Wim Bens

Wim Bens is managing partner at Bens & Partners.

29 June

A new initiative that has students helping SMEs figure out their digitalization needs is just what the doctor ordered, writes Wim Bens.

ICT in all its forms and possibilities is developing so fast that many can’t keep up. Of course, some entrepreneurs manage to find ways to be heading the innovations in their sector. They have the right people around them, who inspire them, help them and lead the way into digitalization, robotization, automation and the broad spectrum of technology development. There’s also a group of companies following the leaders. These get inspired by their innovative colleagues, and copy, ‘steal’ and duplicate what they see around them. Those two leading groups typically make up 15-20 percent of the total number of companies in the sector.

At the other end of the spectrum, 15-20 percent of companies are already lost. They’re already lagging in too many aspects, they’re already dead without knowing it. Don’t bother helping this group anymore.

I’d like to focus on the remaining 60-70 percent of SMEs, often called the “majority.” These companies should move forward. They know that there’s something important out there, but they don’t have the right people, knowledge and competencies internally. They’re busy, busy, busy and really promise themselves that they’ll have a good look at it when they have spare time. Despite all good intentions, that day never comes.

Many years ago, there was a Dutch governmental ‘first-line consultancy’ called Syntens. They were there to help these entrepreneurs by giving them advice that was never asked for. They pushed them a little bit to have a look at new developments, at the things they don’t know but should know. Unfortunately – at least for this particular service – Syntens is no more and the parental organization Chamber of Commerce hasn’t adequately followed up on it.

But there’s good news. The Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, together with educational and research institutions and PTVT (Dutch: Platform Talent voor Technologie), has launched the Digital Workspaces initiative (Dutch: Digitale Werkplaatsen). By now, there are 20 local hubs, organized by knowledge institutes, vocational and higher education mainly, together with regional partners, intermediates and expert (ICT) companies, offering the type of services Syntens used to provide. These Digital Workspaces are being staffed by thousands of students, in all kinds of disciplines and levels of education, combining learning with on-the-job SME support in the digital world and ICT.

By giving entrepreneurs temporary access to a team of students, supported and coached by teachers, experts and others from different disciplines, SMEs can take the first steps towards digitalization, data science, e-business, online marketing and visibility, logistics and process optimization, robotization, web shop activity, artificial intelligence and many other topics.

After these first few steps, the entrepreneurs know much better what they need, why they need it, when they need it and how they can get there. At this point, outside experts are in a much better position to help them, if only because the ineffective part of the partnership has been dealt with by the Digital Workspaces already.

In today’s world with its shortage of personnel, for SMEs in temporary need of some support, capacity and expertise, but also for ICT companies lacking personnel, the labor force of students at the schools can help cover the first small steps while the students themselves can learn in a challenge-based environment at real companies. A true win-win-win for all.

I’d recommend the ICT sector, but also regional governments, intermediary organizations and others, to fully support the Digital Workspaces initiative and the idea of combining student learning and ICT innovation at SMEs. It’s a beautiful initiative, which brings back some of the services that Syntens used to provide.