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Can rapid impact through digital upskilling become a reality for SMEs?

Aparna Bharadwaj and Munal Rathore
Aparna Bharadwaj and Munal Rathore • 6 min read
Can rapid impact through digital upskilling become a reality for SMEs?
In today’s rapidly digitalising world, there is an increasingly pressing need for SMEs to embrace digital upskilling / Photo: Firmbee.com via Unsplash
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YSH Farm, a traditional, family-run poultry business, is currently under the care of third-generation leaders. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the company faced a steep decline in its B2B (business-to-business) sales as restaurants were forced to shutter their doors. Without the digital means to penetrate the B2C (business-to-consumer) market, its competitive standing was at risk.

Unfortunately, YSH Farm’s story is a familiar one that echoes across many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In today’s rapidly digitalising world, there is an increasingly pressing need for SMEs to embrace digital upskilling.

How YSH Farm tackled its dilemma is a testament to the innovative spirit of the family. Le Tian, a third-generation owner, recognised that a digital pivot was essential to sustain their competitiveness, and thus enrolled in RISE for Business, a SkillsFuture Queen Bee programme delivered by Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

On the programme, Le Tian and her team acquired a suite of business and digital skills that enabled them to create a holistic marketing plan focused on brand awareness and engagement through new channels. They optimised YSH Farm’s social media campaigns and Search Ads through tools like Google Analytics, and also strategised to meet the unique needs of their business. In addition, YSH Farm leveraged BCG’s network and partnered Redmart to go direct-to-consumer, by launching a new B2C online grocery brand that is projected to result in an outstanding revenue growth of over 30%. They achieved all of this within six months, through an upskilling programme.

The digital upskilling challenge

The digital unpreparedness of many SMEs was starkly highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic, echoing the story of YSH Farm. In a time when digitalisation has become a lifeline, crafting effective digital strategies remains a significant challenge for smaller businesses. A prominent obstacle is the shortage of digitally skilled talent. SMEs, with their limited financial resources and competition from larger corporations, often find themselves last in line when accessing digital talent. This often leaves them with no choice but to groom in-house talents.

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Furthermore, many SMEs have a short-term perspective on upskilling, viewing it as time taken away from immediate tasks in a tightly resourced company. However, if we apply a more holistic growth mindset, upskilling is not just a cost, but a strategic investment that will allow SMEs to leverage digital as a means to grow the top line and bottom line. The onus to address this is, in our view, not on the SMEs alone. Skilling programmes also need to keep rapid impact in mind from day one, otherwise they are only delivering training and not true skilling.

As for SMEs, to navigate the digital divide more effectively, there must be a shift in thinking that recognises that rapid impact and upskilling go hand-in-hand. By seeing upskilling not as an isolated effort but as part of an ongoing strategy for impact, SMEs can enhance their competitiveness and long-term viability in a digital age.

The secret sauce to achieve impact-driven upskilling

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Local SMEs struggle with digital disruption to maintain relevance, competitiveness and resilience. From our experience analysing hundreds of SMEs in Singapore, we know that an impact-driven upskilling initiative should deliver positive impact to the bottom line, while not compromising on day-to-day operations. But first, how to crack the code to an upskilling strategy that is not just smart, but dollars and-cents savvy too? We believe there is a secret sauce to this.

Put theories into practice immediately, while being upskilled

Application-oriented learning propels employees to not only understand theory and frameworks, but to actively employ them in addressing real-time, pressing challenges of the business. It empowers them to become champions of transformation for their employers and generate immediate, tangible results. Essentially, you bridge the gap between learning and application, proving that upskilling is not just an expense, but an investment with swift returns.

A good upskilling programme ensures employees engage in upskilling, while directly contributing to business growth, and without detaching them from their everyday role. The upskilling programme enables them to do their jobs better — and as they continue to upskill, a never-ending cycle to accelerated growth becomes a reality.

Consider InsightOut, a performance marketing agency led by founder Mike and marketing manager Fang Ru, who embarked on an application-oriented digital upskilling journey amid hectic schedules. Unique to this programme was its focus on solving a company and function-specific challenge, tailored for rapid results. They harnessed newly acquired skills, guided by expert trainers, to tackle these real-world hurdles head-on. The outcome of this hands-on experience was nothing short of remarkable — a robust roadmap for digital growth set InsightOut on a trajectory towards an impressive goal: a projected 2x increase in revenue, all to be achieved within a mere 12 months.

Upskill and uplift the company, not just an individual

To be effective, skilling programmes must transcend conventional upskilling norms and embrace a fresh approach that elevates entire companies and departments — going beyond benefitting individual employees. This requires the learner and the upskilling programme to engage and motivate every key connection along the business delivery journey — from team members to influential decision-makers and sponsors.

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Senior sponsors play a particularly pivotal role across key touchpoints, helping to shape the business problem statement and providing the resources for the learner to craft and implement a roadmap to success. Bringing senior sponsors along in the upskilling journey allows SMEs to ensure key stakeholders adopt the outcomes, igniting transformative results within a remarkably short span of 6-12 months.

Take cue from PulseFusion, an IT services company facing manpower and growth challenges. Shahnan, the founder, took a digital upskilling course that supercharged his problem-solving skills. He shared these skills across the company, and together they streamlined processes and targeted an ambitious 4x growth in just three years, all the while addressing concerns about manpower costs. It is not just learning, it is rewriting the playbook for SMEs, propelling them towards growth.

Embrace upskilling as a strategic long-term investment

For SMEs to succeed in an increasingly saturated marketplace, agility is paramount, and digital upskilling is the key that will empower SMEs’ teams to tackle challenges head-on. In a labour market characterised by cutthroat competition, digital upskilling emerges as a smart, cost-effective alternative to traditional hiring for future-ready SMEs. What starts as an investment in skills soon unfolds into a far-reaching patchwork of resilience, innovation and prosperity, charting a path towards a brighter future for SMEs in the digital era. SMEs need to embrace this notion for themselves, to fully immerse themselves in the upskilling imperative.

When change is the only constant, continued success demands that SMEs reset their approach and redefine how they maximise value from government support. Developing a digital-savvy workforce is not just about acquiring skills — it is about reshaping mindsets by bringing everyone along the journey, invigorating business strategies, and embracing strategic investments as the cornerstone of progress.

The success stories are waiting to be written, and the pen is in your hand. The question is, are you ready to embrace it with arms wide open?

Aparna Bharadwaj is managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group. Munal Rathore is partner at Boston Consulting Group

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