As much as the COVID-19 pandemic has been a tragedy, it has also been a strong driver of creativity and innovation. For this, first, research and development (R&D) holds the key. R&D isn’t just about doing analysis. Second, it also requires time and effort for creative thought, accomplishments, and innovation by linking digitalization to skills development. To effectively benefit from the new capabilities that technologies provide, we have to let go and re-think our arrangements around the new technology and related innovations. Just reacting to the problem popping up in front of us, like the whack-a-mole arcade game, only gets us so far.
With the unfolding COVID-19 crisis, countries like Kosovo will need to accelerate digital transformation for private sector development to increase resilience and optimize business processes. The impact of the crisis in the short term—but probably also in the long term—will be shifting the Kosovar economy towards the digital economy. It has already resulted in an increased offer of digital training providers. Increased digitization of the economy is happening by automating production processes.
How can development initiatives like the EYE project in Kosovo play a role in supporting the shift to the digital economy? A project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), EYE is implemented by Helvetas and MDA.
Research and investment in digitalization
The EYE project conducted a study in January 2020. This study has found that it isn’t just the growth of exports in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector itself that will lead to sustainable economic growth. This also comes from the application of digital solutions in the wider economy (e.g. energy supply, finance, agriculture).
The COVID-19 crisis has motivated public and private education providers to develop digital training. Job portals are seeking alternative online revenue models and others have digitized production processes through the use of 3D printing like the Gracanica Innovation Center (GIC) in Kosovo. Smart investment in R&D is essential to go beyond the ‘welfare package’ and support the training and education industry together with the labor market integration providers and adapt to the new environment post-COVID-19.
There are additional promising examples, showing how the market is changing in the face of the crisis. One of the partners of the EYE project, Pyper, has been operating in the primary data and research market in Kosovo for about a year and a half. Since then it has been promoting the use of technology in research services, raising awareness on the importance of accurate information in decision making of the business community, public sector, and the media.
According to Vigan Ramadani, co-founder of Pyper, the crisis has produced opportunities to move industries to adopt technology in research, and they’re doing their best to ride this wave and accelerate the trend towards digitalization.
‘During the COVID-19 crisis, we received many requests from different companies to collaborate and introduce them to the online research methods, which is a great development considering that in the past we have found it difficult to convince companies to research mobile or web-based tools,’ says Vigan. For Pyper, the COVID-19 crisis has created a force that has pushed the research market to think and move towards technology and use more of the tools in the market to conduct researches.
As a starter, the company has just collaborated with some stakeholders, such as the Kosovo Chamber of Commerce, the American Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber of Doing Business in Kosovo, RIINVEST, and dua.com, to develop a research paper to pinpoint the difficulties that businesses are facing as a result of COVID-19. This research is now being used by businesses, policymakers, and development organizations to plan and adapt their interventions.
Linking investment in digitalization with skills development
Targeted investment, as shown above, builds connectivity in infrastructure, promotes digital firms, and supports the digitalization of the wider economy. This becomes meaningless without a nimble skills training sector twinned with smart job-matching services, both of which should focus on an increasingly digitalized economy that keeps pace with the acceleration of technological development. Fundamental in this is the ability to provide access to training through digitalization and blended learning, providing modular and flexible training, and investing in long-term sustainability.
Digitalization has increasingly progressed well in Kosovo, pushing for the growth of online training. Non-formal education is one of the sectors that the EYE project has worked extensively in. The demand for online training has surged. The project, therefore, is reorienting its support to digital services and working proactively with partners to identify opportunities.
A good example is KUTIA, a Kosovo-based business that creates web applications and e-commerce platforms among a long list of other ICT services. EYE is supporting KUTIA to adopt the Swedish-Ukrainian IT Company Beetroot Academy’s ICT training curriculum and deliver this training in Kosovo. In-class sessions are not possible due to the pandemic. Thus, the idea is to set up the necessary infrastructure to make the full digital transition to offering online training and improve accessibility.
‘We’re fully transitioning to online format due to the COVID-19 situation. We hope that the online courses will help adapt to the crisis,” says Merita Citaku, Coordinator at KUTIA for Beetroot Academy. The transition to online training has now attracted the attention of 300 new potential participants. ‘We’re already preparing campaigns for online courses and disseminating information on free courses to our communities,’ adds Merita.
Another tectonic shift in recruitment and matching services. The EYE project is supporting the move to digital Human Resource services. This means organizations are becoming increasingly dependent on technology to make sure their teams work efficiently. The workforce is changing, and employers are progressively looking to hire more remote or freelance workers. Such a shift is also changing the way organizations manage, communicate, and grow.
Kosovajob is an example. It’s a digital job-matching platform that is establishing, through the support of the EYE project, new software that combines recruitment, career guidance, and labor market information into one platform. The software is called SIMBA, and it supports hundreds of small and medium-sized companies to better manage scouting, recruitment, and onboarding and contract management—entirely digital.
‘We witnessed a rather complicated recruitment process that organizations have to undergo to find the right candidates,’ says Arion Rizaj, the founder of Kosovajob and SIMBA. He and his team then thought the time was ripe to create such a platform [Simba]. SIMBA was created long before the pandemic, but it has had a remarkable impact on businesses to adapt to the pandemic. The pandemic accelerated the digital transition and SIMBA not only simplified recruitment but also helped keep everyone safe by removing any need for in-person recruitment. ‘I believe digital services are among the best investments that companies can make,’ stresses Arion
Another digital transition that is being fast-tracked is in the BPO sector in Kosovo. Due to its cheap labor, skilled workforce, and geographical proximity to Europe, Kosovo has become a regional nest for offshore outsourcing in recent years. Recently, EYE has entered into a partnership with SPEEEX, the largest BPO provider in Kosovo, to support them create SPEEEX Education—which now provides training and employment for young people in the BPO sector.
As a large company focusing on BPO in the telecommunication sector for the Swiss and German markets, SPEEEX’s Education component has quickly become a keystone of the organization: as it works to impart skills for work to hundreds of young people, it also creates a wider pool of job seekers with the right skillset to choose from.
But as the pandemic unfolded, this education provider was quickly forced to make the digital transition, too. ‘The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted organizations across nearly every industry and changed how they deliver products and services,’ says Vigan Disha, Managing Director of SPEEEX Education. ‘We had to close our facilities and move to a distance learning model. In turn, this has had multiple repercussions for our IT Infrastructure and academic pupils. Online lecturing was a transition that we made quickly and successfully, but it also brought challenges such as needing to raise awareness among our students as to how this sort of transition would work out for them.’
The way forward
In a recent blog on leveraging capabilities of newly acquired technologies because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shawn Cunningham argued that ‘to fully benefit from the new capabilities that technologies provide, we have to let go and re-think our arrangements around the new technology. This is an iterative process. So, we adapt the technology, and then we re-model ourselves around it.’
Not everything is rosy. The risk is that the benefits from the above developments will not be equitable. Until now, EYE looked at increasing the offers of ‘digital’ training. This also needs to shift to equitable access. As much as digitalization has spread to many parts of the world, knowledge isn’t yet a mouse-click away to many young people in Kosovo. It’s important to keep in mind that disadvantaged and vulnerable groups and those already affected by other crises are in acutely precarious situations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
To be able to represent the rapid change well, the EYE project must also change its internal knowledge management and learning. This, for example, means developing an approach to communicate what works and what doesn’t and why. We’re increasing the investment and attention to digital technology to systematically make available key data and lessons learned and to capture tacit knowledge and make it explicit. For example, in 2019, we scored a social media reach just short of a million people through our Vocational Education Campaign designed to promote professional education and remove the stigma around it.