEs and the self-employed which together account for the largest percentage of Spain’s business fabric.”