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Microenterprises and entrepreneurs from the Veneto region meet industry 4.0

How will micro-enterprises keep pace with the ever-faster technological changes? How does digital transformation fit into the evolution of these? And what are the digital tools that allow them to work better?

This is the challenge taken up by the Department of Management of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice which, in concert with six other European partners, participates in the ECOS4IN project (International Ecosystem for Industry 4.0), funded by the INTERREG CENTRAL EUROPE 2014-2020 programme.

The main objective of the project is to contribute to the evolution of the organisational and technological culture within micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, of all economic-productive sectors, towards a greater awareness of the opportunities offered by the digital revolution.

Specifically, the Department of Management team, led by Professor Vladi Finotto, with the support of the Ca’ Foscari University Foundation, has created practical-training courses to respond quickly to the challenges that the fourth industrial revolution imposes.

Skills and digital integration: Italy has a long way to go

In terms of digitisation, Italy is confirmed to be in the bottom rank of the European scale: according to the index of digitalisation of the economy and society (DESI 2020) prepared by the European Commission, Italy is in twenty-fifth position out of 28 member states EU, ahead only of Romania, Greece and Bulgaria.

The Digital Economy and Society Index monitors a series of parameters to measure the level of digitisation of European countries in five macro areas: connectivity, digital skills, use of the Internet by individuals, integration of digital technologies by businesses and digital public services. Considering the "human capital" dimension, the one that concerns digital skills, Italy gets such a low score to be ranking last in the EU.

In fact, from the data referring to 2019, only 42% of the people (between 16 and 74 years old) have at least basic digital skills (58% in the EU, 70% in Germany). Furthermore, in the "Integration of digital technologies" dimension, the one that concerns digitalization in enterprieses, Italy is well below the EU average, being 22nd place out of 28 countries.

The revolution must involve micro-enterprises

The project is based on the belief that the fourth industrial revolution is now a challenge in all industrial sectors: a global challenge, the benefits of which will depend on the ability of local and regional realities to accept, apply and manage the necessary changes. The digitalisation of industry is not in fact a transformation exclusively of large international companies — even micro-enterprises are involved and have to get started.

To understand the weight of micro-enterprises within the Italian economic and production framework, one should dwell on the numbers: out of 4.4 million companies active in Italy, companies with less than 10 employees are the most important numerically, representing 94% of the total.

The Department of Management has therefore created a training course designed for entrepreneurs of small and micro enterprises, with the aim of making them acquire useful and effective tools to compete on the market, anticipating or responding to the changes of this industrial revolution.

"With this project, the European partners intend to make their knowledge and skills available to those enterprises, the smallest ones, which most need a translation of the 4.0 logic based on their specificities," explains Professor Vladi Finotto. "Furthermore, we aim to initiate profitable exchanges of experiences, knowledge and partnerships between companies and ecosystems in the European space. It is not true that smaller companies do not scale up or do not grow: they can do it. Thanks to digital and European networks, they can combine strengths and support each other in finding new markets and opportunities."

Training for 10 Venetian entrepreneurs

The last practical-training course, recently concluded, focused in particular on the combination of micro-enterprises and female entrepreneurship. It was attended by some entrepreneurs who are part of the Imprenditrici Venete group, whose purpose is to create a network between female entrepreneurial realities in the Veneto region, supporting the role of women in the economy.

The topic of female entrepreneurship is a very important one: talking about it also means talking about the context, the social fabric and culture in Italy, which has the lowest percentage of women in the labour market compared to other European Union states. Furthermore, despite their resilience, female businesses have been hit hard by the effects of the pandemic. As recorded by the Unioncamere and InfoCamere Women's Entrepreneurship Observatory, Covid has put a halt to the race that female entrepreneurship has been experiencing for six years: the 2020 budget certifies a 0.29% decline in companies led by women, namely 4 thousand fewer businesses than in 2019. Of the over 440 thousand jobs lost last year in Italy about 70% were occupied by women, as Istat (the Italian national institute of statistics) notes.

Ten entrepreneurs from the Veneto Region participated in the project developed by the Department of Management. They work in different sectors - from optics to florists, from furniture stores to jewellery - and are interested in some issues relating to digitisation, in particular E-commerce, social media marketing, big data, additive manufacturing and cloud.

The project was divided into three activities: online training sessions in asynchronous mode on the main 4.0 technologies applied to micro and small enterprises; a co-design workshop lasting two afternoons; and a personalised 4.0 mentoring session.

The workshops were at the centre of the project. They used Design Thinking for an innovative training experience which promoted the active use of technology. Design Thinking is a design method used worldwide that is rooted in creative co-design. It is useful to solve doubts and to identify new opportunities. It is a design approach which combines empathy, creativity and rationality to improve business. It is also centered on the individual: it starts from the user's dreams, needs and problems and creates modifications and products that satisfy them, through the use of technology. The focus of the workshops was practical learning, through a simulation of a case study which was shared on a digital whiteboard.

Working groups were created for the workshops, according to the principle of multidisciplinarity, so that team-members could offer expertise in different fields, solve problems more efficently and feel more creative. The teams analysed some of the issues that micro enterprises face, and team-members were encouraged to ask the "right" questions and to select some Industry 4.0 technologies that could offer solutions. Nowadays, businesses have far more technology at their disposal than they can use, but it is necessary to make this wealth accessible, and Design Thinking can help to achieve this aim. 

Enrico Costa, Andrea Mariam Corrente