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Why the internet has skipped this generation of business owners and managers. Part 1

by: Craig Reardon on

Computers simply aren’t part of the small business operator’s world

Specialising in servicing the smaller business sector for about 20 years now has given me some real insights into the IT understanding and capabilities of small business operators.

And to be honest, the picture isn’t rosy at all.

The reality is that most smaller business operators have very little competence and in turn confidence when it comes to computers.

In fact, anyone who is reasonably computer and internet literate would be shocked at just how little competence there is out there among our smaller business owners and operators.

Tech-illiteracy and technophobia

If they were to venture into the offices of most small businesses, they would find few business operators can do much more than answer email or surf the internet very basically.  When they do use software other than email clients or web browsers, on many occasions they are not using them for the purpose they were intended.

For example, using Microsoft Word to create artwork or keep financial records.  As reported in this blog recently, one small business client was unable to comprehend the difference between a PDF and a website!

This lack of competence in turn means that there’s a very strong incidence of technophobia.  To these people, computers are a source of fear, not so much of the technology itself, but of just how incompetent it makes them feel when they are ordinarily very confident people.

Epidemic proportions

What I’ve found is that for those businesses where computers are not an inherent component of their core business – and that’s the vast majority.

So for everyone from plumbers to photographers, from marketers to marriage celebrants, computers are generally seen as something to be avoided.  In fact to these businesses, the more the computer is used, the less time they are actually earning money.

To them it’s a distraction, not a productivity tool.

That’s right, for these business operators, the computer is seen primarily as an administrative tool.  The notion of it making them or even their staff more automated or productive is a pipedream.  The notion of the computer being simply the outlet for the ‘information superhighway’ incomprehensible.

In fact there are still some businesses that don’t actually possess a computer at all – not even for financial management.

The reasons for this tech illiteracy epidemic are many and varied but I’m going to take a stab at the main one.

Age of reason

The primary reason for the low understanding of IT is the average age of business operators.

According to the ABS,  the average business owners or operators were men (67 per cent) aged between 45 and 54 and women (33 per cent) aged between 35 and 44.

When you consider that computers have only been used by all school students just this millennium – and some just in the past decade, then most business operators would not have ‘grown up’ with them, and would have to have either learned to use them off their own bats or previously worked in companies large enough to provide and train them.

Unless computers were their core business as such, it’s likely that only assistants or book-keepers would operate any computer the business possessed.

Computers a threat

To someone my age (50 something), the closest thing to computers in the classroom were typewriters, and comparatively few boys took Typing as a subject.

Given this evolution of computer usage, it’s difficult to gauge just what percentage of business operators were reasonably computer literate.

By this I mean able to competently use more than say four different software programs with more than two fingers. 

But to hazard a guess I’d say around 20%.

In turn what this low percentage of computer literacy among business operators creates is conservatism and even suspicion of the digital age we now live in.

Reliance on ‘experts’

Because computers aren’t part of their ordinary worlds, they rely on the advice on others to make decisions about technology.  Even those decisions will be avoided and delayed as they fear making an incorrect decision and losing money and/or face.

And given just how important both IT and in turn the digital world are to business these days, delays like this can provide their competition with a massive advantage.

This explains why adoption of basic websites by smaller business took so long.  Despite being with us for now more than two decades, it wasn’t that long ago that the majority of smaller businesses still didn’t have a website.

So instead of being seen as the brilliant and effective marketing tool a website is, it was seen as at best a grudge purchase.

A temporary effect

Over time, this generation gap will diminish as those that were well schooled with computers become old enough to start their own businesses and everything digital fully embraced without question.

But for now, this generation of business operators will go down as the generation the digital revolution forgot.

Next week I take a look at why bigger business hasn’t been immune from this generation gap too.

The E Team assists Australian smaller business with creating websites and other digital marketing tools

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