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Digital Transformation

Passion. Discipline. Freedom.

How digital innovation is raising the stature of SMBs as the primary engines of business growth and innovation.

By Steve Cox

Fall 2017

Everyone knows that behind every successful startup or small business is a leader who rolls the entrepreneurial dice for that huge payday in the future, right? Not necessarily. “Almost all of the entrepreneurs I’ve met want freedom, and that’s why they’re working hard,” Nikolaj Astrup said in a recent blog post.

Steve Cox, Group Vice President, Oracle ERP and EPM Product Marketing

He should know. Over the past five years, Astrup’s company, Refuga, has led hundreds of entrepreneurs on treks to the Himalayas, Mount Kilimanjaro, Morocco, Tanzania, and other exotic locales. It’s an extreme form of business networking that’s given Astrup a unique opportunity to hear what drives entrepreneurs.

And he’s learned that the financial rewards don’t even rank among the top six business incentives for these intrepid executives.

As someone who has worked with and around entrepreneurs and small-to-medium businesses (SMBs) for more than 20 years, this doesn’t surprise me. In fact, I’ve come to believe that freedom isn’t just a lure for those in corner offices—it’s also a prime motivator for the vast majority of people who choose to work at SMBs in any capacity.

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But I’d add one important detail: it takes more than a desire to work without limits to build a successful company. SMB owners must balance the urge for professional freedom with the discipline to create and trust a formal organizational structure with standardized business processes and governance policies that protect sensitive data and intellectual property. That’s a tricky balancing act that takes insightful leadership and wise choices about what tools can best support standardization and necessary controls. Otherwise, discipline spawns a culture of rigidity that stifles the sense of independence and the emotional investment that draws talented people to fast-growing companies.

Let entrepreneurs follow their passions and build successful businesses where freedom can flourish.”

Success comes when business leaders achieve something akin to freedom in their business processes and the applications that support them. Look for three characteristics when making IT choices.

First, applications must be able to be quickly tailored and updated to meet evolving business requirements. If you are working to carve out a place for yourself in a fast-moving market, your business systems can’t limit your agility and creativity. They must support the culture that brought everyone together, to the benefit of the business, in the first place.

Second, applications must easily scale to support periods of fast growth and staff expansions. If success is in your future, so is increasing complexity. Overworked entrepreneurs, founders, and SMB leaders are often under pressure to deliver results in the immediate short term. So, trusting that your systems can scale as you grow allows you to focus on what’s important, even as new markets and customers await your arrival.

I’ve come to believe that freedom isn’t just a lure for those in corner offices—it’s also a prime motivator for the vast majority of people who choose to work at SMBs in any capacity.”

Third, solutions must promote business processes that reflect industry best practices rather than saddle companies with rigid, proprietary ways of working. This is the classic “don’t reinvent the wheel” mentality that I often see with successful entrepreneurs—they don’t waste their time and resources on processes that don’t add value. Learn from the work of others who have come before and implement proven processes that won’t slow you down in the future.

This strategic combination will help ensure that when new business opportunities arise, SMB leaders have the freedom to put their foot on the growth accelerator and move faster than their competitors.

Free to Innovate

Achieving the freedom/discipline balance isn’t easy, and in the past, it was a challenge that caused many startups to stumble. But that’s changing, thanks to a convergence of digital innovations, starting with cloud computing. The best services reduce IT complexity so in-house staffs can focus their talents on strategic business initiatives. Top cloud applications also offer modern capabilities and flexible interfaces that make it easy for end users to be productive. More importantly, they give business leaders the freedom to innovate, thanks to a steady cadence of new features and updates.

We’re at a new technological inflection point—on par with the first PCs and the rise of the internet—that will continue to raise the stature of SMBs as the primary engines of business growth and innovation.”

All of this helps explain why SMBs are embracing the cloud: more than 70 percent of US companies with 100 or fewer employees have adopted cloud services, according to IDC. Midsize firms—those with 100 to 1,000 employees—are even more enthusiastic: 90 percent of them now take advantage of the cloud.

But cloud computing is just the start. Today’s digital convergence also includes mobile applications, sophisticated but easy-to-use big data analytics, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, machine learning, geolocation software, and augmented reality. These new tools let structured freedom thrive within SMBs and, in turn, they make it easier for leaders to launch new business initiatives and grow to become market leaders.

We’re at a new technological inflection point—on par with the first PCs and the rise of the internet—that will continue to raise the stature of SMBs as the primary engines of business growth and innovation. And best of all, it will let entrepreneurs follow their passions and build successful businesses where freedom can flourish.

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Photography by John Blythe, iStock.com/baona