Bringing digitalisation to the masses

Launched at the height of the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown in the Netherlands, the MKB Digital Workspace programme connects tech students with the owners of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs, also known as MKBs in Dutch) to work on digitisation projects, like building an e-tail shop, organising a webinar and using AI.

Over the next three years, the project hopes to bring together 750 businesses and over 2,000 students. Participating companies receive a subsidy of €3,000 to help cover the costs of going digital – a move which will also ideally benefit them right away. "It’s important that MKB Digital Workspace works to immediately generate additional turnover, more customers or reduced costs," says project manager Ellen Spithoven.

MKB Ellen Spithoven

Ellen Spithoven

Bringing the worlds of business, academia, government and tech together 

MKB Digital Workspace involves a whole spectrum of partners: ACE Incubator, TechConnect, Innovate Today, KplusV, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate, the province of North Holland, the Municipality of Amsterdam and Rabobank. The region’s main universities, colleges and training institutions are also involved, including the University of Amsterdam, VU Amsterdam and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

As students help SME owners embrace a new digital world, they can also experience what it’s like to work in a small company – and perhaps network their way into a future job at the same time.

Helping companies get the most out of their data

The initial inspiration for the project came from Joost Reimert, responsible for SME projects within ACE Incubator, who had already developed various related projects, including Ready2Scale

“In this capacity, he noticed a lot of valuable data was being generated, but very little of it was being applied by companies due to a lack of time, knowledge or finances,” says Spithoven. “We’re both entrepreneurs ourselves, so we saw a real opportunity here,” she says. “And we soon discovered that according to research from McKinsey, digitalisation in the Netherlands was actually stagnating and that we are simply not working efficiently enough.” 

Ready to scale, but slow to start

Not only does ACE Incubator directly support academic spin-offs from many of the region’s universities and colleges – many of which are also ACE shareholders – but the Ready2Scale programme worked to further strengthen these ties by introducing young talent to companies looking to accelerate their growth. However, while there were already these direct connections with Amsterdam’s educational institutions, the initial response from the SME world was slow.

“Operators of smaller businesses are always very busy. They are not concerned with the digitalisation of processes. And here was the challenge: to make them aware that digitalisation can mean increased turnover and saving time,” says Spithoven. 

The project gained momentum when Rabobank stepped in as a partner and financer. “Thanks to them, we can generate leads from their client base by reaching out via social media with clear examples that show how digitalisation can work to a business’s advantage.”

Creating ambassadors to spread the word 

Over the last two months, the programme has been able to create ambassadors who can share their success stories with other business owners. “And once the baker on the corner has made the move, it’s more likely that the baker on the next corner will be inspired to make a similar move,” says Spithoven.

For example, data science students helped Bakkerij en Lunchroom Royal to predict its daily turnover based on the weather forecast. “Because of this, we could better estimate how many workers we should schedule,” says owner Jules Lauwerijssen. “And that’s good for keeping our costs down and our customers happy.”

Students participating in MKB also developed an app for the construction company Hoedemakers bouw en ontwikkeling that helped it track the financial status of its projects. “Now, our numbers are being clearly visualised, which gives everyone involved a clear overview of a particular job,” says owner Marc Hoedemakers.

Convincing companies to get on board

Since the launch of MKB Digital Workplace, Spithoven has been surprised by how many businesses are still doing their logistical planning on whiteboards. “As a result, if something changes and the manager is gone, there’s total panic,” she says. “Students can really help with solving specific problems, even if it’s just making sure you don’t become a victim of hacking or phishing emails.”

“Or take the example of a company that exists already for seven years and has two locations, but its employees still have to email each other when they’re working on an Excel sheet. This is not only a waste of time, but a recipe for making mistakes – mistakes that can be easily avoided. We need to reach out and convince more of these companies that there are alternatives that free up time so they can focus on growth.” 

For more information on applying for this programme: MKB Digital Workspace. Or you can reach out directly to Ellen Spithoven via email.