Driven by the idea of helping decision-makers accelerate the digital transformation of society, Microsoft introduced the Digital Futures Index research. The Index shows the level of digitalization of 16 European countries, including Serbia. In addition to the level of digitalization of the country based on the data collected from 2018 to 2020, it shows the most prosperous areas but also areas where a stronger focus is needed to accelerate the digital transformation process and reach the full potential of the country. About the areas where Serbia is achieving the best results and where there is more room for progress, we spoke with the Country Manager for Microsoft Serbia, Milan Gospić.
Why is this research important for Serbia?
It is important because it shows the level of digitalization of our country based on the data from two years ago – specifically in the categories of digital business, digital government and public sector, digital infrastructure, digital sector, and human capital. In addition, it helps us to adopt examples of good practices from other countries that participated in the research and thus accelerate digitization. Indeed, the goal is to see how far we’ve gone in the period after data collection, but also to detect areas where there is room for improvement. Serbia has a good result when it comes to talent, and it records an above-average result in the field of exports of IT services and the number of women in the IT industry. Speaking of the countries of the region, for example, Croatia has solid results in the field of talent and digital skills among the general population, while Slovenia is excellent in terms of digital competitiveness and digitalization of the education system. On the other hand, an excellent opportunity for all countries lies in the digitalization of public services. Now, the question is how we can support society, learn from each other and accelerate digital development. The fact is that digitally more advanced countries are greener, wealthier, more innovative, and more competitive.
How can Serbia retain IT experts?
Serbia has many talents, especially in the number of young people who have completed IT-related studies. Young people today choose companies that invest in their development. It is essential to ensure that talents stay in Serbia by creating new jobs and opportunities for IT professionals and entrepreneurs. Also, we should not run away from allowing talents to upgrade some of their knowledge beyond the borders of our country. Still, at the same time, we should create an environment to show them what the IT industry can offer when they return to Serbia. On the other hand, when we look at the level of new digital skills in the general population, there is room for improvement – and that is one of the keyways to retain talent and continue the country’s digital development. Serbia’s entrepreneurial talent is also reflected in the growing number of startups. We support startups in Serbia through our Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub, which brings together technology, expert leadership, and support to reach the next stage of their development. Our platform allows startups that meet Microsoft criteria to use free Azure credits worth up to $ 150,000 for development, get free access to development and productivity tools, benefit from the mentoring support of business leaders and technology experts, and receive special offers for startups from Microsoft partners.
Microsoft has a Development Center in Serbia. Do you think it helps in advancing talents in Serbia?
IT talents working in the Microsoft Development Center from Belgrade are engaged in technology development that is applied globally. Our experts develop some of the products that are used by millions of people around the world, such as Azure or Office. The development center started as a startup 17 years ago, and now it is a team of several hundred people working within seven main teams. From Belgrade, they significantly contribute to the development of technology with an impact on the whole world. The team in Belgrade employs software engineers, data scientists, and program managers, not only from Serbia but also from many other countries. That kind of business culture pushes forward, enables this diversity of minds and ideas, and influences teams to become stronger because knowledge and experience come from different sides. In the previous year, the number of people doubled, and the new forces have the support of colleagues who have been there from the very beginning. We are definitely moving forward as the company’s most innovative development center in this part of the world.
We know that the ICT sector is expanding year after year, but how much does it contribute to the economy?
Serbian IT companies are essential for the economy. Research showed that the ICT sector contributes strongly to the GDP and drives digital development as IT companies lead the way in introducing digital tools and innovating business processes. Serbia is on the right track. Digital growth has unquestionably accelerated over the last two years, and our citizens interact more and more with public institutions through digital technologies. Of course, digitalization must continue in that direction. There is an example from which we can all learn: Estonia, where 99% of public services can be requested and obtained online.
When we look at the average for Central and Eastern European countries, the overall level of digital development in Serbia is slightly below average. How can we accelerate the digital transformation?
Every business is transformed into a technology business because digital innovations are shaping entire industries today. The digital transformation is driven by data, the universal approach to doing business in the Cloud, and the potential of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence. The most successful companies will be those that are better at introducing digital technology such as Cloud services, IoT, and artificial intelligence. Serbia has the potential to be at a much higher level when it comes to using Cloud technology. In order to be competitive with the countries in Europe, we need to continue investing in the IT industry, IT experts, and their constant improvement.
Hybrid work is the topic of the day. How has the role of a leader changed with a different business model?
I am convinced that successful leaders inspire their teams in the right way through their own qualities, expertise, and integrity. The hybrid way of work implies a certain level of separation from the team, so empathy and the ability to understand the needs of others become important for leaders in creating thriving teams. A leader is a person who builds a positive business and organizational culture but also helps employees to recognize clearly the purpose and values of the company, inspires them, and works together with them to achieve those values. It is a more challenging task in a hybrid environment but achievable with mutual respect and open two-way communication. Hybrid work is also more challenging because it is harder to balance productivity and personal gain. Microsoft Viva is an employee experience platform that provides recommendations that allow us to be the most productive when we work but also to relax and enjoy time for ourselves.
What are the priorities for the further digitalization of Serbia?
In addition to accelerating the transition to the Cloud, Serbian companies should be helped by advising on how to build a hybrid work culture that encompasses growth, reap the benefits of digital transformation, and support their employees in learning how to use digital tools effectively. An indispensable factor is the encouragement of small and medium enterprises to embrace digital transformation because, in that way, we can accelerate digital growth and strengthen the economy. Domestic businesses and the public sector need to take advantage of digital technologies to use digital transformation as fuel for long-term growth and development. The critical starting point is to focus on reshaping the future by changing today’s work culture. We also need to focus on nurturing innovation and startup ecosystems. The combination of investments in digital infrastructure, encouraging a larger inflow of capital into startups to make the most of Serbia’s entrepreneurial talent, and the digitalization of the public service will bring a higher return on investment.
How is Microsoft contributing to the accelerated transformation of the local community?
Microsoft has been present in Serbia for 20 years. During this period, we have implemented countless successful projects. We continue to work with our partners to raise awareness of the importance of digital business transformation. In the future, we will be a reliable partner in digital transformation to accelerate local innovation and growth, both for companies from the private sector, the public sector, and non-governmental organizations. We are very proud of the cooperation with the Data Center in Kragujevac and the Government Office for IT. I am also convinced that this is just the beginning of a long and successful partnership. An important initiative to support society in accelerating progress is our initiative to acquire digital skills, which has enabled about 60,000 people in Serbia to acquire digital skills through free courses at LinkedIn Learning, Microsoft Learn, and GitHub Learning Lab.
How do you picture Serbia in the future?
It is proven that Serbia has a strong potential and all the prerequisites to become the digital hotspot of this part of Europe and to base its economic development on innovations and new technologies, such as artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is a technology that defines our age and can do a lot for people, industries, and society, and the possibilities of application are countless. The power of technology is in solving challenges. Serbia is on the right path to use technology to accelerate economic and social development and become a wealthier, greener, and more innovative country where people have a better quality of life.