Abstract: Assisting innovative SMEs with the
continual process of transformation in the new economy is a key
challenge for regional economic development. Traditionally, SMEs
have not had the in-house resource to engage in innovation and
development and have relied on external sources of such information.
The Internet provides new channels for such knowledge distribution,
but this paper argues that the Web is a difficult medium for
SMEs to acquire knowledge. One answer to this has been the move
towards Portals, or jumping off points for the Web and latterly
there have moves towards vertical portals - vortals - which focus
on specific industrial sectors. This paper outlines the development
of such a vortal - Innovation-online - to provide mediated access
to information for engineering companies and to assist with links
into the knowledge-base provided by the Universities.
We introduce Innovation-Online,
an Internet service, which is being developed by the Regional
Unit at the University of Nottingham. This work is in response
to a perceived problem with Small-to-Medium-sized Enterprises
(SMEs) acquiring knowledge via the Web and gaining access to
knowledge diffusion networks within the East Midlands region.
It is possible that SMEs will be left 'information-poor' through
the problems inherent with using the Web as a business tool and,
in particular, difficulties with search engines. This is being
undertaken as part of the economic regeneration development in
the former coal-fields area of Nottinghamshire. Our solution
is a Web-based vertical-portal, or vortal, which aims to support
SMEs in the engineering and manufacturing sectors. We aim to
create a vibrant Web-based community of companies accessing focused
and relevant technology information and research news. The site
supports links into the local knowledge base, and provides infrastructure
for network development.
1.1 The Problem : SMEs are
struggling with knowledge acquisition via the web
It is clear from both anecdotal
evidence and results of a survey undertaken by the Regional Unit,
that SMEs in the East Midlands struggle with the Web. In particular
they find using search engines difficult and have some concerns
about the quality of information.
1.2 The Evidence from the
Anecdotally we know that the
majority of SMEs, like the general public, use search engines
when looking for information. We asked a random set of 25 owner/managers
of SMEs whom The Regional Unit has worked with over the last
two years, to rate the usability and the quality of what they
found using search engines. They were asked to score on a scale
of 1 to 10 a series of five questions. They were asked to rate
agreement (1) or disagreement (10) with statements, or to rate
the materials they found on a scale where 1 was 'very good' and
10 was 'very poor'. The questions asked were as follows:
1. How easy do you find it
to get the information you are looking for on the Internet?
2. How confident are you about
using search engines efficiently?
3. In general, how would you
rate the quality of sites found using search engines?
4. How strongly would you agree
or disagree with the statement that `the Internet is just an
unstructured mass of information?'
5. How useful do you feel you
would find a Web site dedicated to providing information on innovation,
research and new technologies?
Table 1 Percentage scores for
five Internet questions
Percentage Scores of
Chosen Rating (1-10)
(1)Ease of use
From these results we can see that there is an indication that
the research set judged finding the information they were looking
for to be difficult (question 1), although confidence in using
the engines was fairly evenly balanced between being confident
and not. This may show that although a lot of the SMEs know the
mechanics of using the engines the results are not what they
expected. The rating for quality of materials found, indicated
some bias towards the poor end of the rating scale. There was
also a slight bias towards agreeing that Internet was unstructured.
The results also show that the proposal of a site dedicated to
innovation has quite reasonable support from SMEs.
Table 2 Percentage scores for
time usage of Web searches
| Web Search Use
| Latest Business Developments
| Research Technical material
| Research New Markets
| New Regulations
| Find Collaborative Partners
| Monitoring Competition
We also questioned SME owner/managers
about the time they spent online each week. The hours online
averaged four over a working week - with five owners clocking
up quite large amounts of time - five to ten hours in a week.
We also asked the managers what types of information they searched
for on the Web and the results are set out in table 2.
From other EU projects with
a related remit we know that training on the use of the Internet
is a key issue with SMEs and in particularly for micro-businesses
. We aim to address the related issue that even trained users
find information retrieval difficult because of the nature of
1.3 Searching the Web - Support
from the literature
The problems that SMEs in the
East Midlands have with knowledge acquisition via the Web are
not isolated instances. The literature supports the view that
finding relevant and high quality information on the Web is difficult.
The phenomenal growth of Web page content has created an enormous
source of potential information, but with an attendant problem-set.
The ease with which a user can interact with the Web disguises
to some extent the underlying difficulties of knowledge acquisition.
Various researchers have looked at the problem of defining the
Web as an information source and how to measure its usability,
quality and relevance and for a rounded discussion see Cooke
. The discussion has not been confined to search engines (defined
as a searchable collection of web site references that have been
created by automatic processes using software); researchers have
also investigated directories, for example Yahoo, and regional
gateways to information, both of which use human editors .
Why is the quality and relevance of information found via search
engines problematic? There is a consistent body of research work
on the features of search engines and in particular on post-processing
the results of commercial engines to look at the relevance and
precision of the results. Key problems for the search engines
have been shown to be the size of the Web-base and its volatility.
It is clear that the search engines are being overwhelmed by
the scale of the Web and that they cover relatively small amounts
of the totality of the Internet , and that their precision
is poor .
2. Why knowledge acquisition
matters in the economy - the problem in context
The East Midlands is ranked
41st against other EU regions when measuring the GDP per capita
 and has a number of rapidly declining industries including
coal extraction and textiles. The growth of small companies and
the subsequent employment potential is seen as crucial by development
agents in order to arrest further decline. It is clear that knowledge
acquisition is of increasing importance to such SMEs and that
increasing numbers are using sources of innovation knowledge
such as the Web and local Universities . Many commentators
have referred to this general move away from traditional large
and information-light industry towards smaller companies where
a 'public good' - knowledge - and its diffusion within a global
economy is critical . The challenge to regional economies,
particularly in areas of decline such as East Midlands, is to
deal with such globalisation and the rapid rise of the importance
of working with knowledge. The keys to success are access to
knowledge and, in particular, the creation of networks and diffusion
paths for such knowledge . Increasingly, innovation does
not take place within a single company, but through networks
of large and small businesses and through linkage to the 'knowledge-base'
of the universities . Leadbetter, for example, argues that
Universities should become not just centres of research and teaching,
but hubs for such innovation networks - the 'open-cast mines
of the knowledge economy' . The ability of SMEs to be involved
with such networks is important and the Web can be seen as critical
in this process. As we have seen, however, the Web has drawbacks.
Many commentators have remarked on the possibilities of personal
social exclusion from these networks but it must also be recognised
that SMEs may be left 'information poor' compared to bigger organisations.
2.1 Local Financial impact
It is clear from our research
that SME owner/managers are spending relatively long periods
of the working week using the Internet. In the main they are
searching for information on technical matters, competitors,
and new markets. Improving their access to such key information
could reduce this time and this would have a definite, if difficult
to measure, financial impact on individual companies. In addition,
providing access to local knowledge diffusion paths will benefit
the longer-term survival chances of small firms.
3. The proposed solution -
the Innovation-Online vortal
We introduce Innovation-Online,
(www.innovation-online.net), an Internet service that is being
developed at the University of Nottingham. The service is a vortal,
which aims to assist SMEs involved in engineering or manufacturing
in the East Midlands area around Nottingham. The project builds
on the concept of a human-organised regional gateway of information
but also incorporates the ideas behind a vortal. Its main aim
is to reduce the time spent online by busy SME owner/managers
and help them link into networks of regional knowledge diffusion.
It is a key tenet of the work on the Innovation-Online portal
that currently SMEs will not only find it difficult to access
the know-what and know-why, but that they particular need access
to the know-who .
3.1 Why a vortal?
As the problems with search
engines and generalised directories have become clearer, there
has been a move toward the introduction of portals. Portals are
general-purpose gateways to the Web which provide human-edited
links and guided search for the most commonly required information.
Portals have usually been developed as front ends to the existing
general search engines, and their relevance increased as the
Web audience became more consumerist in the late 90s. However,
due to commercial pressures and the consumerisation of the Web
these portals have attempted to be "everything to everyone"
. This again has led to problems of relevancy, and, in 1999
a new sort of portal started to appear - vortal - a contraction
of vertical portal . A vortal is defined by the Internet-based
'whatis?' service [www.whatis.com] as " a web site that
provides a gateway or portal to information related to a particular
industry, such as Health Care, insurance services, automobile
Vortals serve as a resource for a particular sector and provide
news, information, and act as an infomediary for business-to-business
trading. The introduction of vortals provides a tool that can
assist with the development of the knowledge diffusion and acquisition
networks that are important.
The InnovationOnline vortal
consists of a number of major components that seek to support
SMEs with the different categories of knowledge as discussed
earlier. These are shown in the diagram below. The site is organised
into four major sections; 'clusters', 'themes', 'information'
and 'learning'. All sections of the site aim to support the acquisition
of the different knowledge types - know what, know-why, know-how
but in particular attempt to support the know-who that is vital
to build up knowledge networks.
This key component supports
the development of a small number of industrial sector clusters.
Each cluster will contain relevant news and information, and
a human-edited set of links to reviewed content from the Web.
The access to information specifically relevant to an industrial
cluster aims to tackle the problems already outlined of SMEs
using generic search engines. The proposed clusters are 'manufacturing',
'general engineering', 'automotive', 'environmental technologies'
and 'mining-related'. Within each cluster section, SMEs will
have indexed access to news, events, case studies, research information,
opportunities for bids, technology opportunities and partner
searching. In addition, cluster areas will seek to support the
development of peer-to-peer networking and creation of virtual
companies  within the sector through use of threaded discussion
groups, e-mail lists and newsletters, and chat-rooms. The clusters
area will support work being undertaken off-line to promote clustering
in the region.
Themes are a small number of
highlighted key business 'drivers', which relate to all SMEs
in every cluster. The themes section will contain information
relevant to the highlighted theme and contain a human-edited
collection of reviewed links to quality information sources.
In addition, University academics will provide up-to-date content
on the themes. The on-line training will be linked into these
A section of the vortal will
be dedicated to provision of short, bite-sized, remote learning
modules. This will utilise the Solstra learning framework, developed
by BT (www.solstra.com) and will cover subjects to support the
3.6 Information and Expertise
Information of a more general
nature, such as business news and non-specific industry developments
is catered for in the information section. Support for guided
exploration of the local knowledge base is included and in particular
there is an expertise database of local technical experts. The
latter is modelled on work undertaken in Canada on the national
Strategis site . It is also proposed that the project will,
at a later stage, introduce knowledge agents - software that
will automatically aid information retrieval. This work will
involve a trial of software developed by BT at their research
labs, including Radar, which finds relevant information in a
"just-in-time" manner, and Prosum, which categorises
Web sites . Again, these facilities will be aimed at reducing
the online time of SME owner/managers.
3.7 Technical Architecture
The vortal is hosted on a Microsoft
Internet Information Server (IIS 4.0) with an attached SQL 7.0
database. A database driven architecture is employed, using ASP
to dynamically create the webpage templates and menu structure.
An administrator tool provides the editor with the ability to
quickly add new content such as news items, links, and information,
without the need to generate a new html page. The tool is accessed
via a standard web-browser and therefore can be used remotely.
3.8 Future developments
As the Innovation Online service
is introduced and The Regional Unit undertakes work to ascertain
its impact, we envisage an evolving site under constant review
based on user feedback. It is clear that our great challenge
is to encourage SME owners to participate in the cluster development
and to use the Web site on a regular basis. Some of the future
trends in Vortal development are already becoming clear - personalisation
of access to the Vortal and automation of knowledge acquisition
and transactions with agent software. We intend to introduce
such measures as the project continues. Work is shortly to begin
on a new cluster of recycling companies who will link into a
Web-based waste exchange network.
The Innovation Online vortal's
goals of supporting access by SMEs to the knowledge base and
facilitating the flow of information around networks in the region
has attracted wide-spread interest amongst both SMEs and regional
agencies. We believe that by using the vortal we will be able
to support SMEs and show them competitive benefits. SMEs will
only use the system if this is forthcoming. The key challenges
are to encourage SMEs to make use of this service on a regular
basis, measure the impact of its introduction and refine the
service. We will need to show that the vortal does indeed reduce
the online time of managers and provides a useful resource to
the business community.
This work was undertaken as
part of the SME Technology Transfer Network project which is
part-funded by European Union Regional Development Fund under
Objective Two. The Regional Unit acknowledges support from British
Telecommunications Ltd and IBM UK.
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