Asia's small businesses should jump on the Internet bandwagon, a professor

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 February, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 February, 2000, 12:00am

Middleman - In an effort to clear the path for Asia's entrepreneurs to begin networking beyond their established circles, Professor Ho is creating a Web-site billed as 'a registry for worldwide business contacts' and 'a portal for continuous learning, co-operative buying and inter-networking'. There are also plans for a virtual working lunch at which people can swap anecdotes and a virtual buying co-operative in which small-business owners can pool orders to get a discount on commonly needed office supplies.


Asia is emerging from its financial upheaval just as electronic commerce is revolutionising the way the world does business. As a result, small and medium-sized enterprises in the region face a make-or-break moment, says James Ho Kar-yew, a Hong Kong native who is a professor of information and decision sciences at the University of Illinois in Chicago.


The challenges ahead cannot be met by business as usual, he warns in his newly published book Cyber Tigers: How Companies in Asia Can Prosper from E-Commerce (Prentice Hall, 2000).


To take full advantage of today's possibilities, Asia's small-business leaders must broaden their ability to draw on existing connections and learn to reach out to strangers.


'We're good at using cellphones to talk - incessantly - to people we already know,' Professor Ho says. 'But we're definitely not so good at the serendipitous stuff, making cold calls, reaching out.' This insularity extends even to the way the region's governments are preparing for the new e-commerce-driven economy, he says, with Hong Kong and Singapore pitching themselves as the Asian hub at the expense of an integrated, regional approach.


In an effort to clear the path for Asia's entrepreneurs to begin networking beyond their established circles, Professor Ho is creating a Web site (www.cyber-tigers.com) billed as 'a registry for worldwide business contacts' and 'a portal for continuous learning, co-operative buying and inter-networking'.


The site, still under development, carries a short profile of Lilian Koh Nee No, the Singapore-based founder of on-line bookstore OneKnowledge.com that caters to e-entrepreneurs. Other profiles are on the drawing board, as is a column exploring business English.


There are plans for a virtual working lunch in which people can swap anecdotes and a virtual buying co-operative in which small-business owners can pool orders to get a discount on commonly needed office supplies.


Hyperlinks are in place to resources for small and medium-sized enterprises in 17 Asian jurisdictions and to distance-learning opportunities at eight universities.


Professor Ho predicts distance learning will become more important as people strive to keep up with the quickening pace of change and become more accessible as educators become more adept at designing their courses for the Internet.


As this process unfolds, continuing education will come to illustrate one of Professor Ho's primary principles: the most successful e-endeavours will be those that identify and grow new markets.


'It's frontier territory,' he says of on-line education.


Enterprises doing best will be those that transform their processes and products, Professor Ho says. For example, someday educational entities will allow students to create their own degree programmes by piecing together a curriculum consisting of the best courses from several schools.


He thinks these transformed educational programmes and business processes will supplement the old entities. Consumers will gain more choices, and educators and entrepreneurs new markets.


But traditional operators would do well to note that the new Web-based endeavours are likely to entice the top end of any market.


'Your competitor's e-commerce plan may not be to drive you out of business right away,' Professor Ho says. 'Rather, it will aim to lure away the best 20 per cent of your customers this year. And next year, it shoots for the top 20 per cent of those you manage to keep or attract anew.'