The pandemic has served to confirm the huge importance of digitalisation, while it will continue to have a significant impact on companies’ daily operations. During the previous period, thanks to an excellent internal e-government development policy, the Government of Serbia succeeded in bringing dynamism to digitalisation, while it should now provide that same kind of support to various successful clusters of ICT businesses, which are ever-increasing in number in Serbia.
Judging by the results of an online survey on the impact of COVID-19 on the operations of companies, which was conducted by the Swiss- Serbian Chamber of Commerce among its members in November 2020, it seems that many of them managed to handle the challenges well.
“The aim of this research was to gain insight into the main challenges confronting the SSCC business community as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, but also to gain a better understanding of the needs of these companies and the issues of interest to them. According to the results of the research, more than half of respondents (approximately 60%) stated that, until that point in time, the COVID-19 Pandemic had not influenced their investment plans in Serbia for 2021. Likewise, 63% of respondents had resorted to digitalising their operations (to a greater or lesser extent) due to the COVID-19 Pandemic and the need to adapt to the new situation,” says SSCC President and Sky Express General Manager Majo Mićović.
Our interview with him focuses on the digitalisation and development of the IT sector, which Switzerland supports through its bilateral support to Serbia, and the advancement of the domestic economic environment.
Recently, together with other bilateral business associations, you organised a meeting with the Serbian Ministry of Finance and the Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Serbia. What are the key issues highlighted by your members today when it comes to the climate for doing business?
Ognjen Popović, acting assistant minister of finance in the Government of the Republic of Serbia, participated together with Mihailo Vesović, director of the CCIS Department for Strategic Analysis, Services and Internationalisation, in the online working meeting “Macroeconomic Trends of the Economy in the Context of COVID-19”. The key issues of companies related to the state’s economic support measures aimed at enabling the more successful overcoming of business challenges during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Speaking on that occasion, Acting Assistant Finance Minister Popović stressed that the total value of state assistance to the economy in 2020 amounted to 12.9% of GDP, while this year’s third support package amounts to 4.5% of GDP.
Mention was also made of the importance of Serbia’s ICT sector to companies’ successful operations. It was with this in mind that Director Vesović noted that the services sector is one of the drivers of the country’s economic recovery, and that the 2020 surplus in exchanges of this sector with foreign countries amounted to 1.1 billion euros, while the ICT sector provides a significant contribution to the realising of that surplus.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić recently noted that Serbia expects Switzerland’s assistance in advancing the development of Serbia’s innovative and sustainable economy. What can be provided by the corporate sector on this front?
Switzerland is one of the most important investors in the Serbian economy. Over recent years, cooperation between Switzerland and Serbia has been focused on investing in education, science, research and development, innovation and digitalisation, and it should continue in that direction. The IT industry is currently among the fastest growing branches of industry in Serbia and is bringing the potential to develop its own sophisticated software solutions and services, thanks to the growing number of technological start-ups, the entrepreneurial spirit and growing interest in IT sciences among youngsters.
Serbia has embarked on an accelerated path of digital transformation during COVID-19 – albeit from a lower starting point – when it comes to both e-government and enterprises. However, cyber security challenges are now growing. In your opinion, what are the most important steps to take in response to this challenge?
The pandemic has served to confirm the huge importance of digitalisation, while it will continue to have a significant impact on companies’ daily operations, with a focus on supporting remote work, virtual events, an orientation towards online operations and new platforms for productivity.
Cybercrime has become one of the most lucrative “grey” jobs and a serious threat, so cybersecurity shouldn’t be seen as an option, but rather as an indispensable part of every company and organisation’s digital transformation plan. In order for us to reduce the risk of data being compromised, the first step is for us to primarily be aware that cybercrime is on the rise year on year, and that information systems must be protected with adequate technologies, and it is only in this way that can oppose the hacker mafia.
Considering that this is an extremely specific branch of the IT industry, I wouldn’t single out concrete unifying steps, because it isn’t necessary for us all to be cyber security experts. I would rather direct companies and organisations to turn to those who are cyber security experts, in order to help them preserve one of the most valuable things that companies have – digital data. We have several companies that specialise in the domain of cyber security in Serbia and the region, such as the company whose operations I’m responsible for, Sky Express, which is a regional leader in the IT security domain.
We have several companies that specialise in the domain of cyber security in Serbia and the region, such as the company whose operations I’m responsible for, Sky Express, which is a regional leader in the IT security domain
What is the greatest strength of Serbia’s IT sector, given that many are today warning that it is no longer a cheap professional workforce? How, in that context, do you view the gaming industry, blockchain and AI in Serbia, which, according to some announcements, should repeat the success of the country’s IT sector?
The branches of the IT industry that you mention have to date contributed a significant share to the overall revenues of the IT sector, so I don’t expect that success to be “repeated”, but rather to evolve and develop into a referential ecosystem that will generate new “unicorns”. Blockchain, AI, Big Data and other technologies have become an indispensable part of the “connected world”, and they represent a brilliant opportunity to create new, applicable solutions that will improve the functioning of societies globally. Viewed from that perspective, it is essential to kindle applied creativity – to motivate colleagues to accept new technologies as quickly and with as much commitment as possible, to identify spheres of life that it is possible to improve and to combine and apply those technologies in the right way, with the aim of advancing. Such a milieu enables their even better emergence and the creation of completely new technologies.
The role of IT in the modern world, in business operations, in life, in short, is indispensable, even when that isn’t immediately evident. Modern communications, transportation, electricity and water supplies – all these aspects of life are heavily dependent on information technology, and they have become widely available and easy to operate thanks largely to IT. Such positive dependence will undoubtedly grow, and that’s precisely why we need to develop, strategically and systematically, both the IT sector and associated services which accompany that sector.
The digital transformation has also changed the skills that the workforce needs to have. To what extent are Swiss companies currently able to find suitable personnel?
The altered working environment caused by the pandemic has led to the accelerated adapting of both companies and personnel at the global level. The demands of the market are becoming increasingly challenging and companies and workers are being compelled to adapt in order to survive, and this is generally the case for all industries. Given that I also work in the area of digital data security, I can confirm that the workforce is in exceptionally short supply at the global level, in terms of cyber security engineers.
Research shows that there is a shortage of 3.12 million such experts globally. This is a worrying fact, considering that cybercrime is rising exponentially and that companies generally lack the human resources required to ensure the adequate security of their information systems.
In your personal opinion and that of the SSCC, what are the most important steps that can be taken today in order for Serbia to maintain its current growth rate?
According to the EBRD report, GDP in the first quarter of the current year increased by 1.7% compared to the same quarter of last year, as a result of the development of the construction sector, industrial production, trade, transport and tourism.
In order to attain a European level of prosperity, Serbia should accept more ambitious programmes, primarily economic, and then general social reforms that are harmonised with EU recommendations. More innovative motivating of foreign investors, as well as a more focused attitude towards internal investment programmes, are crucial.
In my opinion, the following items are crucial for the Government. The first is to finance companies that are undergoing expansion. Access to credit is the key difference between the expansion of operations or stagnation for smaller businesses or start-ups that have innovative ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit, but which lack financial resources. Serbia’s ICT sector is among the most promising. Just as the state succeeded in bringing dynamism to digitalisation through an excellent internal e-government development policy, via its Office for IT and eGovernment, so communication should be established with, and support provided to, various successful clusters of ICT businesses, which are ever-increasing in number in Serbia.
The second key item is to create an incentivising business environment. Among the most important issues are increasing the transparency of administrative procedures, simplifying excessively complex laws, improving the management of large systems and combating corruption.
And the third item is to foster and enhance competition. The competition policy should not only imply the combating of practises that undermine competition in the private sector, but also include an even more comprehensive reduction of measures resulting in state influence on the freedom of the market.
Cooperation between Switzerland and Serbia in recent years has been focused on investing in education, science, research and development, innovation and digitalisation, and it should continue in that direction
In order to attain a European level of prosperity, Serbia should accept the more innovative motivating of foreign investors and focus on internal investment programmes that are crucial
More than half of surveyed member companies of our chamber stated that the COVID-19 Pandemic had not influenced their investment plans in Serbia for 2021