Bridging the Automation Gap for SMEs- Part 3: Talent

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In the rapidly evolving world of automation and digital transformation, Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) often find themselves at a crossroads. While the benefits of automation are clear, the journey is riddled with challenges, especially when it comes to finding the right talent. Let's delve deeper into this talent conundrum and explore solutions.

The Talent Dilemma for SMEs

Time Constraints

For many SME owners, the day-to-day demands of running their business are all-consuming. From managing operations, overseeing finances, to handling customer relations, their plate is already full. Introducing automation into the mix requires not just an investment of money, but also of time. It involves:

Research and Learning: Understanding the nuances of automation, the latest technologies, and how they can be applied to their specific industry and business model.

Recruitment: The process of identifying, interviewing, and hiring the right talent is time-intensive. It's not just about finding someone with the right skills, but also someone who aligns with the company's culture and long-term vision.

Training and Onboarding: Even after hiring, there's a period of onboarding where the new hire gets acquainted with the company's processes, systems, and goals. This phase is crucial to ensure that the automation strategies implemented are in line with the company's objectives.

Ongoing Management: Automation doesn't mean "set it and forget it." It requires regular monitoring, updates, and tweaks to ensure everything runs smoothly. This means SME owners need to allocate time for regular check-ins, reviews, and strategy sessions.

Given these demands, it's understandable why many SME owners feel overwhelmed at the prospect of embarking on an automation journey. They are already stretched thin, and the thought of adding another massive project to their to-do list can be daunting.

Post-Implementation Concerns

One of the most significant apprehensions SMEs grapple with is the uncertainty surrounding the role of automation experts post-implementation. This concern stems from several factors:

Role Redundancy: SME owners often wonder, "Once the automation systems are in place and running smoothly, what will be the role of the automation expert?" There's a fear that once the primary tasks of setting up and integrating automation tools are completed, the expert might not have enough tasks to justify a full-time position.

Ongoing Costs: Maintaining a full-time automation expert on the payroll can be a significant expense. SMEs, which often operate on tighter budgets, need to ensure that every hire brings consistent value to the company. The prospect of bearing the salary of an expert whose primary tasks have been completed can be daunting.

Knowledge Transfer: There's also the challenge of knowledge transfer. If the automation expert decides to move on after the implementation, how does the company ensure that the knowledge doesn't leave with them? Training other staff members and ensuring there's documentation can be time-consuming.

System Evolution: Technology and business needs evolve. While the initial setup might be perfect for the current scenario, changes in market dynamics, customer preferences, or even technological advancements can necessitate updates. SMEs are concerned about whether they'll need to bring in the expert again for upgrades or if their in-house team can manage it.

Dependency Issues: There's a valid concern about becoming too dependent on a single expert. If the entire automation system is set up and managed by one individual, it can create a single point of failure. SMEs worry about the challenges they might face if that expert is unavailable during a critical issue.

Addressing these post-implementation concerns requires a combination of strategic planning, clear communication, and setting expectations right from the start. It's essential to view automation not as a one-off project but as an ongoing journey that will evolve with the business.

The Skill Search

Navigating the world of automation and digital transformation requires a specific set of skills, and finding the right talent can be a formidable challenge for SMEs. Several factors contribute to this difficulty:


Specialized Knowledge: Automation isn't a monolithic field. It encompasses various technologies, platforms, and methodologies. Whether it's machine learning, IoT integration, or robotic process automation, each area requires specialized knowledge. SMEs often struggle to pinpoint the exact expertise they need, especially when their needs span multiple domains.

Rapid Technological Evolution: The pace at which technology is advancing means that the skills required are continually evolving. What was considered cutting-edge expertise a year ago might be outdated today. This dynamic landscape makes it challenging for SMEs to identify professionals who are not only skilled but also up-to-date with the latest advancements.

Competition for Talent: With the increasing adoption of automation across industries, there's a high demand for skilled professionals. Larger corporations with deeper pockets often snap up the best talent, leaving SMEs in a competitive disadvantage when it comes to attracting and retaining top experts.

Cultural Fit: Beyond technical expertise, SMEs also need professionals who understand their unique culture, values, and business model. Finding someone who possesses both the technical know-how and aligns with the company's ethos can be like searching for a needle in a haystack.

Lack of Awareness: Many SMEs are venturing into automation for the first time. Without a clear understanding of the landscape, they might not even be aware of the range of skills available or how to evaluate the proficiency of potential hires.

To overcome these challenges, SMEs need to adopt a multifaceted approach. This might include partnerships with educational institutions, tapping into remote talent pools, offering continuous learning opportunities, and leveraging networks and platforms dedicated to automation professionals.

Budgetary Hurdles

Financial constraints are a common concern for SMEs, especially when considering the investment required for digital transformation and automation. Several factors contribute to these budgetary challenges:

High Initial Costs: Implementing automation solutions often requires significant upfront investment. This can include the cost of technology, software licenses, infrastructure upgrades, and hiring or training staff with specialized skills. For many SMEs, these initial costs can be daunting, especially if they're unsure of the return on investment.

Maintenance and Upgrades: Beyond the initial setup, automation systems need regular maintenance and occasional upgrades. As technology evolves, software may need updates, and hardware can become obsolete. These ongoing costs can strain an SME's budget, especially if they haven't been factored into the initial financial planning.

Unforeseen Expenses: Like any project, automation initiatives can encounter unexpected challenges that result in additional costs. Whether it's a software glitch that requires troubleshooting or the need to replace a piece of equipment earlier than anticipated, these unforeseen expenses can disrupt an SME's budget.

Cost of Talent: As previously discussed, the demand for automation professionals often outstrips supply, leading to competitive salary demands. Hiring top-tier talent can be expensive, and SMEs might struggle to offer competitive packages compared to larger corporations.

Return on Investment (ROI) Uncertainty: While automation promises efficiency and cost savings in the long run, it's not always easy for SMEs to quantify these benefits upfront. This uncertainty can make it challenging to justify the initial expenditure, especially if the ROI timeline is longer than anticipated.

Lack of Access to Financing: While larger corporations might have easier access to loans or external funding sources, SMEs might face challenges securing the necessary financing for their automation projects. Traditional lenders might be wary of the risks associated with technological investments, especially if the SME doesn't have a proven track record in automation.

To navigate these budgetary hurdles, SMEs need to approach automation with a clear financial strategy. This might involve phased investments, seeking out grants or subsidies, exploring alternative financing options, or partnering with solution providers who offer scalable, cost-effective solutions tailored to SMEs.

Geographical Challenges

The location of an SME can significantly influence its ability to adopt and benefit from automation. Several geographical factors can pose challenges:

Remote Locations: SMEs situated in remote or rural areas might face logistical challenges in obtaining the necessary equipment and technology for automation. Shipping costs can be higher, and delays more frequent, making the implementation process longer and more expensive.

Limited Local Talent Pool: In less urbanized areas, there might be a scarcity of local professionals with the required expertise in automation and digital transformation. This means SMEs might have to look further afield to hire, which can be costly and time-consuming.

Infrastructure Limitations: Rural or underdeveloped regions might lack the robust technological infrastructure needed for advanced automation. Issues like inconsistent internet connectivity, frequent power outages, or outdated electrical systems can hinder the effective deployment of digital solutions.

Access to Training and Development: Geographical isolation can also limit access to training centers or institutions offering courses in automation technologies. This can make upskilling current employees a challenge.

Networking and Collaboration: Being in a remote location might mean fewer opportunities for SMEs to network with peers, attend industry events, or collaborate on innovative projects. This lack of community engagement can slow down the pace of digital adoption.

Cultural and Regulatory Differences: For SMEs looking to implement global or standardized automation solutions, there might be local cultural or regulatory nuances to consider. What works in one region might need adjustments to be effective in another.

Supply Chain Complications: Geographical challenges aren't just about where the SME is located but also about the location of their suppliers and customers. Automation often involves integrating various parts of the supply chain, and if suppliers or customers are geographically dispersed, this can add layers of complexity.

To overcome these geographical challenges, SMEs can leverage digital tools to bridge the distance gap, consider partnerships with organizations that have a broader geographical reach, and explore remote working or consulting options to tap into a wider talent pool. Additionally, local government or community initiatives might offer support or incentives to businesses facing geographical constraints.

Bridging the Talent Gap: Solutions for SMEs

Harnessing Grants and Subsidies

Financial support in the form of grants and subsidies can be a game-changer for SMEs looking to embark on their automation journey. Here's a deeper dive into how these can be leveraged:

Understanding Available Opportunities: Various governmental and non-governmental organizations recognize the importance of automation for the growth of SMEs. They offer grants, subsidies, and tax incentives to encourage digital adoption. It's crucial for SMEs to stay informed about these opportunities, which can vary based on region, industry, and the specific nature of the project.

Application Process: While the prospect of receiving a grant is appealing, the application process can be intricate. It often requires a detailed proposal, outlining the project's objectives, expected outcomes, and a clear budget breakdown. SMEs should be prepared to invest time in crafting a compelling application, possibly seeking expert advice or consultancy to enhance their chances of success.

Matching Grants: Some grants work on a matching basis, where the granting body agrees to match the funds that the SME invests. This can effectively double the available budget for the project but requires the SME to have some initial capital to invest.

Training and Employment Subsidies: Beyond direct project funding, there are often subsidies available for hiring new employees in tech or automation roles, or for upskilling current staff. Programs like the Career Ready Program not only provide financial support but also ensure that SMEs have access to a pool of trained individuals ready to drive digital transformation.

Long-term Commitments: Some grants or subsidies might come with strings attached. For instance, an SME might be required to maintain certain employment levels, achieve specific milestones, or provide regular updates on the project's progress. It's essential to understand these commitments upfront to ensure compliance.

Post-Grant Reporting: After the funds have been utilized, SMEs might be required to submit a detailed report showcasing the project's outcomes, the impact on the business, and how the funds were used. This accountability ensures that the grants achieve their intended purpose of fostering innovation and growth.

By collaborating with partners like us, SMEs can navigate the complex landscape of grants and subsidies more effectively. We can assist in identifying the right opportunities, crafting strong applications, and ensuring that projects align with grant requirements, maximizing the chances of success.

Pilot Projects

Definition of a Pilot Project: A pilot project is a small-scale, short-term experiment that helps an organization learn how a large-scale project might work in practice. It acts as a prototype, allowing businesses to test hypotheses and methodologies before committing significant resources or undergoing full-scale implementation.

Risk Mitigation:One of the primary benefits of a pilot project is risk reduction. By testing a new process, tool, or strategy on a smaller scale, businesses can identify potential challenges or failures without the consequences of a full-scale rollout. If the pilot fails, the financial and operational implications are limited.

Cost-Effective Learning:Pilot projects often require a fraction of the budget of a full-scale project. This allows SMEs to learn, iterate, and refine their approach without a hefty financial commitment.

Stakeholder Engagement:Pilots can serve as a demonstration, providing tangible results that can be presented to stakeholders. This can be instrumental in gaining buy-in from decision-makers or securing additional funding for a larger rollout.

Feedback Loop Creation:Given their short-term nature, pilot projects enable rapid feedback. This continuous loop of implementation, feedback, and iteration can lead to more effective and efficient solutions.

Scalability Assessment:A successful pilot doesn't always guarantee success at scale. However, it provides valuable insights into what scaling challenges might arise and how they can be addressed.

Cultural Adaptation:Introducing new technologies or processes can be a cultural shift for many organizations. Pilot projects allow teams to acclimate to new ways of working gradually, facilitating smoother cultural transitions.

Vendor and Technology Evaluation:For SMEs looking to implement new technologies, pilot projects offer a chance to evaluate different vendors or solutions in a real-world context. This hands-on assessment can be more informative than sales presentations or demos.

Setting Benchmarks:The results from pilot projects can be used to set benchmarks for full-scale projects, providing clear metrics for success.

Building Momentum:A successful pilot can create momentum within an organization. Celebrating small wins can energize teams and build enthusiasm for broader digital transformation initiatives.

A pilot project serves as a tangible proof of concept, demonstrating the potential benefits and returns on investment (ROI) of a larger digital transformation initiative. By implementing a small-scale version of the intended solution, SMEs can assess the actual costs versus the benefits, such as increased efficiency, reduced waste, or enhanced product quality. When the pilot yields positive results, it provides a clear financial justification for further investment. Transitioning to a modular approach post-pilot becomes a strategic decision, as the initial success can be leveraged to secure funding or reallocate budgets. Each subsequent module can then be justified based on the proven ROI of the pilot, making it easier for stakeholders to support and invest in the broader transformation journey.

A Modular, Collaborative Approach

Embracing a modular and collaborative strategy can be a transformative approach for SMEs, especially when resources are limited or when the path to full automation is unclear. Here's a deeper understanding of this approach:

Phased Implementation: Instead of attempting a complete overhaul, SMEs can break down their automation journey into manageable modules or phases. This allows businesses to focus on one specific challenge or department at a time, ensuring that each step is well-executed and brings tangible benefits.

Immediate ROI: By addressing the most pressing issues first, SMEs can see quicker returns on their investment. This not only provides financial justification for the project but can also generate additional funds to invest in subsequent phases.

Risk Mitigation: A modular approach inherently reduces risk. If a particular module encounters challenges or doesn't yield the expected results, it's easier to make adjustments without affecting the entire automation initiative.

Collaborative Expertise: Collaboration is key. By partnering with experts in specific areas of automation, SMEs can tap into specialized knowledge without the need for long-term commitments. These experts can guide the implementation of each module, ensuring best practices are followed.

Flexibility and Scalability: As the business landscape evolves, new challenges and opportunities will arise. A modular approach offers the flexibility to adapt and scale. If a new technology emerges or market demands shift, SMEs can easily integrate these changes into their ongoing automation strategy.

Employee Engagement: A phased approach can be less disruptive for staff. It provides them with the opportunity to adapt to changes gradually, undergo necessary training, and become champions of the transformation. Engaging employees in the process can also lead to valuable insights, as they often have a deep understanding of on-ground challenges and potential solutions.

Feedback Loop: After the implementation of each module, SMEs can gather feedback, analyze results, and make informed decisions for subsequent phases. This iterative process ensures continuous improvement and refinement of the automation strategy.

In essence, a modular and collaborative approach is not just about technology; it's about strategically integrating automation into the business fabric. By working closely with partners like us, SMEs can ensure they're making informed, strategic decisions at each step, maximizing the benefits of their digital transformation journey.


The talent challenge in automation for SMEs is real, but it's not insurmountable. With strategic planning, leveraging available resources, and forging the right partnerships, SMEs can successfully navigate the automation landscape.

At Mod Engineering, we specialize in guiding SMEs through their digital transformation journey. We bring the talent, expertise, and hands-on experience you need to make your automation goals a reality. From conceptualizing pilot projects to executing a full-scale modular transformation, our team is equipped to be the talent you require. Let us be your trusted partner in this journey, ensuring that every step you take is strategic, efficient, and tailored to your unique needs. With Mod Engineering by your side, you're not just adopting technology; you're embracing a brighter, more efficient future for your business.

See you next week for how to start identifying gaps in your enterprise.  Bridging the Automation Gap for SMEs- Part 4: Identify Your Gaps.

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