The phrase “going digital” has become common in the corporate world during the past two decades, with both international and local companies digitally transforming their businesses to adapt to the current business climate.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has only been a catalyst for this change, forcing many companies to look for rushed digital solutions and make existing digital solutions seamless. This is exactly what SAP, the German multinational software corporation, did for their Sri Lankan clientele, according to SAP India Subcontinent Vice President and Head of Sales – South India and Sri Lanka Sajith Simon.

During the initial Covid-19 outbreak, SAP managed to maintain their business continuity with 24/7 support and services for more than 180 local customers who rely on the company. Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, Simon stated that many of their customers successfully went live on projects during the lockdown period, with the proactive participation from SAP Support.

SAP has been doing business in Sri Lanka for almost 20 years now, and has retained several major local conglomerates, such as John Keells Holdings (JKH) and Midas Safety, as loyal customers for almost 15 to 20 years. Traditionally, the company is known to be in the enterprise resource planning (ERP) software space, but in the last five to six years, they have also been able to offer companies end-to-end tech solutions that touch every aspect of the business, including that of the front office, customer engagement, ecommerce solutions, or even the backend in order to control of the supply chain and supplier networks.

“We pretty much touch every aspect of your business in terms of coverage, and we offer our Sri Lankan customers the same solutions we offer other clientele across the globe,” said Simon.

While digital transformation has been critical for businesses for a while now, the current pandemic has accelerated this change.

“What we see now is that things like traditional supplier networks have gone through a disruption. This is especially the case if you had suppliers from certain countries which are on lockdown now. So businesses need to reach out to new suppliers and their customers because their methods of delivery for their customers have also changed. The only way for businesses to adapt now is to use technology more effectively.”

Simon pointed out that what SAP brings to the table is not just a record of transactions of a respective company; they also are able to aggregate that company’s supply chain and customer expectations. They do this by providing an end-to-end digital platform that can seamlessly give their customers a great experience internally and also when it comes to the business’s customers and suppliers.

The current pandemic impacted SAP as well. However, according to him, they managed to revive and restart their operations effectively, which was to help support their customers through digitalisation. He explained that this was possible because the basic infrastructure as well as policies were already in place for them to operate remotely and today, all their local employees are operating remotely, with only basic IT support working at their core office.

“Due to our seamless business continuity, our support mechanisms are open for our customers 24/7.”

Simon stated that SAP continued to enable Sri Lankan businesses on their digital transformation journeys which has become the need of the hour owing to the pandemic. Midas Safety and JKH are two examples of customers who have successfully implemented and gone live on SAP’s solutions during this pandemic.

“We have continued to provide support services for customers on critical issues and their production servers. Whether it is in terms of upgrades they needed to do on specific timelines or ongoing projects, we managed to do them despite the pandemic.”

He explained that while it took them some time to adjust to the new normal of working from home, today they are fully equipped from a business continuity perspective to support their customers and partners.

However, while the company had all the infrastructure and policies in place to support this new work model, they faced challenges when it came to job roles which required more face-to-face interaction, such as sales which, in a digital sense, required getting used to.

Simon also stated that certain project deliveries did get delayed due to people working at different locations, and it took them some time to adjust and work towards a common objective.

“I would say the challenge for us was structured internally to get the overall rhythm right, and after that was done, the projects were back on track and getting delivered on time.”

He stated that another thing that changed was local customer behaviour, with their new behaviour showcasing that there was an expectation from customers for the support turnaround times to be more critical. Taking retail outlets as an example, he pointed out that pre-COVID, their online sales accumulated to around 30,000 to 40,000 units a year, but with the outbreak it had gone up to 3,000 to 4,000 a day. Therefore, whatever tech support the retail outlets needed from a backend perspective needed to be tweaked according to their demand.

“Due to our huge network of global customers, we already had experience supporting customers in other geographies with similar issues. So we were able to translate those learnings to the clients in Sri Lanka.”

He explained that this change has also extended to the supply side of companies, requiring them to have robust supplier networks together with a tech platform that predicts which suppliers can provide what and when. He stated that this is critical to how businesses produce and deliver to customers, and the traditional way of doing it is not meeting those expectations anymore.

Simon stated that this is why the most impacted businesses from the pandemic are the ones that did not have any proper digital systems in place, and had trouble transitioning to a remote working model.

“These companies need at least three people in office to forward even simple payments, but if they had a cloud-based platform for them to work remotely, the process can be done on the backend with minimal effort.”

Despite this, he applauded the Sri Lankan market for being at the forefront of cutting-edge technology, ever ready to adapt the latest tech in the market. Looking at their 20 years in Sri Lanka, he explained that when they launched new tech such as Hana, a high-performance in-memory database that speeds data-driven, real-time decisions and actions, the first customer to adopt it across the Asia Pacific region was a Sri Lankan company.

“So if you look at adopting tech, our Sri Lankan customers have been very open to use the latest tech solutions. While we have mostly seen it with our larger conglomerate clientele, over the last year we have seen the mid-range market, which is pretty big in this country, also looking to adopt new tech.”

Finally, speaking on their goals for Sri Lanka, Simon stated that they had a few things planned for this year, but unfortunately the Covid-19 pandemic got in the way. He explained that for them, the country having a large literate English-speaking population is a big plus point, and they want to use that and build up Sri Lanka’s IT industry in a big way.

To do this, he stated that SAP thought of putting together a plan for digital literacy and IT skills development in the country, which aligned with the Government’s goals for the industry. However this plan too was cut short due to the pandemic.

“This is an investment that we are very keen on doing in Sri Lanka, and it’s on the cards. We want to work with government agencies and universities to provide digital education and IT skills development.”

Simon stated that their second goal was to grow their partner network, so that they cover a broader market which will include small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Sri Lanka. He stated that to do this, they are currently working with four partners, to help increase the use of technology in these broader markets.

Moreover, he stated that they are currently working with the larger conglomerates to adopt technology by exposing them to customers in similar industries globally, that have been successful in leveraging these tech solutions.

“We have had a good run in Sri Lanka and with the future and the opportunity that we see here, our investment in the country is only going to grow upwards. Therefore, we look forward to growing and supporting our existing customers here.”

This article first appeared on The Sunday Morning.