Abstract: A group of regional business support
networks have together investigated the status of regional support
for e-business development. A study of existing requirements
has enabled production of a package of 'decision support' for
business advisors working with small and medium sized companies
in their respective regions. The initial package has been deployed
for testing and refinement in advance of public launch. This
paper reports on that experience and results, and provides conclusions
relevant to future regional development actions aimed to improve
access to e-business by small and medium sized enterprise.
1. Introduction and Background
The increasing digital economy,
made possible by the ubiquitous presence of information and communications
technologies (ICT), applications and infrastructures, is generally
held to be a key determinant of the increasing Europeanisation
and Globalisation of the economy. A significant by-product of
this effect is that regions are increasingly exposed to international
trends as the protection of National boundaries becomes reduced.
One result of this shift of focus to the regional level is that
regional authorities must now play a stronger role in maintaining
regional prosperity through targeted development strategies and
The information society (IS)
introduces both opportunities and threats that, while presenting
some general features common to all regions, have special implications
based on regional characteristics. It is generally held that
electronic commerce disrupts historical trading mechanisms and
relationships since the relative stability of traditional commerce,
as characterised by writers such as Porter , becomes open
to new kinds of challenges enabled by the extreme flexibility
of electronic working and trading methods . This is of special
concern for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that, despite
being a primary source of employment and innovation, are greatly
dependent on supply relationships towards larger business.
Previously, commercial advantage
gained through raw materials, relative location, and proximity
to consumer markets, was a prime determinant of regional prosperity.
But it has been argued  that the IS (digital economy) brings
increasing emphasis on innovation and supportive regional infrastructure
(institutions), underpinned by knowledge and human resources.
It has been further argued  that the threat of marginalisation
faced by SMEs in the increasingly digital economy can be reduced
by systematic support for transformation of traditional business
approaches, sectors, and networks.
Systematic support for development
of regional economies, with special emphasis on SMEs, is present
to some extent in all regions. This is further supported by collaboration
between regions (for exchange of ideas and experiences) through
membership organisations such as EURADA  and ERISA , while
initiatives such as GO DIGITAL  provide special support to
SMEs and to the regional agencies on which they depend for advice
and guidance. Promotion of 'regional innovation strategies' is
also addressed by RIS and RITTS , who support development
of specific 'regional innovation strategy projects'.
An analysis of the operational
level of support in a sample of regions, conducted in 1999-2000,
showed that a gap existed between the strategic level of support
for business development (regional focus) and the SME level of
development (specific business development). This gap is typically
populated by 'business advisors' who are the front-line of regional
development agencies (RDAs) and regional business support networks,
or who operate as advisors for investment or technology deployment
interests (banks, suppliers, etc.), or who provide a private
service in management consultancy or business development. In
all cases it was found that the 'business advisor' (i.e. the
worker providing information and decision support directly to
SME managers), faces the same challenges as the business managers
themselves. There are a host of competing claims about e-business
strategies, processes, technologies, operational considerations,
and benefits. Many of these emanate from interested suppliers,
while others are based on specific experiences or general perceptions.
A group of 5 regional agencies
decided to address this gap by developing a support package for
business advisors, now known as USHER , to address the need
for e-business information and decision support enhancement in
the advisor-manager relationship. USHER is supported by the CEC
IST Programme Key Action II - New Methods of Work and Electronic
Commerce . The regions involved are (in alphabetical order)
Athens (Greece), Bologna (Italy), London (UK), Rotterdam (Netherlands)
and Shannon (Ireland).
2. The USHER Approach
The USHER activity was initiated
by analysing the 'baseline' of support in 5 European regions,
in order to characterise the local economy, the existing business
support networks, and the means of provision of advisor support
to managers of SMEs . As part of this activity, focus groups
of local business advisors were formed, and workshops were conducted
to elicit requirements for improved support in decision-making
concerning uptake of e-Business methods. Based on agreed requirements,
the USHER team developed a specification for a package of support
measures, including information and tools to support decision
making in interactions between advisors and their client SMEs.
The developments involve pairings of business advisors and e-business/technology
developers in each participating region, and this group provide
the necessary balance of perspectives for responding to user
3. The USHER Contribution
The USHER contribution to the
decision support activities that occur between advisors and SMEs
are focused on information and tools relevant to e-business decision
making. They respond to a clear set of requirements that emphasise
'illustration and exposure' of:
- Types of SMEs conducting e-Business
- Rationale underpinning the
decision to embark on e-Business
- Methods and technologies employed,
and decision path
- Experiences of conducting
- Benefits gained and problems
- Main technology and business
issues relevant to decision making
- Future scenarios of relevance
Analysis of the above (summarised)
requirements, produced an outline definition of the USHER package
- Handbook of e-Business for
Advisors and Managers: E-Business advisory process (how to);
Internet and Business (general review); Business to Consumer
Trading; Business to Business Trading, Regional Portals; Enterprise
Models, ERP and Supply Chains; E-Marketing; E-Procurement.
- SME e-Business strategy analysis.
- Case studies illustrating
key issues as identified in requirements (above).
- Evolution scenarios addressing
key decision areas: Technologies; Security; Legal Aspects; Process
- Tools to improve decision
- Search tool accessing collected
'business assertions' derived from e-Business literature and
- Automated checklists for assessment
of key areas of activity.
- Advisor materials index showing
resources available by region.
- Business support networks
- illustrated examples of operation.
- Checklists for use by advisors
Each element of the USHER 'package'
has now been developed into a prototype version for testing with
selected groups of advisors in each participating region, and
a wider European perspective on utility of the package is being
acquired by allowing on-line access to selected package elements.
At the present time, there are 60 active advisors in regional
focus groups, and more than 200 registered advisors obtaining
access to USHER on-line support. This latter group represent
a wide range of regions in Europe, and are drawn from quite diverse
organisation involved in provision of support to local SMEs.
A further multiplier effect is obtained by exposure of USHER
developments to RDAs via EURADA, and the use of this larger constituency
as a sounding board via questionnaires and interviews.
At this stage the results of
early tests have been analysed and refinements to the package
elements have been initiated prior to full public exposure. The
key lessons learned from the development and testing experiences
are now considered.
4. Experiences, Lessons Learned and Conclusions
4.1 Business Support Networks
Although this partnership started
out with the idea that 'business advisory process' would have
many common features across regions, they have discovered that
this is a largely heterogeneous arena. In some areas the 'business
advisor' is trained and qualified, with membership of a professional
body being available to guide professional development. In others
the advisor is self-developing, and relies on experience of business
operation, previous business training, mentoring experience,
and other activities by which he/she obtains the status of a
'trusted intermediary'. Furthermore, there is an explicit and
organised relationship between advisors and RDAs in some regions,
while in others the advisors are independent and may be contracted
to support regional development initiatives ad-hoc. The benefit
of USHER products in helping to reinforce the capacity of regional
support networks is generally acknowledged by our users. However,
since they recognise a need to focus regional concerns more clearly
(localisation) they also demand improved support for e-Business
decision making at a local level.
A conclusion from this observation
is that future regional development in Europe could usefully
address the question of harmonisation of 'small business support'
and exchange of practice for regional benefit.
4.2 Access to Decision Support
Information and Tools.
While on-line access to decision
support resources is generally held to be valuable, it is clear
from our results that not all business advisors like to work
this way. There is a general demand for a 'portable' and 'printable'
version of USHER package elements, and so they will now be further
developed in that direction. In addition to the access modality
issues, the users also identify two further access issues - these
being language related. The first relates to the language used
(English). Our initial assumption that professional advisors
would be comfortable with English has proven to be inaccurate.
Many advisors happily work with English materials, but some do
not, and translation of key elements of USHER is now being undertaken
in some regions. The second language issue relates to the contrast
between 'technical' language and 'business' language. The technical
concepts in e-Business are often described in a way that 'assumes'
a relationship to business concepts. However, for many advisors
it is necessary to articulate e-Business in the 'language of
business', and to make relationships between technical concepts
and business concepts explicit.
A conclusion from this experience
is that the accessibility of decision support information and
tools concerning e-Business must be enhanced by using local language
where demanded, and by expressing e-Business in clear 'business
language' and concepts wherever possible.
4.3 Learning By Example
The use of case studies is
identified as being of high value by business advisors. They
naturally incline towards acquisition of experiential knowledge
through storyline illustration. Our experience also shows that
good narrative has also to be backed up by hard data where use
of technology, claims of benefits, or consideration of business
process is an issue. While advisors value a clear narrative to
convey the substance of someone else's experience, they also
expect to be able to respond to factual and quantified questions
with example data. It has also been observed that advisors use
case study material to educate both themselves and their clients.
They require access to a large set of both contrasting and complementary
cases to support reasoning about e-Business options, and they
especially value 'region' and 'business sector' specific case
A conclusion from this observation
is that sharing of SME e-Business experience requires a rich
set of case experiences to support learning and decision making,
and that these should be conveyed through a detailed narrative
to convey 'meaning', plus supporting data to establish 'factual
parameters' of interest.
4.4 Learning From Expert Interpretation
The evaluation of the USHER
handbook and other materials derived from expert interpretation
of current knowledge has revealed significant features of usage.
Our focus group members (users) appreciate the structure of the
materials, its organisation and its expression. However, in test
scenarios they evidence enquiries (business questions) not closely
related to, or situated within, the current structure. The information
required to answer questions is present, but they sometimes evidence
problems in trying to respond to a business decision issue -
for example, 'what is the best way to sell online?' requires
analysis of a range of related themes and issues to develop a
response. Their ability to mine the information expressed in
one structure may be limited by a degree of unfamiliarity, and
the situation may improve. However the ability of SMEs to present
novelty may provide a continuing challenge.
A conclusion from this experience
is that while 'expert interpretation' of e-Business knowledge
may provide a 'starter' for self-education on general principles,
the ability to respond to novel enquiries requires access to
a 'search' facility that allows matching of patterns of meaning
in a dynamic way (support tools).
4.5 Decision Support Tools
for Dynamic Enquiry
The use of initial tools for
decision support in test scenarios has shown that this approach
is highly valued and, although not yet fully developed in USHER,
promises to be the most attractive approach for business advisors.
Entering search questions to be matched to 'business assertions',
extracted from a wide range of literature and on-line resources,
is something they do quite easily. Being provided with a range
of possible 'matches' allows them to mix and match elements of
information (distilled knowledge), based on their own understanding
of their client and the business problems they face. Again the
issue of 'business language' arose, and the need to 'interpret'
technical concepts by articulating them in the language of business.
The 'tools' approach avoids the need to internalise (learn) large
amounts of e-Business information, and allows advisors to interrogate
received knowledge (expertise) in a dynamic enquiry whereby they
can 'construct' the decision support they need in a specific
A conclusion from this experience
is that dynamic access to e-Business knowledge has high value
for advisors since it supports decision making in an immediate
way. It allows them to secure the information they need and which
is relevant to a specific enquiry. It also ensures access to
a growing body of knowledge without onerous 'learning' commitment.
4.6 Summary Conclusions.
Our experience of the initial
deployment and testing of the USHER package of e-Business decision-support
for advisors is generally positive. Advisors work in very different
professional and operational scenarios across Europe. Ongoing
regional development could usefully address the question of harmonisation
of 'small business support' and exchange of practice for regional
benefit in the specific instance of 'e-Business decision support'
using advisors. The worker who must assist the SME manager in
transforming traditional business, or enhancing an increasingly
digital business, requires access to multiple forms of information
and different access modalities. The advisors are mainly local
experts in business development, and the new concepts and practices
of 'e-Business' must be conveyed in 'business' terms to support
understanding. In many cases decision support materials may have
to be provided also in local language. Concerning the content
of materials, a rich set of case studies is required, addressing
different regional and sectoral concerns, and should be an ongoing
provision to reflect experiences in the changing landscape of
European business. This is also addressed by other activities
in IST such as BEEP  that collects case materials to support
regional development planning.
We have seen that provision
of expert interpretation of e-Business to support the front-line
advisor's initial understanding of the general concepts is of
high-perceived value. Of higher value is the provision of dynamic
access to distilled knowledge and experience through interactive
tools to support 'just-in-time' access to high value knowledge.
Knowledge management for regional
business development may become a more critical issue as the
digital economy becomes more established.
(All USHER materials referenced
in this paper are available from www.usherproject.org.uk)
 Porter, M., Competitive
Strategy, Techniques For Analysing Industries and Competitors.
Free Press, New York, 1980.
 Timmers, P., Electronic Commerce: Strategies and Models for
Business to Business Trading. Wiley, Chichester, 2000.
 Wilson, F., Supporting SME Entry to E-Business. UKAIS Research
Workshop Series, Warwick Business School, June 2001.
 Wilson, F., Swash, T., Pardo, A., and Crump, M., Structured
Support for S-M-E-Business. In Proceedings of Human Factors in
Telecommunications-HFT'2001 Conference, Bergen, Norway, 2001.
 European Association of Development Agencies, http://www.eurada.org
 European Regional Information Society Association, http://www.erisa.be
 GO DIGITAL, http://www.go-digital.info
 Regional Innovation and Technology Transfer Strategies (RITTS)
and Regional Innovation Strategies (RIS), CEC DG Enterprise,
 USHER - Unified Support and Help for E-commerce enterprise
by assisting RDAs. CEC IST Programme, Project Number 1999-20727,
 CEC IST Project 1999-20727, USHER, Deliverable Report No.
D1, "Status and Requirements Definition", June 2001.
 BEEP project web site, http://www.beep-eu.org