GH Firms Letting Technology Pass Them By

June 21, 2002
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GRAND HAVEN — While a few service voids exist, businesses in the Grand Haven-Spring Lake area generally have access to the technology they need in today’s high-tech business world.

The problem is getting them to use it.

An assessment of the area shows a lack of understanding among small and medium-sized businesses locally about what’s available to them and how they can use technology to their benefit.

Many have chosen to let the technological revolution that’s drastically altered the business landscape during the past decade to simply pass them by, said Bill Coleman, a consultant with Community Advisors Technology Corp. in St. Paul, Minn.

“There’s a lot of businesses who’ve sat on the sidelines and watched,” Coleman said. “It does point to some need for education. If people don’t think this is important, then they won’t be in business very long.”

Coleman was in town for three days earlier this month to conduct an assessment of the area’s technology and telecommunications infrastructure and services, and how they are used. The assessment was sponsored by The Chamber of Commerce of Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg, and Michigan Gas Utilities, which split the $5,000 cost.

Coleman’s biggest finding was that, for whatever reasons, some businesses simply are not accessing technology and using it to their advantage, or are unfamiliar with it.

That conclusion points to a need for The Chamber of Commerce to step up its efforts through training seminars and other advocacy roles that focus on how businesses can benefit by putting new technologies to use, said Karen Benson, the organization’s vice president of economic development. One obstacle to overcome is the reluctance of business operators who are uncomfortable with the technology or don’t recognize its potential, she said.

“We have to get people less afraid,” Benson said. “It’s really obvious we have to educate our small businesses on what’s out there and make them more comfortable.”

“We’re ramped up and we’re geared up and the providers have stepped up to the plate. We just have to realize that and tap into it,” she said.

Part of that hesitance among businesses was seen in the relatively low turnout at sessions Coleman held. The assessment also received just 17 responses to a survey Coleman sent out to gauge how organizations use technology. Only nine of the responses came from private companies; the other eight were from the public sector.

Among the private sector responses are concerns about the cost of technical equipment and the availability and turnover of technical staff. Those firms that use technology — mostly through e-mail, Local Area Networks, and electronic file transfers — indicated a benefit.

“Ultimately, most respondents noted a confidence in their use of technology and felt that their current usage provided a strategic advantage to their business,” Coleman wrote in a report to The Chamber of Commerce.

The perceived high cost of technology is often enough to scare away a business owner from looking at the issue, Coleman said. Even a $30 or $40 a month Internet connection and e-mail can produce value for a business through the ability to conduct research on an industry or connect more efficiently with customers, he said.

“There are a lot of ways people can use the technology that are not going to cost them a lot of money,” Coleman said.

The lack of understanding and use of technology by small and medium-sized businesses is a common thread among many business communities, said Carol Lopucki, director of the Michigan Small Business Development Center. Quite often business owners are so focused on day-to-day issues of running their business they don’t have time or resources to put toward major initiatives like developing an e-commerce strategy or integrating technology into the operation, Lopucki said.

“It’s not atypical at all. It’s all a matter of timing,” Lopucki said. “Small, closely held businesses have a difficult time getting outside the day-to-day business operations. You have to get to a certain level of development before you can get proactive.”

Even then, the level at which technology is applied differs widely from one type of business to another, she said.

Not surprisingly, one of Coleman’s recommendations to The Chamber of Commerce was to increase training for small business in the use of technology and how to apply it, as well as highlight success stories in the community. The chamber should work more closely with telecom providers to build awareness and better disseminate what’s available locally and how businesses can effectively apply it, Coleman said.

As a tourist community, Grand Haven also can benefit through increased public access to Internet computers for leisure and business travelers.

The assessment was the first step in the chamber’s plans to give technology and related issues more emphasis through training seminars and other initiatives designed to promote the greater use of technology and increased local investment in services and infrastructure, Benson said.

“We’re not just going to let this go,” she said.

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