So you’re going on a digital journey – do you have a map?

09 February 2021

If you haven’t yet decided to explore digital technologies for your business, you probably need to start thinking seriously about it.

by Shirley Harrison

The performance gap between businesses that successfully use technology every day, and those that haven’t adopted tech, is growing rapidly.

During 2020, even the local working men’s club, a traditional, die-hard, cash-only business, has moved to contactless payments and developed an app for table booking. So if you haven’t started to think about how tech can help your business, you’re in danger of being left behind.

You can read some ideas for the very first steps you could take here.

But there is also danger in jumping straight in with no clear direction or end goal. Just as you would with any other change project, if you are going to explore digital technologies for your business, you should make a plan. In the tech sector, it’s often described as building a digital roadmap.

I recently worked with a small manufacturer to help them create their plan for change and here are my top tips:

1.      Build technology projects into your strategy, don’t create a separate plan

The only reason to implement technology is because it’s going to help you achieve your business goals.

2.      Look into the future, but not too far

Some of the projects you’ll discover will take months or longer to implement, so you need to plan for the medium to long term. On the other hand, technology is rapidly developing and becoming more affordable, so don’t make fixed plans too far ahead. A rolling two to three-year plan might be a good balance.

3.      What are the operational and process issues that would transform your business if you could make a step change?

Maybe you currently offer a two-week lead time and this is the standard for your market, but what would the impact be if you could reliably offer a two-day lead time? Would you gain market share? Would you be able to charge a premium for a super-fast service?

4.      How can technology help you make a step change?

When you’ve decided what would transform your business, you can start to think about how technology might help you achieve this. Taking the lead time example a bit further, perhaps four days of the current two-week lead time is taken up with quality checks and associated paperwork. Technology helps speed-up these processes – for example, automated vision systems can reduce the time to verify fasteners in complex assemblies from hours to seconds. What’s more, the data is recorded and auditable for your quality system.

5.      Be very realistic about the capacity and capability of the business to implement the strategic plan and schedule the steps accordingly

Most small businesses don’t have spare people hanging around waiting to deliver improvement projects. If developing your senior team’s management skills is the first step, this is probably going to take 6-12 months and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to take on anything extra. Pencil in the next project for year two.

6.      Consider using outside help.

Firstly, having an external perspective can really help businesses with the process of strategic planning. You work in your businesses every day and it’s personal, sometimes having an objective outsider can really help shift the focus.

Secondly, it can be hard to know what technology is available and what it could do for you. For example, step three above mentions a vision system. How do they work? How much do they cost? How are they implemented, programmed and maintained? Getting advice from technical specialists can help you narrow down the options and pursue the right technology - and help you avoid making expensive mistakes.

 Resources like the KTN’s 4manufacturing tool and the digital readiness level assessment can help you, as can organisations like your Local Growth Hub, Made Smarter, Catapult Network and the University of Sheffield AMRC.

As you embark on your digital journey, don’t get lost - remember to follow your map.

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