Inside Business: Blame it on the technos

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the more predictable facets of business life is the plethora of surveys, reports and speeches emanating from US companies on the theme that we Europeans are backward when it comes to information technology.

Now, we all know that individuals and organisations on this side of the Atlantic have been more reluctant than those in North America and South-east Asia to get on the internet and the rest of it. But there is also some special pleading going on here. Companies such as Microsoft and Cisco Systems act like they are telling us all this stuff as some kind of public service. The reality, of course, is that they are making a business case.

A straightforward approach might be to say that they see wonderful opportunities in Europe's untapped markets. But it seems that is too upfront even for the "go get 'em" computer capitalists of Silicon Valley. Far better to soften up your market by making it feel guilty.

Accordingly, Cisco - the California company that is to internet equipment what Micro- soft is to personal computer software - came up with research findings like this last Wednesday: "One in five small European companies has effectively rejected technology, leaving themselves dangerously vulnerable to failure." On the same day, just by coincidence, Cisco launched a product that "effectively offers small companies the chance to benefit from big business-style networking".

The truth is that it is difficult to generalise about Europeans in this, or any other, matter. There are all kinds of explanations - cultural, geographical, financial and the rest - for the comparatively slow take- up of all the whizzy new "business solutions" streaming out of Silicon Valley. But one of the most obvious is that small business tend not to have a lot of spare cash. And while computer company executives tend to think that a few thousand pounds is not a lot to spend on keeping up with the Joneses, struggling small firms are inclined to disagree.

This is not because they are technophobic. In Britain, and doubtless elsewhere, those running small businesses are often much more advanced in their adoption and application of new technology than their counterparts in big business. They have long realised that this is a revolution that can work particularly well in their favour.

Understandably, however, they are careful. One of the problems caused by the intense competition in the computer industry is the rapid rate of change in products. While constant innovation is healthy, it also provides an excuse for inertia on the grounds that there is little point in buying now if something better and possibly cheaper will be along in a little while.

On top of this is the problem that hi-tech products are some way short of easy to install and use. The industry claims that great strides have been made in simplifying instructions, but there is still some way to go before most products and systems are anything like intuitive. After all, how many other appliances require continuously manned helplines?

For small firms, installing or upgrading an IT system typically takes up time that owners do not have. Even those convinced of the long-term benefits will be reluctant to commit themselves to something that could take them several steps back before progress is made.

Put like this, perhaps the wonder is not so much that Europeans are hesitant about the technology as that Americans are so eager to sign up for it. Maybe Cisco or Microsoft could do some research.

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