The Financial Express

4IR & levelling the playing field for SMEs

4IR & levelling the playing field for SMEs

The Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0 is very much a reality-a level-up transformation into a more connected ecosystem that mesh people, processes, machines, big data, and intelligence seamlessly. Industry 4.0 is different in its breadth, velocity and depth, and overall impact on systems. With the democratisation of high-speed internet access, IoT device and sensors, Cloud Storage, and Computing Infrastructure to crunch Big Data with AI and Machine learning, Industry 4.0 has the potential to bring significant positive change in terms of efficiency for manufacturing, supply chain, omnichannel customer engagement, retailing etc.

The technology that is driving Industry 4.0 is very much a possibility for Bangladesh as well, and the time has come for active cross-industry dialogues, best practice sharing, collaborations, and explorations to find a way to focus on critical uses-cases to adopt across priority industries. Clearly, this will also initiate the advantage of a faster learning cycle and give an edge to countries like Bangladesh competing with legacy producers in developed nations that have had a head start in earlier times. The impact of technology adoption can be exponentially scaled up if we can bring our SME sector as a priority.

SMES AS THE NUCLEUS OF DEVELOPMENT : Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are the lifeblood of the Bangladesh economy. In 2020, they accounted for 30 per cent of total employment and accounted for 20 per cent of GDP. The future sustainable growth of Bangladesh's economy is very closely tied to the performance of the SME sector. Factors such as the entrepreneurial mindset of our population, greater support from the government, access to investment, and young workforces have been making this sector so vibrant over the years. These smaller enterprises drive innovations to solve local problems and establish niches in their local communities.

As the adoption of ICT solutions grow, the growth potential exponentially increases for this sector. Subsequently, telecommunication operators have the opportunity to enable them beyond connectivity as their trusted growth partner.

The new normal of COVID-19 has validated two things. Primarily, it has made it evident that technology adoption is key for survival in this new reality. Secondly, the SMEs who have been the front runner to the adoption have seen the benefit of business sustainability and better capital management.

TELECOM SECTOR AS THE ENABLER OF THE ECONOMY: This opportunity to work with the SME sector closely sets an inspiring context for telecommunication operators to sustain their partnership and solutions to focus, especially to drive the future progress and adoption to Industry 4.0. Today, companies like Grameenphone have the dual expertise of mobility as well as ICT and IoT Service integration that can play a pivotal role in SMEs digitisation, growth, and Industry 4.0 adoption journey.

Telcos are recognised, over the past 2 decades, as the engines of resilient and innovative societies worldwide. This was proven once again last year; in the few weeks since the COVID-19 outbreak, telecom service providers have found themselves at the heart of a fast-changing world. Communications and connectivity became a critical service for the entire population and business houses as they changed their lifestyles in a work-from-home environment and digital infrastructure became increasingly essential for human interaction amidst national lockdowns. Supporting this dramatic change has not been easy for the operators, but they have shown themselves to be agile and decisive, working in collaboration with the public and private sector, offering customers relief packages while working hard to ensure that networks can cope with the surge in demand.

ENABLING SME THROUGH CORE MOBILITY AND ICT: As the pandemic accelerated the need for digital transformation, it impacted the entire business spectrum to accommodate the changed reality and new normalcy. Telecom operators were at the forefront to witness the resilience of our SME community to adopt digital and ICT solutions to safeguard their business, customers, and employees. A nationwide 4G and Narrow Band IoT (nb-IoT) ready network has allowed us to create the core connectivity enabling layer of secured connectivity for our SMEs.

Enabled with secured connectivity, we witnessed the SME segment adopting tier-one ICT solutions such as bulk messaging, voice broadcasting, automation etc., to keep engaged with their customers. With the advancement of home delivery and easy digital payment, many have migrated their business model online to deliver to their local community more efficiently. Telematic solutions to track fleet and assets along with field force management capabilities have been a popular solution being adopted by the SME community.

However, to get started and leverage the opportunity in the market, SMEs require so much more than traditional telecom services and tier one ICT solutions. In an increasingly digital age, extra services such as hosting, storage and website creation tools, cyber security, and IoT are crucial for small businesses from the outset. An ideal scenario for many small business buyers would be to have a digitalisation partner who can advise and consolidate service with all of the above services bundled into one package.

The ultimate objective is to create a sustainable and scalable use-case-specific adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies by our SMEs for greater contribution to economic growth. To support that ambition, telecom companies should build their own capability and strengthening partnerships to offer the right advisory and solution consultancy to various industries. This also requires deep collaboration, trust, empathy, a new approach to experimentation, and learning and validation.

NEED TO BUILD CAPACITY AND CAPABILITY TO SOLIDIFY SUSTAINABLE SME FUTURE: We believe technology is there as an enabler; at the same time, it's the people behind the technology who make the difference. As such, we are working closely with the Ministry of Youth to explore PPP arenas to build the skills of the future nation who can very well contribute to the SME sector as well. Additionally, we believe that the adoption of industry 4.0 technology or our current ICT solutions will require a different mindset to explore certain agile soft skills.

Currently, in Bangladesh, there is a need to boost talent within the manufacturing industry rather than replace them. The most important action is to invest in capability building and cultural change. Developing soft and technical skills in automation, design, analytics, and digital technologies will prepare the workforce for the changing environment and make them ready for future learning, thus keeping them relevant.

As the primary contact for nationwide SMEs, telecom operators have the deep trust-based relationship to sustain the digitalisation journey of SMEs for their future. By developing a wider range of insight-driven partnerships, telecom operators will hopefully play a positive country-wide role on the SME sector. SMEs have all the potential to be the backbone of Bangladesh's economy and equipped with robust telecom and ICT solution capability, their future possibilities are limitless.


Kazi Mahboob Hassan is Chief Business Officer, Grameenphone Ltd.

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