Feature: COVID Era Digital Transformation
by Jeff Buckstein
Back in 2008, Margo Crawford wanted to create a practical, sustainable solution to support what she viewed as an underserved small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) community.
Crawford saw that SMEs, in spite of driving much of our economy, had few options in shoring up their internal business functions. Their smaller size and the demands of the business didn’t leave room for complete internal teams. Inspired by their potential and having experienced first-hand the struggles of being in start-up and scaling organizations, she founded and became president and CEO of Ottawa-based Business Sherpa Group (BSG).
Crawford believed that BSG could help SMEs achieve their peak performance with flexible access to experienced and operational professionals at all levels. The key was to match the support level to the part-time, fluctuating business needs typical of SMEs.
Today this model has thrived and become mainstream. One of the key activities BSG has been engaged in helping its clients with is digital transformation – a need that has become particularly acute in the COVID-19 era.
Some clients were already engaged in strategically phasing in new digital technologies prior to the pandemic crisis, but major changes in work patterns, including the need for more people to work from home, has forced many businesses to accelerate that process more quickly than anticipated.
“There’s a lot of technology triage that has happened as a result of COVID where all of a sudden companies had to rush to adopt something that they were only thinking about before,” says Crawford.
She says most of the company’s clients, with typically under 100 employees, have already completed an outward facing digital transformation in terms of establishing e-commerce platforms and engaging in digital marketing strategies. Where digital transformation is happening in a more substantive way today is on the internal side of the business, such as in finance.
Experts in finance technology, HR systems, and information and data management help clients assess their current business processes, identify problem areas, map out the path to a future state that will leverage best practice technologies, implement those changes and then support the team to become confident users of the technology.
BSG also conducts presentations and workshops that include a self-assessment exercise to assist participants identify their highest technology transformation priorities. This exercise looks at workflows and identifies those that are high volume, routine, repeatable and currently performed manually. Often these are the processes where employees experience frustration with ‘pinch points’ – for example, where they have to go back and get more information, or errors keep happening so that a procedure needs to be stopped and repeated.
Crawford emphasizes that “digital transformation is not about replacing people. It is really people plus technology. You want your people focused on the sophisticated, more complex activities and problem solving that requires their judgment. Technology is the workhorse of routine, repeatable activities.
Digital transformation offers important strategic advantages.
“We recognized very early that it’s best for the client if we can get them into a digital domain in terms of their work. Digital is a huge strategy for small business and we really wanted to be in the lead helping that transformation happen,” Crawford says.
Janice Burke, director of finance and operations for BIOTECanada in Ottawa, says Business Sherpa Group has been very helpful with her company’s digital transformation over the past year, particularly with respect to its finance function.
Although BIOTECanada’s decision to undergo a digital transformation was made prior to COVID, the logistics of coping with business during the pandemic has made it even more essential.
BIOTECanada’s finance department now enjoys several significant operational advantages. For example, its corporate bank account is now integrated with its accounting software package, saving Burke significant time and money by reducing the need for outside services to perform bank reconciliations and data entry. Manual cheques no longer have to be signed.
Moreover, “I finally won’t have to physically be in the office and pull document after document during an annual financial audit,” says Burke.
Moving forward, the corporate books will be given directly to the auditors with all of the supporting documentation already uploaded electronically for their review, thus significantly reducing time, energy and paperwork, she notes.
Forum for International Trade Training (FITT)
BSG has helped the Forum for International Trade Training (FITT) in Ottawa digitize its document management function as the not-for-profit organization reaches the advanced stages of a digital transformation that began in 2013.
“With Business Sherpa Group, we’ve internalized some of our processes. For instance, BSG has helped us move to Microsoft Office 365, they’ve coached us, created the work plan and trained our staff,” says Caroline Tompkins, FITT’s chief executive officer.
BSG has also assisted FITT conduct a comprehensive IT assessment of all the organization’s systems, applications, securities, policies and procedures. “The goal is to provide FITT with an objective review of our current state, identify critical needs and provide us with a new road map for improvement,” she explains.
FITT’s digital transformation has provided several advantages in terms of building its brand and creating significant efficiencies in its online network. For example, whereas FITT was previously reaching about 20,000 people a year through e-mails and traditional web-based brochures, today the organization is reaching over 100,000, says Tompkins.
The digital transformation has also improved client service because more system automation allows FITT’s employees to spend more time on important face-to-face customer service. Clients want access to online registrations, deliveries, platforms, and payments, but they still want access to a person, even through something as simple as a chat box, notes Tompkins.
Furthermore, automating services has allowed FITT’s team to do more in terms of providing relevant, timely real-time information to the client, with reduced errors.