Tech-Forward Innovation: How Companies are Strategically Accelerating Growth Through Business Technology Solutions
Mike Nunn, January 2024
In the ever-evolving landscape of business, the pivotal role of technology in shaping the trajectory of Small and Medium-sized Businesses (SMBs) cannot be overstated. As we stand at the dawn of a new era, where digital transformation is no longer a luxury but a strategic imperative, SMBs find themselves at the forefront of a technological revolution. The journey towards embracing and implementing cutting-edge technologies is fraught with challenges, but it is also laden with unprecedented opportunities for growth, efficiency, and competitiveness.
Business technology is a vast subject and comes in many forms. Business technology could be robotics in a manufacturing plant, segmented networks, AI powered customer service assistants, e-commerce, cybersecurity tools, software/ERP/CRM solutions, cloud computing, process automation, modern hardware, and beyond.
There are both benefits and barriers to investing in business technology solutions. Barriers include uncertainty about ROI, legacy equipment, cost and budget constraints, and skilled workforce requirements. On the flip side, benefits of business technology adoption range from increased efficiency, increased cybersecurity hygiene/defense, cost and quality control, and unlocking significant scalability.
Driven to understand the complex dance between SMBs and technology adoption, I wanted to delve into the driving forces behind this seismic shift and the transformative impact that technology holds for businesses that dare to adapt.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing local businesses who are leading the way of technology adoption so that I could understand strategies that successful businesses employ to harness the power of digital adoption and innovation while navigating the complexities of implementation.
My goal with this article is to shed light on the evolving dynamics that define the relationship between SMBs and technology in the hopes to inform, empower, and enable other small and medium businesses that have not yet taken the essential steps to embrace the digital adoption journey.
Let’s dive in!
This theme may be a little controversial, from previous experiences to current roles, the business leaders I interviewed shared how one of the major determining factors for embracing technology – or not – is the mindset of the business owner.
The first mindset, and a barrier to technology adoption that I did not hear from any of the companies I interviewed, is that technology isn’t needed to grow a business; people just need to work harder. The owner will typically say something to the effect of, “I know what got my business to this point and we
just need to keep doing more of that.” Perhaps rooted in lack of technology understanding, old school methods, or getting burned by technology once before, it was evident that if the business owner didn’t truly embrace technology as a viable solution to scaling the business, then this is the biggest and most important barrier to overcome. This mindset may still be valid in some businesses/industries, however, for most businesses in the new era of technology adoption this is a dated approach.
On the other hand, and something I heard many examples of from the people I interviewed, there are the business owners who not only embrace technology but even if they weren’t tech savvy themselves, surrounded themselves with a team who embrace technology adoption. These tech-forward owners empower their team to explore, test, and implement business technology solutions. Once the door was opened to investing in technology for innovation and growth, the benefits below were unlocked.
Real-world examples from the interviewees:
- One company shared how a focus on innovation has been built into the business since its founding. A mindset that was originally focused on improving their products (costs, quality, etc.), was easily aligned to using technology to improve business systems and processes.
- A fantastic analogy shared by one of the leaders I interviewed was around the technology needed to drive a car versus the bullet train. In a car, all you need is the typical dashboard; however, in the bullet train there is an advanced system of data collection, monitoring, and display required. The question: is your business the car or bullet train? Are you attempting to pilot the bullet train using the car dashboard?
Scalability was – by far – the most common reason for embracing business technology solutions between all the companies I interviewed. Under this umbrella, some of the ways that were shared for how business technology enabled scalability are:
- Advancements and competition in the technology landscape resulting in lowered cost, universal robotics, and easier automation enables the companies to bring production in-house of parts and components that were previously outsourced. The result was improved cost of goods, speed to market, and inventory management.
- In all departments, the ability to automate processes, resulting in significant gains in cycle times and overall lead times. Some examples I heard major gains in are order entry/processing, scheduling, and accounting processes.
- Three of the companies I interviewed are using robotics to do the heavy, repetitive, and undesired work in their operation, thus freeing people up to do more value-added work and increasing overall capacity. One company shared how they invested in a $40K robot to eliminate the waste in a process where their highest paid people were placing parts in a queue as part of their value-add work. Placing parts in a queue now done by the robot, the team members have more time and capacity to do their high value-added work.
- All companies shared how technology allowed decision-making to be expedited through faster data collection. This had been achieved through methods such as ERP implementation, using sensors and cameras to gather real-time production data, migrating programs and systems to the cloud.
Technology + Lean
For those not aware of Lean, it’s a powerful set of tools, methods, and principles designed to eliminate waste in all its seven [original] forms. As a Lean Blackbelt myself, it’s hard to resist diving into a detailed monologue of the benefits of Lean, but alas, I will simply say that if you had a way to increase value/capacity by doing less and eliminating waste, why wouldn’t you.
While waste elimination can be done without the help of technology solutions, Lean can be significantly magnified when coupled with technology. Autonomous Mobile Robots for material handling, screens to show takt/real time stats, robotics to automate and do repetitive work, direct connection with suppliers for improved inputs/supply, and visual controls/sensors to balance flow are just a few examples of how Lean can be married to technology. From the companies I interviewed, three were advanced in their adoption of Lean, which combined with their technology focus had yielded significant results:
- One of the companies is a cabinet manufacturer who used their “tech-lean-ogy” to increase production capacity by 122%.
- Using Lean combined with technology solutions to maximize load balancing, visual controls, automated production/sorting/picking, scanning and inventory control, WIP reduction, waste elimination, and teamwork.
- Reducing high-volume production from 3 machines and 24-hour production to 1 machine, resulting in a 60% reduction in cycle time and labour to be deployed to more value-add production.
In the landscape of modern business for small and medium businesses, competitive advantage was a common reason for technology adoption with all companies I interviewed. Embracing cutting-edge technologies allows organizations to streamline operations, enhance efficiency, and deliver innovative solutions to meet evolving market demands and compete on a global scale. Companies that strategically
integrate technology into their processes gain the ability to analyze vast amounts of data, enabling informed decision-making and proactive adaptation to market trends. Furthermore, technology facilitates seamless communication and collaboration, breaking down geographical barriers and fostering a more interconnected global workforce. Automation of routine tasks not only increases productivity but also frees up human resources to focus on creative problem-solving, producing more value-added work, and strategic initiatives. Ultimately, those who embrace and harness the power of technology position themselves ahead of the curve, creating a sustainable competitive edge in an ever-evolving business landscape.
Real-world examples from the interviewees:
- One of the manufacturing companies I interviewed cited their technology adoption as a reason they had won a recent RFP with a large client. The client was impressed by the manufacturer’s adoption of automation and robotics, coupled with skilled team members to produce more consistently high-quality products at a faster rate than their competitors.
- Another company I interviewed spoke to their employer value proposition and talent attraction strategy by having modern technology for their team to do their jobs. Not forcing their staff to use old and/or slow technology was a contributing factor to their high job satisfaction and low turnover.
- One company, producing what many would consider a non-technical product, used technology to develop and new complementary value-add in the form of a sensor. This new technology enabled advanced data collection that improved safety, reliability, and performance for their clients. Sales of this technology have tripled since being introduced to their market.
Planning, Investment Support & Funding
All companies I interviewed shared they did not have a detailed ROI and analysis model used for determining which technologies to invest in. Rather, they stayed current on technological advances in their respective industries, and when new technology emerged that showed potential to advance their business they had a similar approach of avoiding analysis paralysis by asking:
- Is this right for the business now (investment, season, team capacity to take on, return, etc.)?
- What is the projected payback (1-2-5-10 years)? If the return was in the 2-year range, all businesses typically would make the investment.
- What does our experience tell us about the potential of this technology? Insights from their network, previous roles/companies/experiences, different industries that have adopted similar technology, and connecting with early adopters.
On the funding front, while there was not a common bond with regards to external funding from grants, all companies I interviewed are utilizing the SR&ED tax incentives offered by the Government of Canada. SR&ED is intended to encourage businesses to conduct research and development initiatives, with approved claims either receiving an income tax deduction or earning an investment tax credit. I recommend exploring the Canadian Digital Adoption Program, which enables businesses in Canada to access grants and expertise to transform their business, either set up e-commerce/online sales ($2,400 in
funding) or get advice on building a technology roadmap ($15,000 in funding for building the roadmap). In addition to the funding, the completed CDAP plan unlocks a 0% interest loan (up to $100,000) and/or a $7,300 wage subsidy to hire the talent to achieve your CDAP goals.
Full transparency, this theme was not specifically called out by the companies I interviewed, however, I wanted to share the reality of strong cybersecurity or cyber hygiene being the result of a multi-tiered approach. The more companies embrace technology as a pathway for growth, the greater the exposure to cyberthreats and requirement to have strong cyber hygiene.
Simply having anti-virus is not good enough anymore. Period. The world of cybersecurity has significantly advanced in recent years and is evolving faster and faster every day. As a business, if you’re employing the same technology/cybersecurity methods today as you were 5-years ago, you’ve got a high likelihood of being low hanging fruit for cyber threat actors.
Modern technology, cyber insurance, current OS, updated devices/software, business-grade anti-virus, EDR/MDR, network segmentation, backups, and user training, are just a few of the layers to essential and strong cyber hygiene.
Because of my role and the business we’re in at TLC Solutions, I can tell you the vast majority of cyberattacks are not publicly reported, which doesn’t allow the general business population to know how prevalent successful cyberattacks are. Moreover, these attacks are typically successful because the businesses have not properly invested in the essential layers of cyber hygiene. I urge all businesses to understand their technology current state, especially with respect to cyber hygiene, and put a plan in place to ensure they are not low hanging fruit for a cyberattack.
As I conclude my exploration into the relationship between Small and Medium-sized Businesses (SMBs) and technology adoption, it is evident that we are standing at the crossroads of innovation and necessity. The businesses forging ahead with cutting-edge technologies, from AI-powered customer service assistants to process automation and robotics, are not merely embracing change; they are shaping the future of commerce. The journey towards digital transformation is undeniably challenging, marked by barriers such as budget constraints and uncertainty about returns on investment. However, the businesses that navigate these challenges stand to gain unprecedented benefits – increased efficiency, fortified cybersecurity, and enhanced scalability. Through my interviews with local businesses leading the charge, it became clear that successful strategies involve not only the adoption of advanced tools but also a deep understanding of how to integrate them seamlessly into existing operations. As SMBs continue to navigate this technological revolution, those daring to adapt are not only future-proofing their enterprises but also laying the foundation for sustained growth, efficiency, and competitiveness in the dynamic business landscape.