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Enterprise: IT failings the main barrier to small business growth.

Byline: Diane Rayner

A recent survey in the Rayner household showed that there was 100 per cent turn out for the European elections and that 50 per cent of the household are women.

Sounds impressive, but its only two people. There are a lot of surveys out there in the wide world and because the responses are always reported as percentages we tend to be impressed by their scholarly tones and mathematical assertions.

The really important thing to remember when you consider the Federation of Small Businesses' Lifting the Barriers to Growth 2004 biennial survey of its members is that 18,635 businesses across the UK responded.

The percentages that are quoted within it represent very large numbers indeed. Of these responses 1,426 were from the West Midlands so what they had to say about business issues is important because it is truly representative.

The spread across the different sectors in the West Midlands, based on standard industrial classification codes, was very even and matched the spread across the entire UK.

Not very long ago small businesses were perceived as lagging behind in the great surge to e-commerce.

In the Barriers to Growth Survey conducted in 2002 72 per cent of small businesses reported that they used the internet. In this year's survey 77 per cent said yes they used the Internet with over 49 per cent reporting they had their own web site.

The sad fact is that 37 per cent are still having to use their telephone lines for this, proving how much business needs broadband connection access in order to progress.

Advantage West Midlands and the county councils in the region are all working hard to supply everyone with this vital tool but the rural areas, the very places where communication is vitally important, are still lagging behind.

We are assured that the problems can be overcome; we can only hope that this will be sooner rather than later. So what are we using all this technology for?

Well email of course both to customers and co-workers but more importantly to attract new customers. Over ten per cent reported that they had made contact with new overseas customers through their website. However, the use of internet in business is still quite limited and needs to grow.

One of the biggest barriers that businesses reported in all this was their customer's reluctance to join in. Their customers prefer the traditional ways of doing business.

The other factors that stand in the way of e-commerce are the high costs of developing and maintaining a website.

Not surprisingly the younger businesses tend to be the ones likely to be using technology the most.

Some 52 per cent of businesses up to ten years old have websites while only 43 per cent of businesses that are 21 to 30 years old reported they do.

Interestingly male and female owned businesses are nearly neckand-neck in this particular race, 48 per cent of male-owned firms have websites, as do 46 per cent of female-owned firms.

So, small business is moving forward with technology but we still have a long way to go. In 2006 the Barriers to Growth survey may tell us that everyone is on broadband, that the interaction of businesses and their customers is largely electronic and that web design and maintenance problems have been solved by methods other than the business owner burning another candle at both ends.

Diane Rayner is the West Midlands policy development officer of the Federation of Small Businesses.
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 23, 2004
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