Three years after the launch of the Digital Transformation Offensive (OTN), around 10,000 Quebec SMEs were supported in the evaluation of their digital transformation projects. The Legault government now wants to know how many of them will move from the feasibility study to implementation.

It is still too early to assess all the benefits of the OTN, replies the Minister of the Economy, Pierre Fitzgibbon, but he says he is encouraged by the number of entrepreneurs who have been supported so far.

“We have nearly 10,000 companies that are supported, so I find it interesting,” said the minister in an interview to take stock of the OTN. He expects that number to double to 20,000.

In March 2021, the government launched its Digital Transformation Offensive (DTO). Initially allocated a budget of 130 million, increased to 240 million, the program provides assistance of up to 50% of the costs of a feasibility study on the digital transformation project of an SME. The other half is paid by the company.

“At the end of this, the company can decide whether or not it moves forward” by implementing the recommendations of the report, alone or by benefiting from the help of another program, if there is takes place.

The government does not directly choose the beneficiary companies. Rather, it pays aid to organizations that will support SMEs in their industry. More than thirty organizations participated in the program, including Inno-center, the Food Transformation Council of Quebec (CTAQ), the Industrial Automation Business Group (REAI) and the Tourism and Hospitality Institute of Quebec (ITHQ).

For Mr. Fitzgibbon, this aid to businesses is one way among others to help the Quebec economy catch up on productivity. “I wanted us to have a mechanism so that companies could realize the potential benefit of digitalization,” he explains.

It is still early to make an exhaustive assessment of the program, replies the Minister of the Economy. Of the envelope of 240 million, 191 million was paid to organizations, but they have not yet deployed all of the support.

The Inno-centre organization, which received initial aid of 20 million in 2021, carried out a survey among a sample of participants after the feasibility study. Respondents indicated that after doing their feasibility study, they were able to improve their productivity by 22%. Quebec has also granted another tranche of 23.6 million to the organization.

Mr. Fitzgibbon himself expresses a caveat when he talks about the result. This sample is probably not representative of all industries and companies that have obtained a feasibility study. “It would be a little aggressive (optimistic) to put that figure for everyone,” he admits straight away.

The government will evaluate the impact of the OTN in more detail before deciding whether to extend it beyond March 2025. “During next year, I will want us to look more precisely at the benefit we have had from the program. »

Before making a decision, Mr. Fitzgibbon wants to know the number of companies that have been supported, the proportion of those that have moved forward with their projects and to have data on the impact of the projects on the productivity of these businesses. “We are going to ask them for a report so that we can have data to [decide] if we want, for example, to renew the program. »

The minister also wants to understand the reasons that could have caused certain SMEs to decide not to take advantage of the conclusions of the feasibility study. “Is it about money? Was it because the report’s conclusions weren’t conclusive enough? »

At the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), we believe that OTN has had positive impacts. Its vice-president for Quebec, François Vincent, cites a CFIB survey, published in December, which shows that a greater proportion of Quebec SMEs have started an automation process compared to the Canadian average.

The report focuses on automation rather than digital transformation, but it provides insight into the appetite of SMEs to improve their productivity, says Vincent.

However, there remains a challenge in making government programs, such as OTN, known to smaller SMEs. “It must do more to reach the smallest SMEs,” argues Mr. Vincent.

Fitzgibbon agrees that promoting the program is a challenge. It estimates that nearly 150,000 SMEs could potentially improve their businesses with digital transformation.

“It’s a lot of people, 150,000 people,” he emphasizes. The human resources needed to contact these people to be able to work with them are enormous. So, it’s definitely an issue. »

Mr Fitzgibbon hopes the review of the program will demonstrate that it is worth renewing. “We have a productivity issue in Quebec, I think it’s not a surprise. It (OTN) is a way, in my opinion, to bridge this gap. »