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Unified Support and Help for E-commerce enterprises through assisting RDAs

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"Should we have a website and if so how do we go about it?" is a question SMEs often ask at start-up or when looking to expand their business. And they often turn to business advisors for a response. But just how many can provide the answer SMEs need? Not enough, according to USHER, a project helping business advisors become e-business advisors. Developed by a partnership of municipalities, regional development agencies and private companies from Italy, UK, The Netherlands, Ireland and Greece, the USHER Information Society Technologies funded project has created a package of tools from which business advisors can learn how to better assist their clients in breaking into e-commerce. This is a necessary step as until now business advisors - a category that includes public agencies, chambers of commerce and university departments active in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) support, among others - have been largely traditional in their outlook. In turn, SMEs' adoption of e-business strategies has also been limited in many areas of Europe. "Across the EU there is great diversity in the form business advisors take - some are public, some private - and in some countries they have different positions in the business structure," says project coordinator Tony Swash of the London borough of Islington, one of the USHER partners. "Nonetheless they are all there to advise businesses, and we believe USHER can help them do that better." Existing business advice often fails According to studies carried out by USHER in five European municipalities - Islington in Britain, Bologna in Italy, West Athens in Greece, Shannon in Ireland and Rotterdam in The Netherlands - business advice comes in many shapes and from many sources but often fails to meet the needs of SMEs seeking concrete assistance with e-commerce. "A lot of information exists, but it is largely confusing or conflicting or both," says project manager Stefania Garofalo of the municipality of Bologna. "There are evident gaps in the e-business knowledge of business advisors." This may go some way to explain why less than half of Europe's 20 million SMEs have websites and only one in five use the Internet to make sales or purchase supplies, according to a 2002 Statistics in Focus report by Eurostat. The report indicates that technical concerns, such as know-how, security and implementation strategies, are the principal barriers to e-business take up by SMEs. These, however, are precisely the issues that business advisors are best situated to deal with. Through the USHER website, business advisors have access to a counselling and training handbook, e-business evolution scenarios, case studies and interactive checklists so they can learn how to best guide SMEs in implementing e-business strategies. Most importantly the information is objective. "We didn't just want to say 'Go digital'," Garofalo explains. "We wanted to provide balanced information so SMEs can be advised of the benefits and drawbacks of e-business and decide what is best for them." Indeed, e-business is not always the way for SMEs to go, as some of USHER's case studies show. "Some sectors are not suitable for e-business, and some strategies cannot be applied to all sectors or regions," the project manager notes. For that reason, USHER chose to gear its toolkit towards business advisors rather than directly at SMEs as advisors are in a better position to know what is right for the businesses in their region and sector. "We chose business advisors because they can act as multipliers - it is easier to meet the needs of several hundred advisors than several thousand SMEs across Europe," says Swash. "Advisors can adapt our tools to what they need for the companies on their portfolio." And it appears that that is what they are starting to do at an accelerated pace. USHER's toolkit helps bring SMEs to the e-market According to the results of several focus groups among business advisors from 12 countries in April and May, advisors see USHER's toolkit filling an important gap in helping them bring European SMEs into the online market place. "A wide level of interest has come from many EU countries, but surprisingly also from Eastern Europe and Turkey. This is important because these are e-markets for the future," says Garofalo. Since USHER's full range of services came online in 2002, the website has attracted more than 75,000 visits and around 11,000 copies of the handbook have been downloaded. The handbook is also to be published in print. Two online forums, one aimed at interaction between business advisors and another to help find partners under the European Commission's Sixth Framework Programme, have also been set up. To further disseminate its services, the project is to participate in the e-MINDER conference in Brussels on July 17 to explain USHER's experiences in assisting the public sector in better advising the private sector on e-business. "USHER shows how regional public and private entities can jointly work together," says Garofalo, "cooperating to optimise e-government to the benefit of e-business." Source: Based on information from USHER Promoted by the IST Results Service