Automation offers many opportunities for SMEs

Jooske de Groot, Director Small and Medium Businesses at Microsoft Netherlands and Joep Hoeks, Chief Product Officer at Exact

Microsoft and Exact are working together to assist entrepreneurs to deploy new technologies

From unprecedented labour market shortages and hard-to-obtain raw materials to persistent inflation and sustainability issues, current market conditions are asking a lot of entrepreneurs. Software can help companies overcome such challenges, yet it is used all to rarely, particularly by small and medium-sized enterprises. Microsoft and Exact share an ambition to make it easier for SMEs to deploy new technologies, automate processes and make data work for them. Jooske de Groot, Director Small and Medium Businesses at Microsoft Netherlands, and Joep Hoeks, Chief Product Officer at Exact, came together to discuss the huge potential yet to be harnessed in this area.

SMEs need to be more curious about technology

Barely a day goes by without the difficult conditions in the labour market being in the news. The fact is that there are staff shortages in virtually all sectors. “Automation is increasingly being used to address productivity problems,” says Jooske de Groot. “Examples include self-service checkouts found in many stores. Although digital transformation has been going on for some time, we see many SMEs are still hesitant about getting on board. Research shows that a vast majority of SMEs believe technological change will have a strong impact on their markets over the next three years – but only 5% of SMEs say they want to have the latest technologies. When founding a company, fledgling entrepreneurs often factor in technologyn use, software and company scalability. This is not the case for established SMEs, meaning they need to be much more curious about what such developments can offer. The insight I want to give them is the changing role of people, something which will become even more valuable in the years to come. We don’t see automation as something that replaces people. Instead, we believe it frees them to do work that creates more value for an organisation.”

Encouraging entrepreneurs 

How can you motivate SMEs to get behind automation? Joep Hoeks has a clear vision for this: “Above all, software should be user-friendly. Look at all the apps you have on your smartphone. These applications, many of which are intended for private use, often prove their worth in short order. As developers of business software, we can learn from this. The solutions we offer must be just as intuitive to use, which is why user-friendliness is high on our agenda. In addition, companies need flexibility when it comes to software tools. This is why Exact develops software with an open architecture, as it allows companies to easily link software to apps from other providers and respond to industry-specific challenges. This user-friendliness and freedom of choice are essential for making software appealing to entrepreneurs.”

The power of data: from monitoring to forecasting

Getting entrepreneurs to embrace automation requires them, above all, to understand its benefits, especially automatically generated data and how it can be used. While research shows that 50% of SMEs believe the use of data analytics leads to better business decisions, data plays a leading role in only 12% of SMEs. As Joep goes on to state: “Dutch SMEs have amazing opportunities to embrace and use data to achieve business ambitions. At present, we don't often see a data strategy on an entrepreneur’s list of priorities, despite the fact that it can prove to be a gold mine for any entrepreneur. Imagine you want to give a presentation about your organisation's finances, maybe as a way to inform investors. Thanks to artificial intelligence, you can ask a robot to do this for you – provided your data is available in a digital, well-structured way. It can roll out a ready-made presentation at the touch of a button. It will soon be possible to draw up annual accounts in virtually the same way. Then there's production capacity. I could imagine that in the future you'll be able to ask an AI a question like: What production level do you advise me to maintain based on results from the last five years? In other words, you'll be able to use data much more to predict and advise rather than monitor – though you'll still use it to monitor later on. If you apply it smartly and have developed a good strategy, you can be much more productive and efficient in your work. It is truly an untapped opportunity right now."

Software developers as facilitators

It is clear there is still much to be gained in terms of automation. According to De Groot and Hoeks, this task is not solely the concern of entrepreneurs. Joep: “Here, software developers play an important role. We need to facilitate and unburden entrepreneurs. The fact that new software is almost always cloud-based and no longer on fixed servers makes it easier. We can easily eliminate the need to take care of pre-requisites such as updates, privacy and security. We take a proactive approach. After all, the world of process automation is only set to grow.”

Integrating Microsoft apps into the Premium edition of Exact Online

Microsoft and Exact work closely together given the current market situation – and have been doing so for many years. The latest development in their collaboration: fully integrating Microsoft apps such as Power BI, Power Automate and Teams into the fourth edition of Exact Online. “With the launch of this Premium edition of Exact Online, we are meeting the growing need for entrepreneurs to automate business processes more as they see fit and to work in a single environment,” explains Joep. “In fact, we’re bringing together two worlds: business software and Office apps, something that has been really enthusiastically received. Companies can now easily create reports based on Exact Online data, link other data sources to them, and develop everything in their own style. However, they can also automate processes as they wish and set the rules themselves. Examples include automatically processing purchase orders and invoices.” According to Jooske, this freedom also represents major added value: “You want to set up a software environment for entrepreneurs as intelligently as possible and create as many links as possible between the various applications an entrepreneur requires. If you can integrate them seamlessly and manage them together, as developers, for your customers, that's when you have true added value.” The Premium edition of Exact Online is currently available to entrepreneurs in wholesale and production. This will be expanded to all SMEs in the coming months.

Keep looking ahead and cut recruitment costs

When asked if she has any tips for SMEs, Jooske replies: “Keep looking ahead and don't wait until the last minute to leverage innovations. One specific example I'd like to give here is mandatory corporate responsibility reporting – that's CSRD legislation – which will enter into effect from 2024. You don't want one of your employees to have to spend a day working on this later on. That's why it is important to structure all your data now, so you can run an ESG report in just 30 minutes in 2024. If you have to do it all a day before the deadline, you won't make it.” Joep’s advice in a nutshell: “Save a lot of money on recruitment. To put it in a slightly more nuanced way, recruitment is of course important, but ageing populations mean staff shortages aren't going away any time soon. This means you have to approach and solve the problem in a structurally different way. Technology can help you work more efficiently and achieve the goals you set.”


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