“There’s no point in building a highway if no-one can drive” Tasmanian business leader Jane Bennett said about the Australian National Broadband Network during an interview last week.
Jane was touching on an important point about the digital economy – that most businesses aren’t equipped to deal with it.
That half of businesses in the US, UK or Australia don’t have a website illustrates that in itself. What’s really worrying is setting up a website is the easy part and has been standard for a decade.
In many respects this isn’t new, a similar thing happened when mains electricity or the motor car arrived. Many businesses clung desperately to their oil filled lamps and horse drawn carts way past the time these were superseded.
Well into the 1970s there were hold outs who continued to ply their carts despite the costs of keeping horses on the road being far greater than buying a truck.
That failure to learn about and invest in new technologies saw all those businesses die, many of them with the owner who’d eked out a living as a milko or rag and bone man for decades.
On a bigger level, the struggles of the local milkman with his Clydesdale is a worrying reflection of business underinvestment. These folk are stuck with old equipment because they didn’t have the funds to spend on bringing their equipment up to Twentieth Century standards.
In the 1980s I saw this first hand in some of Australia’s factories. A foreman at a valve manufacturer in Western Sydney boasted to me how he had done his apprenticeship on a particular lathe fifty years earlier.
That machine still had the belt and pulley assembly from the days when the factory was powered by a steam engine at one end of the plant. It had an electric motor bolted onto it some time in the 1960s but was largely unaltered since.
It was understandable many Australian factory owners wouldn’t invest after World War II – many industries were protected and property speculation offered, and still does, better returns.
Another reason for not investing was the sheer cost of buying new equipment, major capital expenditures are risky and for most businesses it wasn’t work taking those risks.
Today there’s a big difference, hardware and software are far cheaper than they were in the 1960s or 70s with the big investment being in understanding and implementing the new technologies.
Few businesses don’t have computers or the internet but most of the things we do online are just variations on how our great grandparents worked with documents, filing cabinets and the penny post. We have to rethink how we use technology in business.
It would be a shame if we find ourselves stuck on the side of the highway wondering what the hell happened in the early years of the 21st Century.
Stage coach image courtesy of Velda Christensen at http://www.novapages.com/