The Great Digital Divide

Posted On 2023-12-26

Author Sundar Sampath

“Every company is a technology company, no matter what product or service it provides. The companies that embrace this fact are the ones that shape our world.” - Stephanie Stone, Forbes Technology Council Post, Jan 2017

I learned the above mantra about every company being a technology company from my boss in my last company. It sounded strange having worked in technology service and product companies throughout my career. I always thought every company has a core business and related competency, and technology is only an aid or an enabler. We were always told to concentrate on core competency and outsource the rest to the experts.

Technology as a disrupter

However, the above Forbes post has been ringing true in the last few years more than ever. Especially in India, we have seen how the availability of cheap and extensive internet, the adoption of e-commerce models, and, more importantly, the advent of indigenous technologies like UPI have changed the face of traditional Indian businesses and disrupted the tried and tested models. 

The new building blocks of business

While the core business can be manufacturing a pin or selling a car, the ground rules around the building blocks have significantly changed in the last decade. Technology has permeated every step of the operation, be it making, delivering, or marketing. 

We cannot imagine any successful and scalable business (scalable being the key operative word here) without technology playing a significant part in

  • Managing core operations through an end-to-end workflow 
  • Tracking employee lifecycle 
  • Customer Relationship Management
  • Inventory
  • Payroll processes
  • Accounting and finance processes, including point of sales, payments, and collections.
  • Contract management (both for customers and vendors)
  • Planning and budgeting
  • Marketing, including digital marketing.
  • Compliance management 
  • Customer support/experience management

And if the core business is B2C or D2C, which might or might not involve an e-commerce marketplace, then technology becomes much more intertwined.

The haves and the have-nots 

This got me thinking – are all companies created equal? If the building blocks of business are the same for everyone, can all companies access them, irrespective of their size and scale? 

To simplify things, let us categorize companies as big enterprises (with over a turnover of Rs.100 crores) and start-up and medium enterprises (SMEs). 

When it comes to technology services and products themselves, there are multiple vendors and products in the ecosystem that cater to both ends of the spectrum. 

For example, A big enterprise can choose to implement SAP or Netsuite as its Financial system, while a medium one can go for Zoho, and a smaller one can go for Tally. 

But is that enough?  

If someone believes that a one-time selection or implementation of a financial, CRM, or business workflow system can guarantee success, I have a Taj Mahal to sell them! ????

Let me add some dimensions to this.

  • The growing scale of the business
  • Evolving complexities 
  • Newer compliances
  • Ever-changing customer preferences
  • Uncertainties in operating markets
  • Disruptions in the digital landscape, including AI and ML

How does a business travel through all the above and transform its building blocks dynamically?

And more importantly, does an SME possess the same tools as a big enterprise to adapt to the above changes?

The X factor

We have repeatedly seen how some bigger and better enterprises traverse through the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) landscape and stay ahead of the curve. The key is to understand the secret sauce behind this. 

As we all know, the technology landscape, including the products, services, tools, and techniques, is reasonably democratized, but if so, why can some companies (especially the big ones) take advantage? In contrast, others fall behind or even fail.

What separates the winners from the rest?

Strategic approach to technology

One of the significant winning approaches is to realize that technology is at the core of the business rather than seeing it as an enabler. 

Successful organizations make this paradigm shift much earlier, so a technology executive is always a part of the C Suite (Chief Technology Officer or Chief Information Officer). 

The CTO/CIO is at the forefront, aiding the core business in adopting technology optimally to suit its ever-changing needs. They work with the CEO, CFO, CHRO, and, more importantly, with Chief Revenue/Sales and Marketing officers, given how digital/tech strategy is crucial for Revenue augmentation these days. 

The Digital divide

Now comes the important and obvious challenge for SMEs. Prudence dictates that they use their resources frugally. Hiring a full-time CTO/CIO is costly. Hence, more often than not, the founder, promoter, or CEO delegates it to the CFO, CHRO, and other C-suite executives to manage the technology stack and the digital strategy within their functions. This approach works initially but not without its pitfalls. 

  • Siloed has yet to have a common organizational strategy for technology.
  • They are conflicting rather than collaborative approaches, with each C-Suite leader trying to dictate only their priorities.
  • Suboptimal and rigid tech landscape that makes scalability and change management difficult.
  • CXO bandwidth is prioritized only for core business/operations; hence, technology always takes a backseat.
  • Other than cost, an SME might not be able to attract a full-time, experienced CTO/CIO as
  • It can never provide diverse challenges to the individual, leaving them unsatiated. This might result in constant attrition and churn.
  • CTO/CIO also needs a team /ecosystem to deliver effectively. Once again, this adds to the cost factor.

A Level playing field – When a Fraction becomes a whole piece!

Fractional CXOs is an idea whose time has come. 

For example, in the context of Indian SMEs, CFOBridge has been at the forefront of successfully providing fractional CFO services and strategic finance advisory services over the last decade. This means that SMEs get a gold standard CFO support only available to big enterprises until then. 

Extending the same logic, fractional CTOs can provide a level playing field on technology to SMEs. The guiding principles are the same.

  • Unified and strategic approach to technology
  • No burden of fulltime cost.
  • Affordable price points, pay based on use only.
  • Ability to plug and unplug the CTO services based on need.
  • Ability to engage the best and most experienced CTO/CIO practitioners. 
  • Multiple models of engagement – Retainer or special assignment-based. 
  • Institutionalized knowledge of diverse CTO experiences.

Decade of Dazzle 

The next decade is supposed to be India's decade, with every other global economic organization forecasting India's outperformance. SMEs that utilize technology better will come out trumps over others. A weapon has been unveiled in the form of fractional CTO services, and it's now incumbent upon SMEs to arm themselves sooner! As they say, "Time is of the essence."

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