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    The Changing Marketplace: Putting "E" to Work

     

     
     
    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 3/2003

    If communities in developing countries are to benefit from technology, we need to 'put "e" to work'. Technology is one thing. Applying the benefits of technology to boost exports, jobs and income, is another.

    This issue of Trade Forum is part of ITC's contribution to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), taking place in Geneva in December 2003 and Tunis in November 2005. ITC's contribution aims to help small firms improve their competitive position by using information and communications technologies.

    From agriculture to industrial products, consumer goods and business services, technology matters. Whether companies manage traditional exports in new ways or exploit opportunities in new export sectors, they are 'putting "e" to work' to sharpen their compet

    itive edge.

    Small exporters in developing countries know this. But with rapidly changing technology, the volume of information available, and complicated-sounding technical terms, technology choices can be overwhelming. Many e-trade applications exist, but most are targeted to large, well-resourced companies. In developing countries, exporters may face additional hurdles such as poor connectivity, a shortage of trained workers, a lack of data protection laws and limited access to finance.

    Yet the danger of not investing in technology is that exporters will be left behind, as more and more world trade moves online. E-trade is not just about online transactions; firms can 'put "e" to work' to meet a variety of business needs. Business cases from Hungary, Kenya, Nepal, the Philippines, South Africa and the Mekong Basin show that exporters are using technology to tackle distribution, customer relationships, back office operations and marketing. They are also exporting new technology-related services. In the process, they may not invest in the most expensive solutions - just the most appropriate. Many firms are also capturing the trend of tapping into their overseas communities (diaspora networks) for markets, resources and contacts.

    E-marketplaces are one option for small firms that are under debate. Some see them as opportunities for exporters to pool resources to attract buyers, conduct back office operations and manage clients jointly. Others believe that, at best, e-marketplaces serve the same function as trade leads or directories, and at worst, they pressure suppliers who compete in buyer-driven e-marketplaces. No one has the final answer.

    In researching this magazine issue, we examined a range of e-marketplace views from universities, consulting firms, exporters and business associations. We retained two cases of supplier-driven e-marketplaces, for gourmet coffee and for tourism, which provide practical models with lessons for small exporters.

    At the same time, it's helpful to have a "heads-up" on major exporters' future technology plans. We profile survey results of export managers in major multinationals and e-marketplaces, from Forrester Research. As "market drivers", their views give an idea of the expected cutting-edge trends in applying technology to export operations.

    This, finally, leads to consideration of the e-readiness debate - what many see as a growing "digital divide". Firms can 'put "e" to work'without high-speed connections, computers in every workplace and a legal framework. But a supportive environment can make the difference between being an e-winner and being an e-player. National export strategy-makers that do not take e-trade into account are missing a major opportunity.

    The roles for those who support exporters vary. We explore examples, from Brazil to India, Singapore and South Africa, of what developing countries describe as their needs to support business, and ways to do it. Governments, for example, can support innovation, help develop infrastructure and encourage capital investments. Business networks,non-governmental organizations and international organizations can research and advocate on behalf of firms, conduct training and facilitate the exchange of ideas. "Big business" can help with alliances, mentoring, seed money and donation of equipment.

    As always, we appreciate your views on how you are 'putting "e" to work'. In particular, if you have reactions to these articles, or research or examples of how your firm, sector or country is 'putting "e" to work', e-mail us. We regularly review what you send us for inclusion in the Trade Forum web site or in future editions of our magazine.