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Helping small business better use technology

WHILE e-commerce and B2B may be IT buzzwords this year for large corporations, WA’s small business sector is trying to work out how email systems and websites can help their bottom line.

Far from being modern-day Luddites, many small business operators already have computing skills, such as using database and accounting software.

But it appears more advanced IT solutions are unappealing. Perceived cost barriers, a lack of return on investment, and a general lack of familiarity with the IT service sector are among the reasons why many small to medium enterprises are hesitant to take the technology plunge.

According to a recent survey by the National Office for the Information Economy, 84 per cent of small businesses in Australia own a computer and 60 per cent have Internet access. Figures for email usage are also promising, with more than 50 per cent of SMEs using email accounts.

However, NOIE figures show small business is less keen on websites (25 per cent), selling products online (17 per cent) and accepting payment online (7 per cent).

As medium and large businesses move further into the e-commerce realm, small businesses are being left behind. The so-called digital divide, which is threatening to alienate sections of society, may also divide SMEs from the market.

WA Office of Information and Communication team leader Michael Ashford said the WA Government had recognised this and decided to start with simple solutions to the problem.

“We noticed that most of the awareness raising that was going on was either pitched at middle size business or was very technical,” he said.

“We decided to start with something that was simple, direct and that looked at what businesses needed to know.

“We want to focus on the sort of things they need to think about and hopefully, if they choose to go down the e-commerce route, they would be able to seek out the proper, professional advice.”

One such “solution” is a series of free seminars, with the first to be held tonight (July 19) in Osborne Park, run in conjunction with eMark Corp, Murdoch University and the Internet Business Corporation.

According to eMark Corp director Gordon Owili, the seminars are designed to give small business operators a foundation in online processes.

“We want to keep it very simple and uncomplicated,” Mr Owili said.

“I’m a small businessperson myself and I don’t know everything about the Internet. With the seminars, we are trying to start at a basic ground level and say ‘this is e-commerce, this is what it can do for you, this is what it cannot do for you’.

“From the eSeminars it will be possible to move on to more sophisticated areas, such as procurement and e-commerce.”

He said the digital divide between small and large enterprises was a concern in

WA.

“The gap is very evident. A big company is able to hire IT consultants, they can build systems in house, and they have more intellectual capital in terms of understanding the technology,” Mr Owili said.

“There is a gap between big and small business, but we are saying we can narrow that gap and it doesn’t have to involve costly alternatives.”

Small business had the advantage of being able to take up new technology and introduce new processes quicker than larger companies with entrenched systems, Mr Owili said.

Contrary to popular belief, it was access to quality advice, not cost, which prevented many SMEs from introducing IT solutions.

AUSe.NET chief executive director David Thornton said research showed a lack of independent information, training material and advice from trusted sources on the implementation of e-commerce strate-gies were the greatest impediments.

Following the eSeminars’ determin-ation to offer simple advice, the Office for the Information Economy’s Michael Ashford said strategies could be implemented using existing systems, such as email.

“Perhaps what a lot of small businesses don’t realise is you don’t always need to have expensive solutions,” he said. “You can practise customer relationship management with your email program. That sort of thing is important if you’re a retailer or a wholesaler and it’s very cheap and easy to do through your existing email system.”

NOIE research shows the most common business-to-business com-munication is via email, meaning SMEs can practise the much-touted B2B easily and inexpensively.

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