Are Small Firms Far from the IT Leading Edge?
By Paul Lima | December 31, 2006
Alan McLaren dropped his Bell Mobility cell phone in a puddle and it stopped working. Unlike most cellphone users, Mr. McLaren wasn't at a loss for words. He simply called Bell Mobility on his Rogers Blackberry phone and asked to have all calls to his waterlogged phone forwarded to his Blackberry.
"I didn't miss a call," said Mr. McLaren, a principle with Oakville, Ont.-based Infinity Communication Ltd. and PR-Mentor.
Mr. McLaren has two cellphones on different networks to make sure he always has coverage. In addition, his Bell Mobility phone has a walkie-talkie feature that lets Infinity Communication staff keep in touch with each other at the click of one button, at less cost than cell-phone airtime rates. Meanwhile, his Blackberry gives him access to e-mail when he is on the road.
"It's in our company's DNA to be responsive. It can be difficult to differentiate your services, so you have to be better," said Mr. McLaren.
And sometimes responsiveness requires redundancy -- not that he plans to drop his cell phones in puddles on a regular basis. For example, when a recent thunderstorm knocked out cable Internet access in Oakville, Mr. McLaren was able to receive e-mail because all messages arrive on his office computer and his Blackberry, which was not affected by the storm.
So is Infinity/PR-Mentor unique? Or is it just another small business fully embracing technology?
According to a recent survey, the Cisco SME Net Impact Report, 81 per cent of Canadian small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have high-speed access to Internet. While SME infrastructure does not approach the scale of big businesses, almost all have desktop computers and e-mail access. Many have laptops, personal digital assistants, cell phones and Web sites.
However, SMEs are reluctant to adopt new technology; approximately 52 per cent of the survey respondents said they use their technology as long as they can, or buy the minimum necessary for operation, said Jay Shutter, a researcher with Illuminas, the company that conducted the survey for Cisco.
SMEs have been slow to adapt sales force automation, customer relationship management and on-line collaboration applications, as well as VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) and video conferencing. While SMEs are now playing close attention to network security, they have only just begun to dabble with wireless networks.
"They are reluctant to experiment [with new technology] because they have no information-technology budget or internal expertise. It's easier for larger enterprises to test-pilot applications," said Mr. Shutter.
However, he acknowledged that some SMEs are on the leading edge, and said many more are "taking a big business approach" to information technology than was the case in 2001. Three or four years ago, SMEs were looking at IT as a cost-reduction tool; now they are considering it for growth and customer relations, he said.
To encourage SMEs to adopt new technology, the IT industry needs to simplify solutions and sell benefits, said Dave De Abreu, a Cisco Systems Canada vice-president. "We haven't done a good job of selling the business advantages of solutions like VoIP, video conferencing and on-line collaboration."
However, he is optimistic that SMEs will adopt these tools as prices drop and the technology becomes easier to use. When cellphones first hit the market, they were large, expensive status symbols. Now almost everyone in business has one -- or more than one, if you are Mr. McLaren.
Along with extra cellphones and e-mail connectivity, Infinity Communication and PR-Mentor each have their own Web sites. PR-Mentor is a do-it-yourself public relations company for SMEs that want to generate publicity but find PR agencies too pricey. PR-Mentor subscribers can pay on-line for the interactive service, subscribe to a newsletter, and join moderated discussion forums about conducting PR campaigns.
"The websites are the lifeblood of the businesses. We generate reports to see what [pages] people are looking at and we can revise content and add new pages on the fly," Mr. McLaren said.
When he has to update either site, he uses an on-line editor that functions like a word processor. When he is done, he clicks "submit" and his work is live on the Web. It cost more to set up the on-line content management system but it means Infinity does not need a full-time webmaster and does not have to contract out site updates. Nor did Mr. McLaren have to learn how to manipulate website coding.
While numerous SMEs are reaping the benefits of technology, overall small businesses need help adapting to technological advances, said Doug Cooper, Canada Country Manager for Intel and chair of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC).
According to a study conducted by International Data Communications Canada for ITAC, roughly 20 per cent of SMEs reported that they do not employ any information and communications technology (ICT) staff. IDC Canada believes almost 50 per cent of Canadian SMEs have two or fewer full-time equivalent ICT staff on payroll. This inhibits the adoption of new technologies even though almost all SME senior managers say improving productivity is a "top business challenge," according to the study.
"They get that ICT drives value," Mr. Cooper said. But day-to-day, SMEs are more concerned about recruiting, training and retaining staff who can sell products or work on the factory floor.
Small and medium enterprises often contract out ICT projects and are frustrated when high-tech companies do not understand their business needs. With that in mind, ITAC is calling on educational institutions to produce more graduates who are both technology and business savvy.
SMEs make up more than 95 per cent of Canadian businesses, and some tech companies are not willing to wait for schools to produce technology graduates who understand business.
Microsoft Canada has set up a free website for small businesses (http://www.microsoft.ca/sbplus) to help them better use technology tools. It includes a library of more than 30 hours of training and a benchmarking tool, developed by IDC Canada, to help SMEs determine how well their technology investments compare to other businesses.
Meanwhile, Mr. McLaren isn't simply waiting for universities to pump out technology/business grads or for high-tech companies to simplify IT. He views technology as a tool to make things more efficient, but said it "doesn't replace a smile or warm voice."
As PR-Mentor grows, Mr. McLaren envisions using video conferencing to hold on-line training sessions.
"Video conferencing lets you answer questions and show your smile at the same time, and that builds trust and integrity and makes your clients feel good about what you are doing."