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

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In my last blog, I outlined why many smaller businesses are reluctant adopters of the internet.

But small business isn’t alone. Many larger businesses too have failed to grasp the impact the internet would have on their businesses.

Just ask the former shareholders in Borders, Kodak, Yellow Pages and newspaper publishers amongst many others.

While ‘failure to grasp the impact of the internet’ is something the management of these businesses have in common with smaller business operators, it’s a completely different set of circumstances that they have faced.

Armed with resources

Unlike smaller business, larger business had the resources to undergo the training and education they needed to better understand the new media.

They also could call on consultants to help bridge any gaps that existed within their organisations.

But there’s a fundamental that neither of these could help address. And that’s hands-on experience with the internet and the understanding that comes from that.

Hands-off management

The truth is that up until relatively recently, the fluent operation of a computer was something that was well beyond the skill level of most executives.

Up until recently, it was their personal assistants or other subordinates that actually worked on computers to complete their given tasks.

It wasn’t that long ago (and I suspect still occurs amongst older executives today), that executives would dictate communications for their PAs to ‘type up’ either in person or via dictaphone-style devices.

Secondhand advice

As a result, all of their business decisions were based not on direct ‘hands on’ experience, but from the advice of either subordinates or outside consultants.

No matter how compelling the business case from within the organisation or outside consultants, managers could never feel completely comfortable about making decisions about technology when their own exposure to it was so limited.

This lack of confidence led to stalling major technology decisions — often until it was too late.

A blow to their confidence

It’s not that difficult to understand their thinking. They had got to where they were in the organisation based on being able to (amongst other things) make great business decisions.

Now they were faced with being the corporate ‘bunny’ whose decision (or lack of it) may well take the organisation in the wrong direction.

This lack of intimate understanding of technology and how it worked created a corporate ‘generation gap’ around the online world to mirror that experienced in much smaller business.

Senior staff lacked sufficient exposure to the technology to be able to make meaningful business decisions around technology, while those that did understand technology intimately were too junior to be able to charge with making major business decisions.

Ask the kids

In many ways its no different to parents asking their kids how to use new technology.

Naturally as time goes on, the less technology literate bosses will retire and pave the way for younger, more technology-literate ones.

But sadly, in many cases, this gap led businesses into a strategic abyss that they may never survive or recover from.

The other gap

Management wasn’t the only part of the organisation that felt the brunt of this generation gap. Many IT departments also felt its wrath.

The reason for this is a dramatic shift in the department’s role.

In the past, IT departments were the ‘enablers’ of organisations, whose role it was to plan, implement and maintain the systems required for the business to operate efficiently.

From enablement to strategy

But very quickly, this level of enablement moved from operational to strategic. Now a new kind of IT expert was required — one that could understand and communicate the impact of technology on the business itself, rather than just within the walls of the organisation.

And quite often, organisations simply didn’t have this expertise in-house, leading to the rapid rise of consulting firms that did.

I witnessed this effect first hand at a former very profitable large organisation. Sadly those hired on the business of their IT capabilities were soon found out to be completely out of their depth when it came to making strategic decisions the soon-to-be-completely-digitally-disrupted organisation desperately needed.

As a result, the same organisation is now a very pale shadow of its former self.

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