Round table on the digital transformation of SMEs with Monique Cohen, Bertrand Pivin and Thomas de Villeneuve

Monique Cohen, Bertrand Pivin and Thomas de Villeneuve share their observations regarding the key success factors for digital transformation and explain why, as investors, they see digital technology as a growth opportunity for French SMEs.

The Chairman and CEO, the driving force behind digital transformation

B-Pivin_M-Cohen_T-de-VilleneuveThe foremost component of digital transformation: the Chairman and CEO’s involvement. “As directors, we make sure that the will and the expertise needed to implement digital transformation are present within the Executive Committee” remarks Thomas de Villeneuve, a Partner specialising in TMT. “The presence of a Chief Digital Officer is not always a good thing and does not take the place of the involvement of the Chairman and CEO and the Executive Committee: everyone must be aware of the challenges of digital technology” he adds.

To raise awareness among the heads of SMEs in which it is a shareholder, Apax Partners offers them a trip to Singularity University, a Silicon Valley university that welcomes the top management of the largest international companies to solve the “great challenges of humanity”. Bertrand Pivin, Partner specialising in Services to Businesses and Health, has just returned from there. “Singularity University helps leaders to get out of their comfort zones by exposing them to state of the art in various research fields”.

Although one week on this former NASA campus provides awareness of the latest technological advances, the programme’s objective is not, according to Bernard Pivin, “to marvel at technology”, but rather to consider the ways to integrate these changes in one’s business. “We know that in the future, cars will not require drivers. Beyond technological innovation, one must wonder what profound changes will be brought about by this new technology for our environment, resource consumption, the layout of cities, methods of insurance, etc.” he explains.

Once awareness has been instilled, it is a matter of keeping up with the latest innovations in your sector. “We help leaders to stay abreast of everything that affects their ecosystems” declares Monique Cohen, a Partner at Apax Partners. She is a specialist in Business and Financial Services and will analyse, for example, the white paper on innovation and digital transformation in the insurance field prior to providing it to the management of TEXA, a B2B player in insurance, a company in the Apax Partners portfolio.

Measure and motivate

“If we want digital transformation to take place, it must be measured” asserts Thomas de Villeneuve. “KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) must therefore be defined, which will make it possible to measure the progress and the impacts of digitalisation”. Citing InfoPro Digital as an example, he reels off at speed the number of purely digital subscribers and the number of developers. In his opinion, digitalisation impacts the entire company and all its processes: workflow, product design, IT choices, revenue sources, etc. The KPIs selected must reflect the various components of a committed digital transformation.

Beyond the project, the compensation and human resources management systems must be adjusted. It is also appropriate to ensure that the teams’ incentives schemes include components associated with digitalisation.

The last component of the digital triptych as stated by Thomas de Villeneuve: an appropriate balance between objectives and budgets. “Top management ensures that the digital objectives set are realistic, and makes available the financial and human resources that facilitate investment in the things that will foster digitalisation: IT, individuals, etc.”

Bernard Pivin cautions against force of habit and preconceived ideas: “Remarks such as “We’ve always done it this way” or “It will never work” overwhelm the Company’s transformation”. He therefore invites leaders to develop innovation “on the outskirts of the empire”, without using resources connected to the core business – lest the existing organisation feel threatened and nip the project in the bud.

Understanding the technology

The Apax Partners are unanimous: the leader must understand the technology used in his or her company. This is one of the conditions for the emergence of a “technological culture”. Monique Cohen describes the involvement of Pierre-Antoine Lagé, TEXA‘s CEO, in the recent redesign of the Group’s IT system.

Thomas de Villeneuve describes the advantage of the “technological asset”: “Developing your own technological know-how while remaining on open platforms makes it possible to create additional value for the Company”.

Promoting customer loyalty and improving products thanks to digital technology

In Monique Cohen’s opinion, digital technology gives B2B companies a real opportunity to differentiate themselves – particularly thanks to Big Data, which is described as the “ability to shape information”. The challenge? “Becoming the service provider that takes care to feedback information that is intelligent and comprehensible”. A value added that is increasingly sought by customers.

Thomas de Villeneuve is also convinced that SMEs can now create better products thanks to digital technology. Referring back to InfoPro Digital, the leader in professional data in France, he explains how the group improved its media products: archival of contents, greater depth of information, continuous updates, ubiquity, etc. “Digital technologies have enabled InfoPro Digital to increase the value of its products and to offer customised solutions” he concludes.

Understanding where your risk is coming from

“The greatest risk is to not understand that digital technology represents an opportunity first and foremost” declares Thomas de Villeneuve. This TMT expert believes that digital technology only becomes a risk “when others go faster than you and the competitive advantages are dubious”. He therefore encourages leaders to use offensive tactics and accept “risk-taking”. Some principles remain unchanged in this new digital world: the best defence is always a good offence.

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Apax Talks is a digital magazine aimed at company managers. It presents growth levers for SMEs, with a focus on TMT, consumer, healthcare and services sectors.