NBN blinkers for Australian businesses

Two events in Sydney this week have illustrated the growing digital divide in Australia’s business community, as many managers struggle with rapidly changing markets and workplaces.

In a modern restaurant overlooking the office towers of Circular Quay, Macquarie Telecom and Deloitte Consulting released their 2013 National Broadband Network Business Readiness Survey on Tuesday. A few hours earlier, in a refurbished 19th Century railway shed at the less fashionable south end of town, Google showed how their mapping technologies can be used by businesses.

The difference in venues and attitudes could not have been greater. The heritage rail workshops hosted an event showing how high speed and pervasive broadband is changing the way we work, while the modern building heard how businesses are still struggling to see opportunities.

In a follow up to Macquarie Telecom’s 2010 survey, Deloitte Consulting surveyed 160 Australian medium and larger enterprises on how they expected the National Broadband Network (NBN) to affect their business.

Business expectations stuck in a rut?

The surprising thing is that how little the expectations of businesses have changed between the two surveys.

In this year’s survey a little under half the respondents expected to offer different types of products as a consequence of the NBN, exactly the same as the 2010 study

The proportion of businesses that expected changes to the way they communicate with suppliers and customers dropped from 57 per cent in 2010 to just over half this year, a surprising fall given how social media use has accelerated over the last three years.

One area where attitudes have changed dramatically is the growing recognition of how the NBN will transform the workplace. The number of businesses that recognise the need for work methods to change is on the rise, with over half the managers surveyed expecting the NBN will transform where people work as opposed to only 20 per cent three years ago.

This is consistent with the Federal government’s National Digital Economy Strategy released last year which expects 12 per cent of the workforce to be teleworkers by 2020; although it’s worthwhile noting Silicon Valley’s recent backlash against remote working lead by Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer and supported by Google.

A disturbing complacency

So what’s going on with these statistics? While this year’s sample size is smaller –160 this year compared to 540 in 2010 – there’s a disturbingly relaxed attitude discernible in many businesses when it comes to the NBN.

A charitable view is that many businesses are already using the internet effectively and the benefits have already been booked. The NBN won’t make much of a difference to the way organisations work other than delivering faster and more reliable access.

However, that theory isn’t borne out by MYOB’s latest Business Monitor, released last week, which found that of the thousand Australian small to medium enterprises questioned only 16 per cent said they use cloud computing and 38 per cent have a business website.

While the businesses queried by Deloitte are bigger than those surveyed by MYOB, it appears the relaxed attitude towards the web is shared by Australian firms of all sizes.

The disruption equation

Just how ill-considered this complacency is becomes abundantly clear when one compares it to the ideas featured in the Google event. Those who attended the Google Maps Atmosphere showcase would have seen the search engine highlight how businesses around the world are using its mapping products.

Some of Google’s case studies included the American Red Cross’ use of cloud services to respond to crises and start-ups like City24/7 converting New York’s bus stops into local news centres with smart sign technology.

One of the exhibitors at the mapping event was a treadmill fitted with the iFit app that simulates runs anywhere in the world by feeding Google’s Street View into a screen in front of the jogger. The treadmill even simulates the hills you’d encounter if you were really running those roads.

The fact that something as mundane as gym equipment is now connected to the web should make every manager or business owner think of how the internet is changing their markets.

One Aussie company that did get a mention was electricity supplier Ergon Energy which is using Google’s maps to manage vegetation that might affect their transmission network.

While Ergon isn’t the lone Australian company using online services to change and improve its business, the Macquarie Telecom-Deloitte Consulting and the MYOB reports both show a large swathe of local enterprises still oblivious to the changes happening around them. This is the digital divide evolving in the Australian business community and it’s one which should worry shareholders and managers.

Regardless of which version of the NBN we end up receiving, the way we do business is going to undergo a radical change. It’s time local managers started paying attention to whether they want to seize the opportunity or lament its loss later.