Automation and Digitisation: The 2020’s Challenge for SMEs

Guest Post by Ian Gosling, Founder of AUTTO.

What a rollercoaster of a year 2020 has been. It’s a year which has greatly accelerated trends that were already underway like e-commerce, working from home and digitisation. I can’t help wondering if this year has set the agenda for the whole decade.

I have friends whose businesses have been victims of this year’s events and who have had to shrink their businesses to survive. But others have been able to seize an opportunity. About eight years ago, I helped write the first business plan for a food e-commerce business. It has been growing steadily and successfully since then, but between March and June this year, their business grew 400%. They had four years of growth in three months. It was a great problem to have, but it put a lot of strain on their business. They had invested early in technology and lean operational processes, and with a lot of hard work, they were able to manage this growth successfully.

Perhaps surprisingly, the characteristics of businesses who have ‘successfully’ managed a downturn in their fortunes this year are much the same as those who have successfully managed growth.

Both groups have built an operational platform for their business, a set of lean processes and procedures that maximised their efficiency. Both groups have digitised those processes and systems so they can be tracked, monitored and managed efficiently. Critically, they have automated routine tasks as much as possible to scale-up, and if necessary, down easily.

A focus on automation as part of a lean business operating platform means that a company can flex volume up and down with market demand. If your company can automate routine work, then if sales go up, you need fewer extra people to meet that demand. Or, if sales go down, you are carrying a smaller fixed cost base, and the business can absorb the shock more effectively.

While SME’s have been conscious of digitisation for a few years now, automation is much newer for SME’s. Automation has been happening in big enterprises of the service industry for about ten years now. This technology has only recently become available to SME’s, first in marketing and now in operations.

Lean automation can deliver time savings of 75-99% on routine work and perhaps significantly increase accuracy. While it’s overstating the case to say most businesses can be completely automated (they cannot), these kinds of gains can dramatically increase a team’s capacity. That means when your company finds itself on the type of rollercoaster ride that we’ve had this year, your team has the time and ability to manage the ups and downs.

Similarly, one of the critical benefits of digitisation is the ability to scale up or down quickly and seamlessly. Cloud-based software gives SME’s the option to increase or decrease capacity with the click of a few buttons of a website. You can scale up your communications capacity quickly with a cloud-based PBX far more easily than you can with a conventional phone system.

One of the advantages of digitisation that perhaps we had not appreciated so much until this year is that modern cloud-hosted digital services do not care where you are in the world. They don’t care if you are at home or in the office as long as you can log in. Not every employee in every business can work from home, but there is no doubt that more digitised companies found this transition much more straightforward.

Automation and digitisation deliver SME’s greater efficiency and lower costs. They also produce a more resilient business, and in times like these that may be just as valuable.


AUTTO is an easy-to-use business and office automation platform, designed for small and medium enterprises.

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