Partnership is crucial in helping Asia Pacific’s SMBs navigate COVID-19

Partnership is crucial in helping Asia Pacific’s SMBs navigate COVID-19

By Ahmed Mazhari, President, Microsoft Asia 

The growth and development of SMBs in Asia-Pacific over the decades have been key to the region’s economic success. According to Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, more than 90 percent of all Asia-Pacific businesses are SMBs, and they account for more than half of all our workers. This means that the region’s job security is highly dependent on SMBs and its relevance is even higher with 60 percent of the world’s population in Asia.

Successfully overcoming this pandemic, including the collateral damage inflicted on SMBs is a battle that institutions, organizations, and government bodies have to come together to make an impact. I believe success can be ensured via collaboration in a Public-Private Partnership with an ecosystem approach.

Business has stepped up to support governments in public-private partnership (PPP)

Governments across the region are doing all they can to protect people and their livelihoods. For example, the Indian government recently earmarked USD$260 billion in additional support to revive the country’s economy, and countries from Singapore to China and Australia have also made significant investments in the sector. In Taiwan, our partnership with the Ministry of Education (MoE) significantly accelerated the nationwide transition for digital education and smart campuses, by enabling 2.5 million students and 200,000 teachers to learn remotely with Office 365 and Microsoft Teams.

Similarly, we’ve also committed ourselves to assisting SMBs in the region. This includes working to support new and existing government measures intended for strengthening SMBs during the pandemic. For example, collaborating with China Chain Store & Franchise Association (CCFA) allowed us to provide retailers challenged by the pandemic targeted digital solutions and technical support to sustain their operations and ensure business continuity.

Calm and collected man working from home

Working together as an industry ecosystem can keep SMBs open

I strongly believe that if we can equip our SMBs with the capability to remain operational during this crisis, we can introduce an opportunity for them to reimagine themselves to meet the new needs of customers now, and in the post-COVID environment. They would stand a better chance to rebound faster, become more resilient and successful in the long-term. As Disaster Recovery International (DRI) recently noted, restarting a business is much harder than shutting one down. Now is the time for industry ecosystems to come together to help members remain afloat. Undoubtedly, helping businesses to continue operation is critical – but so is preparing them for a post-COVID world, given as DRI noted; “Our habits may have changed (forever), together with the width of our wallets.”

In China, where those in remote areas are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, Chengdu Third People’s Hospital and Huili County People’s Hospital introduced a remote consultation platform. Using surface and their laptops, doctors can now provide expert consultations online and in real-time to patients, anytime and anywhere. Not only did this ensure delivery of critical services remotely, but also the continuation of SMB healthcare ecosystem, such as pharmacies and health stores, which supplies medicine to patients in remote areas.

Extreme pressure and opportunity can form SMB diamonds

Often, we see the greatest innovations arise under the greatest pressure. As our CEO Satya Nadella recently stated: “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”

A SMB leader with a growth mindset sees an opportunity to transform, for that matter leapfrog, during a time of immense business challenge. When India instituted a full lockdown on short notice Panacea Biotech got 600 users on Microsoft Teams urgently to ensure they could keep manufacturing medicines during this time. And a Japanese startup PSYGIC that specializes in big data solutions for self-driving vehicles among other things has switched gears and created a cloud-based system to autonomously monitor the body temperatures of people.

Going forward, all SMBs should also re-evaluate every aspect of their business with a digital-first mindset – finding new ways to develop and deliver their products and services for a post-COVID world – including:

  • Digitalizing operations and enabling remote work: What processes can be moved online to save costs, and how can it be done quickly? How can they enable remote work in just a few days to continue operations?
  • Targeting and business planning: Where is your industry going? If you’re an in-person business, how can you shift online? How can you provide a better end customer experience?
  • Security and IT: With the rise in cyber-attacks, what are some of the tools that can help take you forward in 2020, safely and securely?
  • Reskilling and reimagining the workforce model: What skills can your employees start learning to be prepared for this future? Will you employ more part timers and contractors; will you work from more distributed locations, collaborate across offices; or run a virtual company with a small core team – outsourcing everything else? It is said that in the next generation 65% of the jobs will be new.

How the larger business community can help

Helping SMBs with their adaptation to this “new normal” is our collective responsibility. Especially given SMBs’ crucial role in our region’s economy, and the vast numbers of businesses and jobs dependent on them.

Companies like ours and others in the tech sector must work with SMBs to make them more resilient, such that they can focus more on their business and less on security, technology, and operational issues.

For SMBs transitioning to online operations and delivery, Microsoft has shared Teams as a free offering to give them a leg up in the past six months. Cybersecurity is a particularly challenging area right now for SMBs – phishing and hacks have skyrocketed over the past several months, making businesses susceptible to attacks. By implementing a critical communications infrastructure that maintains security, such as on Teams, we can help them maintain operations and productivity.

In assisting businesses with securing their operations, sharing the best practices on how we can help SMBs more quickly navigate this challenging terrain and return focus to their core operations is one way we can go about it as well.

Together, SMBs can emerge from this current crisis stronger, more focused, and prepared for long-term stability. The future of Asia’s SMBs is ours as well; rebounding back to the strong growth Asia has achieved in the first 19 years of this century would take our collective partnership in this region.