It has often been said that British business is well-served when it comes to IT. Then again, surveys always cover the bigger companies who can afford an IT department!
Over half the UK workforce, and 95% of British businesses fall into the "micro" sector, employing less than 10 people.
In fact, small firms account for 99.5% of the total business population, yet little is known about the workings of these companies. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) is looking to set the record straight by several surveys to get a clear picture of today's companies. In Scotland (where they have 295,000 small businesses) e-commerce will make a contribution to business practice. For many firms, the development of genuine e-commerce as a tool is at an early stage. The gap between vision and reality is huge There are unresolved issues surrounding usage ofe-commerce and access to necessary infrastructure.
According to our survey of Scotland's small businesses, 83% of respondents use a computer in businesses. Even the 65+ age group show over 70% company ownership and 76% of those using computers use e-mail. Not surprisingly, the older the owner, the less likely they are to use their computer for e-mail.
With figures like that, you would think UK small business is online. But, from the same sample, only a third use the Internet, with over 50% citing rapidly changing technology as a problem.
It appears that most of us are happy about e-mail. But integrating the Internet into the core of our businesses, we become cautious.
According to the RDAs (Regional Development Authorities), there are parts of England doing worse than these examples. More work is needed to convince the small business population of benefits of the Internet, and that IT outweighs the costs and difficulties of implementation. Planned surveys help to target companies.
Yet, IT is not the most important thing on the minds of these company owners. The FSB has carried out a survey of its 160,000 members. The most pressing matters for most small firms include dissatisfaction with government-funded services, transport and banking issues.
The Federation of Small Businesses, along with other organisations, is aware of the need to present IT services to the company population targeted to the sector. In conjunction with CobWeb Solutions, our ISP, the Federation is launching their new "FSB portal" this month.
The development of the FSB portal has been designed to offer Small Businesses everything they need - extensive business links, legal advice, free access to information that normally has a subscription, finance packages and online resources
The differences between the corporates and small businesses could not be wider. Traditionally helping this sector has been like a black art. It is hoped with information coming out of surveys and online help available, we can provide a valuable service to SMEs. The effort to achieve excellence in technology comes from both sides. Our businesses must recognise we don't live in a cosy, isolated world (even though on a daily basis, it seems nothing has changed, especially in rural areas).
This is a different world. The need to acquire and use knowledge is becoming more important by the day.
Britain's small businesses are moving in the right direction. But the goal posts always seem to keep moving!
t More information about the Federation is available at www.fsb.org.uk. For the benefits for small businesses, go to www.fsbdial.co.uk
Peter Scargill is a member of the Federation of Small Businesses' National IT Committee, and director of Quantech Ltd Electronic Research and Development (www.quantech.co.uk).
This was first published in December 2000