In just a matter of months, the Covid-19 pandemic struck the world at the speed of light. Most businesses weren’t prepared and were forced to adapt to extraordinary challenges in order to continue with business operations -while battling to stay afloat.

In South Africa, many businesses have opted for mass work-from-home policies for their staff, as businesses navigate through new ways of working as a direct result of the pandemic.

Digital transformation has become the enabler, propelling businesses into the future. Technologies like collaboration and online meeting software have become a necessity through the transition to digitally enable remote working.

The acceleration saw a broader impact on commercial use of technology, transforming everything from the way businesses interact with prospects and customers, to the internal processes needed, not only to survive, but thrive as business enterprises.

As we enter 2021, it is vital for organisations to shift from using digital for disaster recovery, to a more considered application of technology that will drive business benefits post-pandemic.

The digitalisation of South African SMEs

To assist businesses with ensuring their technology deployments deliver real commercial value, GetApp recently surveyed over 500 SME business leaders about their digitalisation and experiences in accelerating transformation initiatives. The results suggested a need to focus on planning for the long-term, as well as working with technology partners that can support this forward-thinking approach.

Sixty-one percent of respondents cited social distancing as a driver for going online.

Despite the government’s decision to ban online shopping for all but essential purchases under Level 5 Lockdown, ecommerce has flourished with large numbers of consumers making online purchases for the first time. This indicates that these consumers were likely to increase their online spend in the future.

Almost half of South African businesses (46%) state that the majority of their business has been conducted virtually since the start of the pandemic:

* 20% said all of their business is now being conducted virtually;

* 46% said most of their business is now being conducted virtually;

* 26% said most of their business still has to be done in-person;

* 6% said all of their business still has to be done in-person; and

* 2% said their business was already fully virtual/ digital.

South African businesses are seeing over 76% increase in digital traffic, while 18% have seen a decrease and 10% have had no change in the digital traffic.

In addition to increased digital customer and prospect engagements, businesses confirm that 38% of new traffic has originated in regions or countries where they had not previously operated in.

Just 11 days into 2021, South Africa was at its most devastating peak of the pandemic, and the new variant of the coronavirus seems to be forcing the state back into harder lockdowns. It is becoming more crucial for businesses to adapt to igitization and accelerate their transformation to maintain business services through the year.

A massive 88% of business leaders surveyed believe that software purchases have enabled their businesses ability to survive.

It has taken agility and innovation to mitigate through this new world order, create new revenue channels, upskill or reskill staff at this accelerated pace. All these, which were lingering issues pre-pandemic, have now been given the spotlight during Covid-19.

Optimising digitisation strategy depends on first understanding over-arching business goals. For most respondents, these goals are relatively consistent throughout 2021. Across both the first financial quarter and 2021 as a whole, a significant proportion identified retaining customers, increasing cash flow, cutting costs, finding new customers and retaining employees as their top five business goals for the year:

* 88% of business leaders surveyed believe that software purchases have enabled their businesses ability to survive;

* 42% believe software purchase have positive impact;

* 46% believe software purchase have somewhat positive impact;

* 10% believe software purchase have no impact at all;

* 2% believe software purchases have somewhat negative impact; and
* 0,5% believe software purchase have very negative impact.

The survey also looked at the success of businesses in engaging with customers in digital environments, such as social media and the business website.

The most positive response, with 47%, shared that a digital engagement with customers has been very much of a success; while it has fairly been successful for 40% respondents, almost three quarters (11%) of respondents said the digital engagement with customers is a minimal success.

However, customer digital engagements are not at all successful for 2% of respondents. Any shift that was unplanned always comes with challenges, and as such, businesses have experienced moderately challenging aspects in converting their businesses digitally, converting the in-person services provided to be online (for example, teaching classes online) had the highest respondents with 43% This is followed by 41% of respondents who said shifting from in-person meetings to virtual ones is also moderately challenging.

In order to drive support in the digital shift, the survey asked the respondents which other emerging technologies could be valuable to their businesses as well as to drive the success of their business digital transformation; and 58% believe that Internet of things (IoT) connectivity could be beneficial to their business, followed by 58% who believed in Big data analytics to a range of 49% to 46% of respondents who believed that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning as well as cloud-based data storage would be valuable to their business leaving 10% who believe that blockchain could also be valuable to their businesses.