CIO OUTLOOK

Suppliers face their own digital divide

Mike Hale

U.S. business-to-business electronic commerce topped $43 billion last year and could hit $7 trillion by the middle of the decade, according to some researchers.

Georgia is the fastest-growing state in the South and is third in the nation in high-technology job growth.

But here's another reality: Many small and minority-owned companies lack the resources or the know-how to compete effectively online and thus participate in the boom.

In Georgia, several organizations are committed to keeping track of this digital divide or provide consulting assistance to small and minority-owned companies. Some monitor opportunities for minority participation in private and government buying. And sometimes, having the feds in your backyard can help.

A case in point is the Atlanta Electronic Commerce Resource Center (ECRC). This organization, which is involved in helping small and minority-owned companies gain a stronger foothold in e-commerce, is sponsored by the Defense Department's Joint Electronic Commerce Program Office. It's chartered to help small companies gain e-commerce capabilities as a means of ensuring a ready source of suppliers to the federal government. Having a regional training office in Atlanta is a plus for Georgia.

A recent ECRC publication, An Electronic Commerce Technical Assistance Project for the State of Georgia, says that 'businesses located in Georgia's second-tier and rural communities typically have disparities in the distribution and availability of Internet and telecommunications technologies and services.'

Government buyers can turn this situation around.

Having a governor who makes small-business procurement a priority helps. It increases residents' awareness of the importance of including small and minority-owned businesses in state procurement. That awareness can, in turn, make it easier to alter procurement practices.

All too often in government procurements, small and minority-owned companies have difficulty competing against larger, more established companies. Georgia has no provision for spending set-asides. Government agencies naturally want the best products and services their limited dollars can buy. For a disadvantaged company, trying to get in on a procurement can be like my son trying to get a job: 'Dad, I can't get a job because I don't have the experience, yet the only way to get experience is to have a job.'

A new Georgia program shows promise. Dubbed the Governor's Mentor-Protege Initiative, the program is designed to help individuals and small businesses achieve success through special relationships with larger companies. Protege companies receive guidance from mentor partners in strategic planning, budgeting, marketing, personnel and financial management.

This program is an opportunity to equip small and minority companies with information about the government procurement process that can make them much more effective competitors. Moreover, the mentor-protege relationship can result in teaming or subcontracting relationships.

In the final analysis, this economic divide will not heal itself. The effort to bridge it will be worthwhile if it results in a more diverse and competitive supply base.

Mike Hale is chief information officer of Georgia. He previously was executive director of Florida's Information Resource Commission, and he is a retired Army colonel. His e-mail address is mhale@itpc.state.ga.us.

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