Fancy doing my job?

Jenny Searle has been fronting the Government's push for UK e-business progress from a secondment at the DTI, but as it draws to...

Jenny Searle has been fronting the Government's push for UK e-business progress from a secondment at the DTI, but as it draws to a close amid stormy waters she is still upbeat about the position, writes Hazel Ward

The search has begun for a new face to champion the Government's drive to promote e-business in British industry, UK Online For Business.

It is not a job for the faint-hearted, weaving a path between ministers and senior members of trade and industry bodies to co-ordinate efforts to thrust the UK to the forefront of the e-world.

The past couple of weeks, in particular, must have been harder than most, with the publication of a hard-hitting report by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), saying that the Government was more than likely to miss its own deadline of having a million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) trading online by 2002.

This assessment was based on figures published at the start of October in the Department of Trade & Industry's own Business in the Information Age 2001 benchmarking study, which showed that only 540,000 SMEs were trading online.

In its scathing report, issued early last week, the BCC condemned the Government's target as a "hindrance and a distraction" which was irrelevant to business.

Worse still, the report, which was compiled by the BCC's e-business taskforce, highlighted barriers to the uptake of online trading in the sector, including the inconsistent quality of government-accredited business advisers, many of whom are affiliated to UK Online For Business.

And just days after publication of the report, the DTI announced a radical restructure of the department after admitting that it was falling well short of its goals. A number of leading business figures will take a central role on a DTI strategy board designed to transform the department into a frontrunner in terms of productivity and enterprise.

Computer Weekly interviewed Jenny Searle, director of UK Online For Business, a week before the publication of the BCC report. The DTI was unable later to comment directly on most of the allegations it raised, but did issue a statement regarding the alleged "inconsistent quality" of government-accredited business advisers.

"Technology Means Business was set up in 2000 to provide an industry-standard accreditation for providers of business and informtion & communications technology- (ICT) related advice to small businesses. It is approved by Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative and currently all UK Online For Business advisers are either accredited or going through the process. Supported by UK Online For Business and the four founding sponsors BT, Compaq, Intel and Microsoft, the scheme is meeting its objectives of raising the standard and consistency of ICT and business advice, and providing small businesses with a more clearly defined route to it."

Radical changes may well be afoot, but Searle is caught up in a marketing campaign, launched early this month, and with only five months left of her tenure, she has her work cut out trying to co-ordinate government efforts to expand the reach of the UK Online For Business initiative beyond SMEs to all of UK PLC.

Launched in September last year, UK Online For Business began as a DTI-led programme to promote e-commerce uptake among SMEs. In its earliest incarnation, the initiative began as the Government's Information Society Initiative (ISI), which was aimed at raising awareness about the benefits of technology among SMEs. In September 2000, it was brought under the umbrella of the UK Online initiative, and relaunched by Tony Blair as UK Online For Business.

In February, however, the focus shifted with the publication of the Government's white paper on enterprise, skills and innovation, which outlined a change in the nature of the programme, and laid down two clear new objectives: to extend the focus beyond SMEs to the needs of the wider business community, and to push businesses further along the road to e-adoption.

Whitehall's vision of change is based on a five-step programme known as the "e-adoption ladder", which sees a business moving from setting up basic communication technologies such as e-mail and the Internet, to implementing an infrastructure which allows mature e-business relationships with both business partners, suppliers and customers. Ultimately, the aim is to accelerate new ways of working online which will move the UK to the forefront of world leader e-business.

At the helm of the scheme since its launch last year, Searle has been with the DTI for more than two-and-a-half years, on secondment from Oracle. Under terms of her contract, she will return to Oracle in April 2002.

To date the emphasis has been on promoting e-commerce uptake among SMEs. But now "critical mass" has been reached with the number of smaller companies that have e-mail and a Web site, intra-corporate collaboration between all sizes of business is a prerequisite for e-business to enable new models of working.
Focus has also shifted, with a spotlight falling on deeper levels of e-business, such as implementing e-procurement systems and integrated supply chains, and completely transforming everything about the way a business works through use of information and communication technologies.

Translating these wider objectives into a strategy is one of the challenges that faced the DTI, but the way ahead is now clearly mapped out, Searle says. "The overriding message about how technology can transform the business remains the same but the examples we use are becoming much more diverse and increasingly sophisticated, with a tighter focus on business processes, such as e-procurement and integrated supply chains," she explains.

This involves approaching larger organisations, both directly and through groups such as Buy IT, to convey the message. "We're starting to move into a real networked area and we're increasingly seeing larger organisations investing in technology that is on the interface between its customers and suppliers. We would like them to share the lessons they're learning in implementing e-business.

"It's often big companies that take risks, so we're using them to help take this message," she explains.

An increasingly important way of getting this message across is through the partnership programme. Set up with the aim making SMEs more aware of the benefits to be gained through technology, the programme is showcasing best e-business practice, and demonstrating practical examples of business benefits. "The partnership programme has two objectives: to bring in resources from the business community - either sponsorship, or secondees - and to provide a channel of communication to the business community."

The initiative is taking on a much more sector-specific approach, she says. "Until now, a lot of our initiatives have been vanilla flavoured, but we're adding a lot more sector-specific elements and the advice is becoming increasingly targeted."

To this end, the DTI is trying to work more closely with trade bodies, and compiling a number of impact assessment studies to seek a clear understanding of how e-business technologies affect different sectors. The aim is to produce about 60 studies over the next three years. "We will be adding an industry-specific dimension which will pick up over the course of the next year."

In the meantime, Searle has three main challenges to tackle in her last few months. One is encouraging small companies to think on a more strategic level about their and the use of information technologies, while at the other end of the spectrum, she is trying to encourage larger companies to look outside their own back yards and turn their attention to the broader picture. "We have to get larger companies to acknowledge that they have to think about their trading community, and not just themselves," she says.

"Many larger companies will be implementing ICT strategies that will require their customers and suppliers to be online, so it's in their interest to be involved in the wider picture of getting people online. It's no longer sufficient to focus on what you're doing within your own organisations.

"If you want to get involved in e-procurement but your supplier is not e-enabled then your investment is not going to be returned within the same time scale. And, of course, with both technology and best practice moving fast, it is a constant challenge to keep up, Searle adds.

In the middle of an advertising campaign launched at the start of November, Searle says there are no major new initiatives in the pipeline, but work in other areas, particularly in the regulatory field, is continuing. "There are other areas of infrastructure we're working on, not just technology, but putting in place a legal framework and an infrastructure of confidence in doing e-business. We have a long way to go - we're putting the resources in place but it won't happen overnight."

In the meantime the search is on for a replacement for Searle, who appears genuinely keen to receive offers. "If anyone's interested in stepping into my shoes, give me a ring. It's an absolutely fantastic job."

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