SMEs and Digital Maturity: the Challenge Continues

Only 26% of companies is ready to challenge world markets with digitized production processes: this is what emerges from the national research of Milan Polytechnic’s Observatory for Digital Innovation in SMEs, presented during the A&T fair

by Claudia Dagrada

Everything is fine, but it could be better: simplifying, this could summarize the current relationship between the world of Italian SMEs and the processes of 4.0 innovation and digitization. Last February the A&T fair in Turin, in partnership with Milan Polytechnic’s Observatory for Digital Innovation in SMEs, presented during the opening day a research on a sample of about 1,500 SMEs (representative of the 200,000 in all), focused on the digital maturity of the Italian productive network.
Let us start from the assumption that companies with a workforce between 10 and 249 represent numerically only 5% of the total Italian companies, but alone they generate 41% of the entire turnover of our country: it is clear that a low inclination towards 4.0 impacts significantly on the local economy and international competitiveness.
From the analysis, worrying data clearly emerge: only 26% of local small and medium enterprises are ready to challenge the world markets relying on advanced technologies and digitized production processes.
This is despite the fact that 9 out of 10 entrepreneurs consider innovation and a 4.0 vision necessary for the development of business.

What are the fetters hindering technological development?
The technological development of Italian SMEs is hampered by several factors, as Giorgia Sali, senior researcher at Milan Polytechnic’s Observatory for Digital Innovation in SMEs, who supervised and presented the research at Oval Lingotto, pointed out: “There is a lack of real willingness to innovate on the part of Italian entrepreneurs.
The forecasts of investment in digital processes in 2020 speak of stagnation and in some cases even a contraction compared to the year which just ended, confirming a vision of development in a 4.0 perspective which is still too timid”.
According to Giorgia Sali, the reluctance to allocate investments in digitization is explained on the one hand by an entrepreneurial vision which focuses more on the short term than on the medium-long term, on the other hand by the presence of some hindering elements, such as the purchase costs of digital services perceived as too high (27%), the lack of skills and digital culture in the organization (24%), the lack of support from institutions (11%).
Regarding this last point, there is also a lack of knowledge on the part of those who lead companies about the incentives offered by the Government, particularly in Central and Southern Italy: for example, it has been detected that 68% of entrepreneurs are not updated on the innovation consulting vouchers promoted by the MISE.

The key concept of 2020: investing in skills
It is therefore necessary be more confident, investing in technology and people. In this respect, the research highlighted another crucial point linked to the technological development of our SMEs: skills.
For 44% of small and medium companies, the ICT and Digital areas are overseen by the IT Manager who, in the majority of cases, is not employed to manage innovative activities, but for the routine maintenance of information systems.
Only in 20% of cases is there an Innovation Manager in the plants who carries out activities connected to innovation, product or entire business processes. On the other hand, 18% of SMEs have a position dedicated to a specific digital area or to a single process, for example an IT security manager, an eCommerce Manager or a Data Scientist, without, however, having a general supervision to coordinate the projects in a centralized manner. Finally, 18% do not have such a dedicated position.

Outsourcing to make up for lack of internal resources
There is therefore an excessive fragmentation of skills and roles operating within the technological processes of companies, and in many cases strategic digital services and opportunities in terms of competitiveness are outsourced, such as e-commerce, CRM, web platforms.The choice of outsourcing derives from the difficulty of acquiring tailored skills in the company, from the cyclical nature of digital projects (especially in case of development of a new platform) and from the costs related to updating and training of dedicated resources.
Coherently, there are still few concerns where strategic training initiatives are present on digital issues. Most of them opt for “informal” activities, that is, they leave it to the individual’s initiative to train on the topics in question, or for simple awareness campaigns: for example, in 2019, 41% invested in basic training related to data analysis and 65% carried out awareness raising activities (from the publication of informative newsletters to the use of vertical courses) on issues related to cybersecurity.

Skepticism and concern for corporate data security
28% of Italian SMEs carry out data analysis in a structured way, but less than 10% carry out advanced analyses using big data, a value which shows a marked gap with respect to European SMEs.
As far as the use of Cloud Computing systems for the storage of business information is concerned, the numbers are growing if we talk about large companies, but they are not taking off in medium and small enterprises, among which only 30% use these technologies.
The main obstacle in this area is related to concerns about data and application security, a cultural resistance that is difficult to overcome.
Finally, a truly worrying figure: 61% of small entrepreneurs never heard of Internet of Things solutions for Industry 4.0, and those who have tried to invest in this central asset to make processes more efficient remain skeptical because of an objective difficulty in measuring the investments made in the short term.
In the North-West of Italy, where 32% of SMEs reside, there is a high level of digital maturity related to specific internal processes (for example, the degree of adoption of management systems and IoT technologies is higher than in other geographical areas), but looking at an all-round innovation process the data are worrying: 13% do not have any position dealing with ICT and digital issues, 32% do not adopt cybersecurity solutions, 20% do not have a website.

Opening up to new technologies and investing in training
Luciano Malgaroli, CEO of the A&T fair, stated: “More than 70% of Italian SMEs, from our specialized trade fair observatory, are aware of the fact that it is necessary to invest in innovation and digitization to face the challenges of global competitiveness. Entrepreneurs are well aware that we need an inclusive industrial strategy which considers innovation central to the entire production process”.
According to Luciano Malgaroli, it is necessary to open up to new technologies, invest in training, get rid of short-term subjective visions and choose innovative, enabling medium-long term systems. Basically, what is needed is not just an industrial agenda to sweep away the fear of entrepreneurs and deliver a courageous and innovative productive asset to the country, but also clarification and an account of what and how to do, concretely, to allow those who run or manage a company to invest correctly and understand what technologies are really needed”.