Has the internet skipped this generation of small business owners and managers?

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 a large number of 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 knowledge there is out there among our smaller business owners and operators in this area.

Tech-illiteracy and technophobia

If they were to venture into the offices of many small businesses, they may very well find business operators who cannot 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 understanding 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 using them makes them feel when they are ordinarily very confident people.

Epidemic proportions

What I’ve found is that it is often those businesses where computers are not an inherent component of their core business — and that’s a larger proportion.

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 pipe dream. 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 widespread occurrance are many and varied but I’m going to take a stab at the main one.

Age of reason

I believe 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 are men (67%) aged between 45 and 54 and women (33%) 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 could also be the case 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 are 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, some business owners 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 start their own businesses and everything digital is fully embraced without question.

But for now, I believe 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.

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Adam Gordon
Adam Gordon
3 years ago

Interesting thought, but I’m not sure I fully agree. Maybe I’ve been around computers for too long. Back in the mid-late 70s I still had to use traditional (i.e. paper) spreadsheets and mechanical calculators to calculate cashflow projections for major quotations and proposals. When my employer installed a midi-computer and found an early electronic spreadsheet I grabbed it with both hands, and even encouraged my team to play games (after hours – one was trying to improve his odds for a trifecta) to help them get more familiar.
It was, I think, in the late 80s that I bought my first laptop, and now approaching 72, I still try and keep up to date.
To me, it’s the attitude, not the age.