Select Committee on European Union Written Evidence

Memorandum by Alternative Thinking Ltd


1.  These answers are intended to reflect the thinking of the SME sector of the economy. Some scene setting is in order.

  2.  The life of the owner-manager-worker (OMW) of the SME sector is the business: everything is seconded to it. In this sector the entrepreneurial urge is less about making money than about being free to solve the everyday problems of the business in one's own way. Most OMW's would be better off financially as employees but are not so because addressing and fixing these problems is not only their living but their life. They are prone to be seen as idiosyncratic, even cantankerous and are not readily herded into actions of any kind other than by their own choice.

  Answers to the questions of the Call for Evidence paper follow:

Q1:  What needs to be done to create confidence and to stimulate e-commerce?

  1.1  The OMW needs to know how much of his irreplaceable time is going to be taken up getting to grips with yet another initiative. Just how is it going to affect MY business?

Q2:  Does the European Commission's draft Action Plan "eEurope: An Information Society for All" offer a realistic means of promoting e-commerce in the EU?

  2.1  Few MDs from the SME sector will hear of this other than indirectly and partially and fewer still are likely to read it. However his/her school children will be using the Internet as a matter of course and this will be seen, appreciated and taken up at a rate depending on its fitness to the business of the OMW. The owner of an SME is always on the look-out for ways to improve business practices. The classical entrepreneurial/capitalist path of spending a capital sum now to save running costs in the long run holds for the SME sector but the steps and the risks are no bigger than the OMW thinks the business can stand at the time.

  2.2  Those owners of SMEs who do manage to get themselves a copy of the document and set themselves to read it might well find the volume of assertions too much for assimilation in the time they can give to it.

  2.3  The document reads as might a manual for the motivating of sales staff. (It would be very interesting to know who wrote it.) A detailed response to its many assertions would take much time—it is unlikely to get this amount of time from any sector other than that of the larger businesses or institutions.

  2.4  I find myself wary of an argument that needs 16 sides of A4 to express itself and even warier when the supporting evidence is presented largely as repeated assertions and very little substance.

Q3:  Will codes of conduct and co-regulation provide sufficient protection? Is there a case for intervention by national governments and the EU?

  3.1  National concepts of Morality, Justice, Rights and Duties of State and Citizen will be challenged. Lots of work for academics and lawyers—paid for by my taxes!

Q4:  Do the institutions of national governments, on the one hand, and the European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, on the other, function with sufficient flexibility and coherence to promote the EU's objectives in the field of e-commerce?

  4.1  History tells me that flexibility and coherence are not the hallmarks of any of these institutions. Even national institutions only move quickly in times of threat such as war, serious civil disorder and in response to major "Acts of God". Unless the e-commerce idea can take on the aspect of one of these, matters will move at their traditional rates. This might not be a bad thing for all concerned.

Q5:  Should existing EU institutional structures be changed, or new ones created, to improve policy development and co-ordination?

  5.1  In view of the tone of urgency coming from the paper the impression is that there is a hidden agenda aimed at introducing a pan-EU regulatory layer which would assume responsibilities currently in the hands of national bodies. Is this a real intention?

Q6:  How can structural change be brought about fast enough to accommodate to the growth of e-commerce?

  6.1  What is the basis for giving so much importance to speed? What does fast mean? 10 years, 20? 50? Almost anything can be accomplished in 50 years, after all it represents two generations, but 10 covers two or three General Elections any of which may bring quite different political ideas. What threat is being perceived that needs the word "fast" to be used so often that it almost becomes a principle of action? The obvious answer is that the project is to be pushed through in the period of one Administration so that the next is presented with a fait accompli.


  7.1  I do not doubt that e-commerce will become ubiquitous but suggest that preparation for that would be better achieved by rectifying its current problems than just by adopting it out because it is fashionable. Internet technology security is far from perfect: it would be foolish for the SME sector to put scarce resources into e-business until this is resolved and the necessary equipment comes into the price-range of the sector.

  7.2  What would give a fillip to entrepreneurial ventures (see 2.1 above) would be a change in the thinking processes of those who provide venture capital and, more importantly, of those who lay taxes on the SME sector. Digital technology could help to spread the consequences of changes in these areas but cannot effect them.

24 February 2000

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