Digital transformation has been a key trend in recent years, accelerated by the workplace changes wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. But for small companies and traditional businesses, a digital overhaul can seem like a daunting prospect.
Jack Lau, Chairman of Swanland.AI, explained how businesses can embark on their digital evolution, and also how to allocate corporate resources, at a Chamber webinar on 21 April. He noted that the extraordinary growth in the value of tech stocks in the past 20 years is a mirror of how important technology, particularly cloud services, has become to business operations today.
“Even 10 years ago, would you have uploaded a spreadsheet of your company’s most important secrets to the cloud, rather than store it in your own secure server?” he said. But today, the tech environment has advanced so much that cloud computing is now essential for modern, efficient companies.
Lau noted that Amazon Web Services – the market leader in cloud computing – helped Amazon’s annual revenue to break US$100 billion for the first time in 2015. This date can also be seen as a tipping point for cloud computing, Lau suggested.
“There is no turning back,” he said. “There is no longer a viable debate – should I keep paper, should I keep the records on my own server.”
For SMEs who want to upgrade, there are probably some low-hanging fruit that can be dealt with first.
“The first thing we all need to get rid of is paper,” Lau said. “Sometimes when I visit the offices of friends and associates, it is amazing to see how much paperwork they have. Even with rents falling recently, it is still extremely expensive to store paperwork in Central.”
There are services that can store paperwork externally for cheaper rent, and your company’s documents can be accessed with 24 hours’ notice. But Lau said that even this seem like the dinosaur age for today’s young people, who are accustomed to using digital storage for everything.
Another benefit of digitizing paperwork is that it is easy to find documents. If you want to get hold of a file, you don’t even need to know its name or number – just by using a few key words, you should be able to find it almost instantly.
Yet despite the huge cost and time savings, companies usually face resistance from some employees. “A lot of support staff will hate it if you want to go digital,” he said. “They like to photocopy everything and put it in a binder.”
Lau told a story of one colleague who would staple every single expenses receipt to a separate form to be filled in, and then make copies to be saved in different places, creating a huge volume of paperwork. When he asked why she did this, she replied: “I’ve been doing this for 40 years; this is what I do.”
After digital transformation, the rental savings for the company were eye-popping, Lau added.
Besides getting rid of stored paperwork, there are many cloud software platforms to deal with different workflow aspects. These are easy to register online and many have a free trial period. Some platforms include Monday for workflow, Wave for accounting and Wix to make a website.
For example, in building and estate management, staff using a cloud-based app can take a photo and report issues that will be transmitted immediately to the management. In the past, they would have to return to the office to fill in a report to then be sent off.
Customer service is a little bit harder, Lau said, but it is still possible, and chatbots and AI are able to share the burden of answering queries.
When it comes to customization, Lau recommends that businesses do not try to do this in-house, as it will probably take longer, will not necessarily be cheaper, can be hacked, and companies will have to face the issue of staff turnover among IT stall. Hiring a specialised company has many benefits.
“Digital transformation is not only a chance for you to get rid of your paperwork, it is also a chance to learn the common and best practices in digital operations. Outside companies do this for a living, so they have the expertise.”
Off-the-shelf cloud solutions can actually offer the best of both worlds, as they have lower costs, and already comply with all the relevant regulations. Lau also said that cybersecurity is better on the cloud: all the major companies supplying cloud services, including Amazon, Alibaba, Microsoft and Tencent, have top-class specialists focusing on cybersecurity.
On choosing between Mainland and Western providers, Lau said that he advised simply choosing the biggest player in the region where you are doing business, adding that you can also store on multiple ecosystems. And on the topic of the quality of Mainland scientists and engineers, he said: “Chinese scholars are publishing more papers than their Western counterparts in AI and machine learning. In terms of technical competence, there is no question about their ability.”