Many SMEs still shun technology takeup

20 Jan 2004

Two thirds of Irish SMEs do not have broadband access to the internet. Of these, 37pc say that it is not available while 28pc don’t know if it is available or not. A quarter of SMEs do not use email for business, a figure that rises to 31pc for firms employing fewer than ten people. Even among larger SMEs – firms employing between 10 and 49 – 15pc, or one company in seven, do not use email.

These are among the startling findings of a new survey of 300 Irish SMEs conducted by Millward Brown IMS on behalf of O2 Ireland published exclusively today in About 60pc of the respondents represent firms employing between one and nine people, while the remainder employ between 10 and 49.

The poll’s other key findings include the fact that, despite the consumer popularity of SMS, two thirds of SMEs never use text messaging for business purposes.

The study also shows that teleworking, though fairly common, has not exactly caught fire in the way that many had hoped – indeed confidently predicted – at the outset of the digital revolution. The study finds that almost one in three (32pc) of senior SME executives teleworks from home at least one day a month. The major reasons given are the desire to focus on major items without distraction such as writing reports or proposals, to avoid traffic problems and to achieve a better work-life balance. No data is available on the percentage of executives who work from home at least once a week or fortnight but presumably these figures would be substantially lower. In addition, almost one in five (18pc) allows employees to telework on occasion.

Despite the growing popularity of PCs in the workplace and at home, it appears that technophobia is still alive and well in SME land. More than one in five respondents (22pc) describes their PC skills as “poor or non-existent”, while the majority (56pc) feel their PC capabilities to be only average.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the vast majority of SMEs (82pc) continue to rely on paper-based rather than electronic systems to manage basic business processes such as invoicing.

The survey gives credence to the perception that a stubborn digital divide still exists within the small business sector. A hard core of businesses out there simply do not use new technology, for whatever reason. Some have no understanding of it or do not want to understand it. Others feel they simply don’t need it – their business is doing very nicely without it, thank you. Those who do embrace new technology, however, tend to get serious about it and quite sophisticated too, the survey suggests. Of those who do use email, more than half (51pc) are able to access it from outside the office. Moreover, while two thirds of respondents said they do not use SMS for work, 15pc said they frequently do. This proportion is likely to increase, believes O2 commercial director Gerry McQuaid, as SMEs discover how cost-effective texting can be.

“Using SMS instead of mobile calls is one way that SMEs can reduce cost and increase administration productivity,” he notes. “We expect to see more firms recognise the value of SMS as a business productivity tool in the future.”

He notes that the mobile industry has to accept some of the blame for the slow adoption of texting by SMEs. “Almost a fifth of our consumer revenues come from text messaging but less than 3pc of our business revenues. My belief is that we as an industry have not done enough to make text a very straightforward and simple tool for communication. Pricing is important, but it’s not the issue. Effective packaging and marketing are needed to make it so easy to use that the fear factor goes away.”

While text messaging is not seen as hugely relevant, mobile email is what SMEs would most like to have on their mobiles. This is followed in order of priority by traffic information, weather and news. Sports news and stock market prices come relatively low in the desirability stakes, the survey finds.

The reluctance of Irish small business to adopt technology more quickly is unsurprising but it is also worrying. As McQuaid observes: “Technology has a key role to play in maintaining competitiveness in what is the backbone of the Irish economy in terms of job and wealth creation.”

By Brian Skelly

Pictured from left: Guy Perrem, associate director, Millward Brown IMS); Gerry McQuaid, commercial director, O2 Ireland and Paul Farrell, head of marketing, 02