A new report on business attitudes towards technology published this morning by the Information Society Commission (ISC) provides alarming evidence of corporate Ireland’s failure to embrace the knowledge society.
The study, conducted in late 2002 by MRBI Research on behalf of the ISC, shows that Irish businesses are turning away from the internet and e-business in significant numbers.
A sister study, also published today, which assesses the attitudes of the general public to the information society, is more positive, although here too challenges remain.
The more worrying findings of the business-based research include the fact that only 44pc of small businesses have websites compared with 86pc in corresponding research conducted in 2000. Overall, 65pc of businesses have websites compared with 77pc last time.
The level of enthusiasm for e-business has fallen sharply too, with only 7pc of respondents rating it as important compared with 36pc in 2000.
Overall, the percentage of Irish businesses that consider IT to be essential or very important to their business dropped to 70pc from 80pc in 2000.
While there has been a modest increase in the percentage using the internet to buy goods or services – to 51pc from 45pc in 2000 – the internet continues to be used mainly for email (88pc), to communicate with suppliers (69pc), customers (66pc) or to research the market (65pc). More sophisticated uses of the internet such as online selling and B2B (business to business) transactions decreased since the last survey, to 17pc and 12pc respectively.
The survey also reveals that IT security is also becoming less of a priority for business, with 40pc of respondents saying they had no IT security policies in place compared with 23pc two years ago.
Training and knowledge-sharing activities are also in decline according to the report, which finds that the percentage of businesses with an employee IT training programme in place has fallen sharply, from 52pc in 2000 to 41pc in 2002. Unsurprisingly, the lack of technology training programmes is more common in very small (80pc) and small businesses (63pc) but a third of medium and large businesses, too, have no such programmes in place. The much-hyped area of e-learning appeals to a majority of large businesses (68pc) but leaves a third of SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises) either quite or very uninterested.
Moreover, the share of businesses stating that computer and IT skills are essential or very important plummeted from 74pc to 56pc.
Among the few encouraging findings of the survey is the fact that, despite the downturn, 67pc of businesses had invested in IT systems in the previous 12 months with 72pc of them declaring a satisfactory return on their investment. More than 75pc of businesses, moreover, feel that technology will have a positive impact on their competitiveness over the next two years.
Commenting on the findings, Dr Danny O’Hare, chairman of the ISC, described some of them as “counter-intuitive”, particularly the declining number of websites operated by small companies and the fall-off in technology training, but cautioned against rushing to judgment and seeking quick answers to explain the trends.
He also noted that the report’s findings that fewer people are aware of terms like knowledge economy should serve to banish any complacency among supporters of the information society agenda. “[The report] would warn you that you shouldn’t assume that the knowledge society is unstoppable in terms of its penetration that it will inevitably include everybody like the transition from the punt to the euro,” he told siliconrepublic.com.
He added that the ISC would be distributing the report to key stakeholders such as government departments, employers body IBEC and trade unions and expressed the hope that it would be used as the basis for action by some of these bodies to reverse the unfavourable trends. He also said that it was too early for the ISC to draw conclusions from the report but that this would be done over the coming weeks.
“The message is that there are good things happening but there are also negative ones and we need to rectify these,” he concluded.
By Brian Skelly