Like the old adage that our futures are limited only by the scope of our ambitions, Ireland’s future in e-business is limited only by the scope of our understanding. The recently published E-Business Survey 2005 by the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland (CCI) illustrated clearly the work that needs to be done if Ireland’s SMEs are going to take their rightful places in the much-vaunted knowledge society.
It showed that fewer than 30pc of respondents to the survey accessed the internet via broadband, despite the advances in supply over the past two years.
The root of the problem lies in understanding of technology. Over half of the companies surveyed claimed they had broadband, however, when questioned further it transpired that many respondents were using ISDN and not a broadband connection.
Despite the existence of broadband, the survey reveals that businesses are not making the leap to broaden their usage of e-business technologies. For most users of broadband, faster access to the internet and quicker downloading of emails are still seen as the technology’s greatest advantages. Teleworking, in particular, has not been embraced by SMEs despite growing traffic volumes and issues regarding accessible childcare. Other efficiencies of e-business such as computer-based learning, e-tendering, online ordering and payments are being overlooked to the detriment of Ireland’s competitiveness.
Internet penetration rates were highest in the Dublin region (95pc) and amongst companies with between 50 and 249 employees (92pc). Only 30pc of companies that did not have access to the internet said they were likely to connect to the internet in the next 12 months.
Caoimhe Gavin, policy and research executive at CCI, said it was a ‘chicken and egg’ situation and the onus shouldn’t be solely on the shoulders of operators. “It’s demand that’s the problem, not supply. Operators would provide broadband in regions if they knew there was definitely a demand. We would view it as an information problem. There is a role that official Ireland must play to promote the reasons why businesses should demand broadband.”
In terms of e-government, CCI commended the Revenue Commissioners’ online service as well as the Motor Tax and Companies Registration Office, which showcase the potential that exists for cutting down on red tape through the use of digital technology. It says the ease and accessibility of these systems are now the benchmark by which all government departments should measure the success of their e-government projects.
However, despite the Government’s foray into e-purchasing with the launch of its eTenders website in recent years only 8pc of companies surveyed had submitted a tender to the website, although this rose to 20pc amongst companies with a turnover greater than €5m. Of those who had submitted a tender on the website, 13pc of users found the site not to be user-friendly.
Mary Cleary of the Irish Computer Society and also the chairwoman of CCI’s Digital Policy Council explained this disparity. “There is a feeling amongst those surveyed that the tendering website was not user- friendly and there is a reluctance to tender online.
“A large part of the problem is knowledge, particularly in the field of skills and training. It is not only about raising the provision of technology but also raising the skills of people working within SMEs,” Cleary concluded.
Pictured at the launch of CCI’s E-Business Survey 2005 were: Mary Cleary, chairwoman of CCI’s Digital Policy Council;
Seán Murphy, head of research, CCI; and Louise Murphy, manager of business markets, ESB Customer Supply
By John Kennedy