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Coronavirus: SMEs in the UAE forced to digitally transform

The UAE, like the rest of the world, continues to be heavily impacted by the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, and technology is helping to lead the fight

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The International Monetary Fund has projected that the overall Middle East and North Africa economy will contract by 3.3% in 2020 – its biggest slump in four decades.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), 77% of CFOs surveyed by management consultancy PwC said the coronavirus had “the potential for significant impact to our business operations and is causing us great concern.”

In these uncertain times, small and medium-sized businesses (SME) owners are turning to technology to keep their companies afloat.

SMEs make up more than 94% of companies in the UAE and employ nearly 90% of the private sector workforce, according to government data.

“What the coronavirus has done is force many small businesses to very rapidly undergo forced digital transformations to ensure operational continuity,” Wes Schwalje, COO of Dubai-based research firm Tahseen Consulting, told Computer Weekly.

“Local employers have scrambled to adopt technologies to manage remote workers, including tools for project management, messaging and conferencing, document collaboration, remote access and time management.”

Schwalje said cloud-based document collaboration apps, such as Google G Suite and Microsoft Office 365, have become “critical” in enabling real-time document collaboration and coauthoring.

Meanwhile, a surge in virtual conferencing and collaboration tools has created vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit, he warned. “Small businesses in the UAE have had a crash-course in the use of remote access security and virtual private networks in protecting business-critical, proprietary data,” he added.

New approach to VoIP

Traditionally, the UAE government has restricted global VoIP applications in favour of its domestic versions, but the pandemic has shown that this approach is not viable, said Schwalje.

“The UAE requires a workable long-term regulatory solution that accommodates security, data and telecom competitive concerns for enabling VoIP-based conferencing systems, such as Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts,” he said.

Schwalje said that the affordability of business and home broadband subscription prices in the UAE – which are among the highest in the world – has also been highlighted by the crisis as fast internet connectivity is critical to the bandwidth-intensive demands of managing remote workers.

Rami Kichli, vice-president at Software AG Gulf and Levant, said technology has been “leading the fight” to manage Covid-19 since the start of pandemic. “From providing advanced videoconferencing facilities for home working to developing solutions to enable real-time digital transformations across public and private institutions, technology has been the engine that keeps the business world ticking,” Kichli told Computer Weekly.

Read more about how Covid-19 will change business practices

Software AG is advising companies to use digitisation to build business resilience and keep operations functional in a volatile environment. 

“Due to the government homeworking directive, companies will now have to accelerate building virtual connectivity and remote work processes,” said Kichli. “Whether it is through the creation of robust technological infrastructures or end-to-end digital processes, they will have to adapt and evolve in order to implement new structures to maintain business continuity and growth.”

Another key business focus area is the integration of current technologies, he added. “There is an overwhelming need for interoperability and information transfer across a variety of disparate systems and levels of the organisation. It is imperative that companies have solutions in place to seamlessly facilitate data sharing, thereby connecting systems and digitising a complete business function.”

According to Kichli, tech suppliers must also help their clients “reimagine” business processes, customer journeys and operational models through business and IT transformation solutions to give companies the agility they need in unprecedented times. But it is important that not all business is geared solely towards managing the pandemic, he said.

Kichli urged businesses to devise digital strategies that not only tackle the effects of the pandemic, but also include a business plan to exit the crisis smoothly.

“A focused technology mindset supported with a robust technology backbone will matter more than ever for business resilience and business-building freedom,” he said.

Advancing transformation

Wilson Xavier, research director - telecom & IT services, Middle East, Turkey and Africa, at IDC, said the Covid-19 pandemic is simply hastening an already-existing digital transformation process in the UAE.  

“Organisations are moving full steam ahead with their digital transformation programmes,” he said. “We are coming across organisations that are reprioritising their roadmaps and bringing forward technology investments to allow them to connect digitally to their customers.”

Xavier said many organisations were not initially prepared for such a move, but were “mature enough” to be able to provide quick digital solutions for their employees and customers amid the pandemic.

“The blend of technology adoption with the existing situation has forced organisations to rethink their strategy of providing goods and services to their client base and to innovatively address those challenges,” he said.

Xavier said local organisations have embarked on a steep learning curve that is likely to hold them in good stead in future. “This type of fast strategy evaluation and technology adoption could go hand-in-hand with helping organisations thrive in future challenging times,” he added.

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