Big data has for years held a reputation as a business tool that only large corporates have the time, money, and human resources to use effectively. But, as is so often the case with technological disruptions – what once seemed unattainable is becoming sleeker, faster, more affordable, and more user-friendly than ever before. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that with strategic usage, even small businesses can gain as much advantage from big data as any Fortune 500 company.
To start with, what is big data? Organisations deal with data every day, from customer profiles to supply chain processes and sales figures. Big data takes this operational information-gathering to the next level. Multiple data sets are drawn together to create a large resource of facts and figures, which (and here’s the most important part!) are subjected to complex analysis to pluck out useful insights that enhance business operations.
Traditionally, SMEs haven’t delved much into big data. When you’re busy trying to build a successful business from the ground up, submerging yourself in statistics probably sounds more like a hindrance than help. But times have changed, and over the years, capitalising on big data has become a lot easier and more budget-accessible for SMEs. No need for dedicated data managers and unaffordable analytics platforms.
In fact, over 70% of respondents to a global survey of small businesses found that the adoption of this type of technology exceeded their expectations. Closer to home, 27% of SME decision-makers expect to be using big data within the next five years. If entrepreneurs are brave (and forward-thinking) enough to take the plunge into big data, there are many business advantages to be gained… especially before everyone else catches on.
A detailed understanding of your customers
You may think you have a good picture of your customers, but inevitably you’ll encounter blind spots at some point. Big data can fill in the blanks and give that same customer picture HD-clarity. Buying habits, consumer profiles, satisfaction levels, social media usage – combine this information, apply the right machine learning algorithm, and the result is a far better understanding of customer wants and needs, which you can then work to better fulfil. This applies to both the product or service you’re selling and the way you’re marketing it.
Perhaps even more importantly, big data can help you get ahead of trends. There are a few things more valuable to a business than having the first-mover advantage as latent demand surfaces. And the best thing about big data is that it’s based on solid facts and figures. When it comes to predictive decision-making, it removes assumptions and guesswork, allowing you to get off the starting block first, and with sure footing.
Improved internal processes for your company
Big data is not just about heightening customer relationships. It’s a powerful resource with massive benefits for organisations internally as well. And not just in terms of time- and cost-savings around business analysis.
Crunch your operational statistics, and you may find surprising ways to optimise processes – such as identifying places where automation can be introduced or retooling your staffing to meet shifting demands over the workweek. In addition to reinforcing business decisions, big data is excellent at helping to identify problems in real-time and correct course. Today, solutions are available immediately, when in the past it could take weeks or months to mine such valuable insights.
Related: Can Your Marketing Team Speak Data?
Tools to take advantage of big data
What do you need to make the most out of big data as a small-business owner? In the digital age, the foundation is a reliable high-speed Internet connection. This is because of big data’s own evolution. Data analysis was once a lengthy process which required a large amount of hardware storage (and, before that, filing cabinets), it has now evolved into a digital product provided by many business solutions providers over the cloud. The handling of information is streamlined in this way, and setting up databases, sending information for analysis, or receiving meaningful results, happens almost instantly.
SMEs may not have the resources of their more established, big sibling rivals. However, up-and-coming businesses do typically have the advantage of agility thanks to their size. It’s easier for a start-up to move quickly, redirect as needed, and act on just-gained insights and trends. This makes big data no longer “nice but unnecessary,” but an essential tool to give your company that all-important advantage in the digital economy.
The Rising Cost Of Small Business
Many of the hidden costs that tend to surprise small business owners are related to the employment of people. However, the silver lining is that there are ways to mitigate the risks associated with scaling a business and several tools available to streamline HR processes.
A small business starts with a visionary dream fueled by energy and grit. Founders build on that and attract a small team of people who can help breathe life into the business. But not very long after setting out on course, the harsh realisation of rising costs like insurance, permits, licenses, equipment, maintenance, taxes, shrinkage and utilities suddenly appear.
Poor Labour Relations Management
Extensive labour laws in South Africa require dedicated overseeing and management, which generally lead to additional costs of employing labour consultants or hiring human resources managers that are not entirely relate to the core of your business. However, left unattended, labour relations issues can and will shut down your shop.
Labour relations issues cost South African companies R14 billion annually. Many companies have costly compensation orders from the CCMA due to Line Managers and HR employees not complying with legislation regarding disciplinary matters.
A surprising statistic from SEFA suggested that of the small businesses that fail, 40% of them can be attributed to poor labour relations management, therefore managing disciplinary processes by the book is critical. There are useful templates as well as step by step guides available online to help managers through disciplinary processes and to avoid incurring penalties from the CCMA.
By law employees are entitled to at least 15 working days’ vacation leave in every leave cycle. Employers could face substantial penalties from the Department of Labour if they do not allow employees to take leave. Planning for peak and off peak periods in businesses is a critical part of drafting job specs and these conditions must be communicated to staff early on.
The cost of poor leave management will contribute to the company’s leave liability i.e. the amount of leave an employee is owed is noted as a liability in the general ledger. Annual leave that employees do not take is a hidden expense for a business that if left unattended, will accrue and create cash flow problems for the business.
Employers are advised to make use of a leave management tool that enables both the employer as well as their employees to keep track of leave days owed to employees and brings some automation in to the process.
The Basic Conditions of Employment Act ensures that all employees are “entitled” to a minimum of 30 days (for a 5 day workweek) and 36 days (for a 6 day workweek) paid sick leave.
According to Occupational Care South Africa (OCSA), absenteeism costs the South African economy around R12 -R16 billion per year. This equates to around 15% of employees being absent on any given day. The answer isn’t to go on a witch hunt throwing policy at employees and demanding doctor’s notes for even a few hours off work (employers are not allowed to breach medical confidentiality by requesting a diagnosis on a sick leave note).
Alternatively, employers can be proactive in managing absenteeism by monitoring leave reports monthly and quarterly taking regular health interventions (e.g. flu shots) before a peak sick leave season e.g. before winter. Maintaining a positive work environment where employees feel acknowledged and are encouraged to perform goes a long way in keep workers present and absenteeism on the low.
Is Unmanaged Stress Killing Off Our SMMEs?
Most SMMEs don’t make it past their first year. This is worrying for an economy in which SMMEs are a vital part of growth. A range of reasons are given for what is stifling these businesses, from financing to access to markets, but one factor has been completely overlooked: Stress.
It is now widely understood that Small Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) are key to a country’s economic- and employment growth, but something is amiss in South Africa. Our SMMEs are just not doing what they should and understanding why this is – and fixing it – will be critical to the future success and sustainability of the economy.
The common conversations around SMME failure rates point at six main culprits: (1) access to funding, (2) access to markets, (3) infrastructure challenges, (4) scalability, (5) tough regulations, and (6) skills/education. The problem is that we have known about these for years, and for all the efforts to address them, we are unfortunately not seeing the growth in the sector that is needed.
A recent survey by the Small Business Institute (SBI) and the Small Business Project (SBP) put the number of formal SMMEs in South Africa currently at just 250,000. These numbers are alarmingly low – especially when compared with international benchmarks. SMMEs in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, make up 95% of businesses, and employ between 60%–70% of the working population, contributing up to 60% to GDP. In South Africa, while SMMEs make up 98% of the business population, they only employ 28% of the nation’s workforce, according to Chris Darroll, CEO of the SBP.
And yet the government continues to pin its hopes on the SMME sector. Initiatives like the DTI’s Invest SA and the South African Investment Conference this October, that claims to have attracted billions in foreign investment to the country, have foregrounded the role of SMMEs in economic revival. And the Government’s National Development Plan aims to have SMMEs contributing 90% of job growth by 2030. It is likely that more money will be channelled into support for the sector, to join the billions that have already been spent on incubators and initiatives to help small businesses.
This is a good thing, but it is not enough. The numbers speak for themselves. To date, none of these initiatives has borne much fruit and this signals that we may be overlooking something fundamental. Our collaborative research at the UCT Graduate School of Business suggests that what is being overlooked is something that most of us find difficult to define, or even talk about: Stress.
Stress is under-acknowledged by most people, personally and professionally, and for varied reasons. And this can have devastating effects. If ignored in business, the human devastation is likely to have larger scale effects on job loss, workforce disengagement, health-related days off, impaired teamwork, sub-optimal decision-making, lowering of productivity, and ultimately fuelling a declining economy.
While access to finance and markets, infrastructure and scalability challenges, tough regulations, and not enough educated and skilled employees are all valid hurdles tripping up SMMEs, the fact is that they are perfectly normal hurdles to have in a competitive, emerging economy. Our research reveals that good leaders, who are able to get their businesses over each encountered hurdle, are also able to manage their personal negative stress and harness their positive stress.
Stress can, generally, be quite motivating, however it is generally accepted that there are three kinds of stress: (1) positive stress, which is chosen and does not last very long (like writing an exam), (2) tolerable stress, which is unexpected and lasts a little longer, but then stops and there is time to process, and (3) toxic stress or distress. Toxic stress is tolerable stress left to run on and on without end, without rest and without time for healing and processing. It is this third and debilitating kind of stress that business leaders are likely to experience, and in SMMEs it can be even more severe.
Our research suggests that SMME owners tend to set very high, and often lofty, goals for themselves when setting up their SMMEs. And then they are constantly feeling stretched in either striving for these goals or ‘maintaining the course’. This can mean maintaining good business results, maintaining the customer base, where often 20% of the customer base accounts for 80% of the revenue, maintaining employment levels in changing political and economic conditions, maintaining pricing when squeezed for ever-lower prices while delivering good quality products and services, having their integrity challenged, and dealing with clients/customers who are not averse to replacing their products/services.
Another cause of stress for SMME business owners is that they mostly have internal loci of control, meaning that they take personal responsibility for outcomes and results and therefore blame themselves for every failure, and find it difficult to forgive themselves for deviations from intended results. In addition, an innate sense of accountability to their staff and their staffs’ families reportedly weighs heavily on business owners. Many feel similar accountability toward the broader stakeholder groups that their businesses serve.
All of these factors, which many argue are innate to the nature of business, place undue, long-term pressure (toxic stress/distress) on the cognitive, emotional, psychological and spiritual resources of individual business owners. This reportedly leads to drops in productive activity and motivation, withdrawal from relationships both personal and professional, low energy, impaired decision-making and ill health. And it also destroys resilience – leaving business leaders unable to ‘bounce back’ from personal- or business-setbacks, which is part and parcel of life and business. With a debilitated leader, the business is almost always likely to suffer, on a day-to-day basis and also in the long run. Like a virus, stress transfers to others.
An SMME’s success is inextricably linked to having an effective leader. And effective leadership is inextricably linked to effective stress management and self-care. It stands to reason, therefore, that improving the way SMME business owners manage their stress and boundaries could have a significant impact on improving business survival rates.
Along with offering business advice, funding incubators, opening up markets, attracting foreign investors, educating consumers, subsidising and improving infrastructure, the government should be looking at ways to encourage stress management and self-care into the daily operations of small to medium-sized businesses.
We need to get business owners educated about stress and self-care: about how exercise, sleep, diet, meditation, life-balance, self-forgiveness, and other-forgiveness affect them, their staff and their businesses. Effective self-care, of which stress management is a part, will enable business owners to courageously stay resilient in the ongoing stressful situations they will naturally encounter. This may, in turn, help to turn the tide in South Africa’s SMME sector so that it can drive the country’s economic revival like everyone hopes it will.
Many SMEs Start With Great Plans But Fail To Take The Big Leap
Most small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are aware of the benefits of good governance practice but, faced with limited time and resources, which could be costly in supporting growth ambitions.
- 27% of SMEs don’t have a vision that covers more than the next 12 months
- 45% of SMEs either don’t have a strategy, or one which covers only the next 12 months or less.
The latest global research, inclusive of Africa in supporting small business growth from ACCA, outlines the governance needs of SMEs. It highlights simple but effective practice over vision, strategy and human capital can provide them with greater flexibility, adaptability and resilience as they grow. This a huge factor in the long-term sustainability of the business, if put in practise.
“If you incorporate good practice for running your business from an early stage, your company is more likely to be resilient and is more likely to appeal to external investment,” explains Jo Iwasaki, head of corporate governance at ACCA. It is about leadership directing the company and being aware of factors both within and beyond their enterprise and build resilient organisations in the face pf the changing world.
The research also found that half (49%) of SMEs do not involve anyone external in their strategy discussions, despite the benefits experienced by those that do, which include additional experience and knowledge of the industry/sector (according to 46%), an independent perspective / constructive criticism (44%) and advice on their growth strategy (39%).
“There are a lot of daily concerns for the leaders of a small business, and often the biggest challenge is meeting day-to-day operations and cash management needs while thinking about the long-term future of the company. And while many leaders are keenly aware of the importance of resilience in the rapidly changing business environment and of buy-in from stakeholders, for example funders and employees, there often may not be the time to think or do much about it,” added Iwasaki.
“I hope that this research helps SMEs in focusing on some of the most crucial issues, and can be a resource not just to SMEs themselves but also to policymakers,” concluded Iwasaki.
How vision and strategy helps small business succeed is available at ACCA Global.