Let’s start off by making one thing clear: I love Detroit. I was born and raised here, and despite traveling across the country for years as a consultant, I’ve always come home to Southeast Michigan, because I love it here, and I want nothing more than to see this area succeed.

But my love for the region is what makes it so frustrating to see our small and medium businesses struggling to find a place in the digital economy when so many of them are not making the investment in technology that they so desperately need. Why are we lagging behind and making this vital transition so hard on ourselves?

A Manufacturing Economy in the Digital Age

“But Brent,” you might say, “Detroit has tech startups! And what about GM, Ford, or Quicken Loans and the high-tech initiatives they’ve started?” These companies are unfortunately the exception, not the rule. At least 90% of the small and medium-sized businesses that we speak to at Awecomm are dangerously undervaluing and under-investing in IT. They lack an executive strategy to develop their IT capabilities and integrate them with their business strategy, and they don’t see technology as a competitive advantage. Why is this? Why are we making our adaptation to the digital economy so hard on ourselves?

One major obstacle is in Detroit’s longstanding identity as a major player in the manufacturing sector. So many businesses here are interconnected because of the auto industry, from manufacturers to suppliers to suppliers of the suppliers. So even though the manufacturing industry itself is evolving and adapting to the digital economy, the old ways are so ingrained in Detroit businesses that we don’t see the need to change along with it. Instead, we’re struck in a classic trap, “This is the way we’ve always done things.” If we’re getting along fine as it is, why put forth the effort to change with no guarantee of a payoff?

We Need a Change in Perspective

There’s a kind of paradox that is also holding Detroit back from rejoining the digital economy as a major player — we’re constantly dealing with challenges and crises, and we don’t see how investing in IT could help with these obstacles or make things better, so we “keep on keeping on.” But without technology included as a central part of its business strategy, a company is stuck in the early phases of IT maturity, where IT is viewed as a necessary evil that often impedes the business instead of helping it. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The ways in which this mindset are holding us back are many. Focusing on short-term pains instead of the long-term return on investment is too easy when you don’t have a clear picture of what that ROI looks like. Or, we think that things are just fine the way they are, and the fear of change and taking risks keeps the status quo in place. While we’re certainly all aware of the big names in tech here in Detroit as well as in Silicon Valley, the problems we’re facing today make any comparisons between them and our small/medium businesses impossible to draw. We’re nothing like Apple or Uber or Google, so why do we need to invest in technology like they do? What could it possibly do for us?

Getting on the Right Track

The business value of investing in IT is there, and it’s consistently proven by the many companies that have taken the time to make the investment. Even if a company is not in a position to truly understand how tech can cause this kind of growth, they need to take a leap of faith to start — and we won’t have time to do it for much longer. If we’re going to compete in the digital economy and carve out a position for ourselves, local businesses need to take the next step and start building out infrastructure that will support them five, 10, and even 20 years from now.

If this seems too overwhelming, remember that burying your head in the sand doesn’t help, and that avoiding what you see as a problem will not negate it — it is still there, and it will continue to impact the business. However, you don’t have to commit to a significant investment in tech all at once; instead, pace yourself in unveiling a long-term solution. Start with investing enough to allow IT to contribute to the business in a positive way today. This could be in the form of system performance, availability, reliability, security, client services, employee morale and productivity, and more. Making these initial advancements can help you see that continued investment and progress will lead to even greater gains.

To understand some of the moves you can make today, take a deep look at the IT trends within your industry, and the trendsetters that have established and adopted them. It would be shocking if any these companies feel that IT is just a “trend” that doesn’t impact their business. This holds true in manufacturing, financial services, health care, business services, legal firms, and more.

Why Are We Still Making This Hard for Ourselves?

I hope, after reading this, you don’t have a good answer to this question, because I sure don’t. We need to stop shooting Detroit industry in the foot by ignoring IT and letting the opportunities pass us by. We have to invest in tech today and give ourselves a real chance to compete in the global digital economy.

The business value that can come from this investment is out there now, and there are plenty of success stories that prove it. A leap of faith may be required, but speed is critical now. Detroit needs to take the next step, and businesses around here need to work and commit to a solution. It’s up to the small and medium-size business owners figure out where we want to be in the new economy. Now is the time to put our best foot forward, invest in the correct things, and implement a strategy that will work for the future rather than one that may have worked in the past. Ignoring the transformations all around us is no longer an option. Let’s start moving Detroit back into the spotlight today!