Support is a critical aspect of the IT adoption by small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Technology is still as complex by most SMEs, and as a result because they are unable to recruit and retain technical support staff, IT usage suffers. Support needs to be provided at two levels: through the presence of local roaming engineers who can reach the SME within an hour, and via the presence of centralised call centers, which offer support via the Internet and through the use of technologies like Instant Messaging, voice-over-IP or web chat. The key is that the SMEs must feel that not only is the technology easy to manage, but also that in the event they need support, it is available reasonably rapidly.
Colleges can play a key role in the proliferation of IT to SMEs. Firstly, the colleges provide the engineering talent which can contribute to open-source development projects and the pool for IT companies catering to the SME market. Secondly, they can help develop the local Linux and open-source software ecosystems around the colleges. Thirdly, the management institutes can take up the task of standardising the business process definitions and provide the necessary consulting services that SMEs may need in the adoption of IT.
The current situation in India is such that we find many talented engineering and marketing graduates going in for jobs in call centres and business process outsourcing organisations. This is not necessarily the best use of their capabilities the loss is Indias as a nation. If, however, we are able to create the domestic market for IT consumption among SMEs, many of these newly minted graduates could find gainful and perhaps, more rewarding, employment.
Most SMEs tend to baulk at the large upfront investments that technology tends to require. Most would be glad to make monthly payments for its use. Yet, it is hard for SMEs to get loans for the purchase of hardware and software. This needs to change.
Banks and financial institutions need to start thinking of technology as core infrastructure at the time of lending to SMEs. In fact, when sanctioning loans, banks must ask SMEs what their IT strategy is, and where their information plant and machinery is. India is awash in cheap credit now this can be used to the benefit of SMEs by making available technology on a monthly installment basis.
9. Information Marketplace
One of the challenges SMEs face is growing their business. In most cases this means, finding other SMEs as customers. What is needed is for an online information marketplace which enables SMEs to reach out to other SMEs for buying and selling. The Internet could also be used to share success stories among the early adopters of IT. Thus, an SME-oriented portal would be very useful mixing content, community and commerce. In fact, ideas from the emerging breed of social networking sites could be used to help SMEs connect to other SMEs and new ideas.
Bandwidth is critical for business. And in India, bandwidth is still incredibly expensive. What India needs is a telecom revolution for enterprises so that SMEs can get fixed-price, low-cost broadband delivered to their offices and factories anywhere in India. Whether this is by fibre or wireless is not important the need is for multi-megabit speeds at no more than a few thousand rupees a month.
Presentation: I recently made a presentation at BangaloreIT.com on Affordable Computing. As part of the presentation, I prepared a few slides which capture many of the ideas outlined in the series so far.
Next Week: We look at the vexacious issue of reaching SMEs, and how we need to rethink the technology distribution chain to address the SME market.