Newfoundland and Labrador continues to show why it has been one of Canada’s most proactive provinces in its attempts to hone its IT sector into a global contender, with the announcement of a government-supported initiative called e)MERGE.
The e)MERGE project is a means to economically empower that region’s SMEs (small and medium businesses) with e-business practices aimed to attract new customers and on-line partners. Comprised of two key elements, the project aids up to 30 SMEs in the creation of Web sites, transaction systems, marketing strategies and applicable training. Moreover, an e-business portal site (www.emergewithus.com) has been developed with the help of service provider Cyber Zone in St. John’s.
The whole effort has been coordinated by a plethora of agencies including Operation ONLINE – the Rock’s non-profit, government supported corporation which aims to advance growth in the IT sector – and the Irish Loop Regional Economic Development Board. Plus, entities in the venture that support the province’s E-Business for Small Business initiative range from funding partners Industry Canada and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, to service providers NewTel Communications and Zeddcomm, to advisory partners in Memorial University’s Business Faculty and Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador – the province’s tourism office.
“This project was a concept that a variety of partners [got involved with] including the federal government, the provincial government, Operation ONLINE…and we all knew we wanted to do something here,” said Daryl Genge, director of marketing and business development for Operation ONLINE. “There was a need to really help stimulate e-business and e-commerce growth in the province.”
While attending the 2001 Internet World Conference in Toronto, Genge – who took on the role of project manager for e)MERGE – told ComputerWorld Canada that Newfoundland has a memorandum of understanding with the government of Ireland, which promotes cooperation between the two in various sectors including IT development. He added the Irish connection was a natural choice.
“The Irish economy is booming, it’s well known around the world that it’s the fastest-growing economy of European nations,” he said.
Genge further explained the overall focus of e)MERGE was to work with 30 pilot SMEs to design an appropriate e-business solution specific to each entity’s market. He added the participating companies represent a mix of both urban and rural SMEs in Newfoundland.
Sandra Kelly, Newfoundland’s Minister of Industry, Trade and Technology, said the e)MERGE project was established to provide support for companies to accelerate the uptake of e-business. An integral part of the plan includes an on-line training program which focuses on developing enterprise skills and e-business practices. Dubbed the e-Learning for Business Innovation and Growth training program, it’s currently under development in conjunction with Newfoundland’s Open Learning and Information Network and the Irish Government’s County Enterprise Boards.
“We’re trying to diversify our economy. We got a real jolt in the early 90s when the cod embargo came down, that left about 40,000 people unemployed in a province already struggling with high unemployment,” Kelly explained.
“Our larger towns and St. John’s have (since) seen extraordinary growth but we recognized our rural areas weren’t doing as well. There’s only 560,000 people [living] in Newfoundland; it’s hard to sell your goods to the local economy only.”
Genge added on-line training programs should be up to snuff come March.
“What we’re looking at are 17 or 18 modules offered on-line through facilitated and independent sessions,” he said. “We’re still working on the roll-out plan.”
Business partners in Ireland have signed on with the Atlantic province’s strategy by way of linkages to that nation’s SMEs and similar government-run projects.
“Our small businesses have the same needs (as those in Ireland),” Genge said. “Many of these small businesses understand what the concept behind e-business is and they’re already sold on it…but these people are busy running their businesses, so what they need help in is understanding how to get involved.”
Kevin Restivo, a research director with IDC Canada in Toronto, sounded sceptical of the venture. He said government assisted IT-projects in Atlantic Canada have already proven to be a wooden nickel.
“It’s not the answer to an economic engine that’s stalled unless it’s hands-off,” Restivo remarked. “The idea can be successful, but only if it’s largely a hands-off approach, which seems counter-intuitive to government and to fostering entrepreneurship.”
Genge refuted that criticism. “Look at individual examples. That is, we’re helping a number of companies move through the e)MERGE project to become e-business enabled,” he countered. “Our goals are not simply to help companies make that transition but to learn from it, and also for us to better understand where the gap is between the IT industry and other industries,” he said.
“Will it make a difference? It will definitely have an impact. What you have to realize is the economy grows in a variety of ways…[resource-based industries] continue to be a significant contributor to our economy, but when you get beneath that, small businesses represent the majority of employment in our province and in many other provinces.”
Portal site offers four initiatives
The portal Web site built by St. John’s-based Cyber Zone (www.emergewithus.com) offers four key elements for Newfoundland and Labrador’s SMEs:
Shop in Newfoundland and Labrador: allows for convenient browsing, links to participating company Web sites (manufacturing and tourism industries) as well as links to other Rock-based portals, and a currency converter.
E-Business Service Providers: gives information about models for future projects, lists of e-business service providers, information on linkages with Ireland and other useful features.
E-Business Resources: a FAQ page for SMEs on the nature of e-commerce, Canadian government resources, and on-line training programs.
E-Business Project: which includes background information on the e)MERGE project, a list of sponsors and an overview of how business, government and communities can benefit from the project outcomes.
Source: Operation ONLINE.