The key area where SMEs need assistance is in the appropriate use of technology. Big companies have the McKinseys and Andersens to help them. SMEs have only themselves and their ilk. They need help at multiple levels:
Design of Business Processes: SMEs need templates and libraries of business process maps and best practices from where they can select the appropriate ones and perhaps customise them if necessary. What is needed is the equivalent of a Visual Biz-ic (a la Visual Basic) for specifying and re-using business process descriptions. The increasing use of business process standards being specified by associations like RosettaNet can be especially useful for SMEs.
Consulting and Training: This is where the engineering colleges, their faculty and students can play a role. Once the Rs 5,000 PCs (5KPCs) are there in SMEs, they will need engineers to implement solutions and train their staff in the right use of computing. On the other hand, engineering college students are looking for the right kind of projects and the faculty is seeking to complement their teaching with consulting assignments. The combination can help SMEs leverage technology better.
Connecting with other SMEs: The SME communities are still quite splintered, mostly connected only through trade associations. Online is a great way for them to connect up, complemented by periodic local (physical world) gatherings. Think of the online version as a Slashdot for SMEs. They can share their ideas and experiences, and suggest solutions to challenges being faced by others. In doing so, they build a shared knowledge base in an emergent manner where the whole is much greater than the individual parts. This could later be extended into creating an online marketplace, based on bartering products and services.
Using their website more aggressively: SMEs need to use the Web for marketing and promotion more aggressively. The corporate website should have plenty of information and be updated regularly. This can be complemented with a weblog, written by the CEO. The blog can become a hub and sounding board for new ideas, and get other individuals and organisations to connect up with the SME. (I have started to see this happen through my weblog.)
At present, many of the SMEs in India (and perhaps other emerging markets) use PCs for three purposes: email, accounting and documentation. This is because PCs are on the desks of only a few people, primarily because of their costs. SMEs can, in fact, use this lack of legacy to their advantage they have little worry for older software which needs to be maintained.
The 5KPC has the ability to completely change the perception of a PC, making it as important as a desk and chair for the staff. The PC has to be combined with a freedom and change in culture, which may be harder to accomplish. The connected computer is a window to the outside world. Employees are now free to use email and the web and there is potential for some misuse. But over time, the SMEs will discover that their people and their ideas can become their greatest strengths. This is their passport to growth and business success.
Next Week: Telecentres and Homes
TECH TALK The Rs 5,000 PC Ecosystem+T