Understanding the role of e-skills in the utilisation of electronic small business development support services
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The Internet is now facilitating the provision of an increasing number of services. Thus, technology has become a more integrated part of people‟s daily routine. Some of these technologies include electronic communication, online banking, and shopping as well as electronic learning - to name but a few. However, for various reasons, such as limited formal education (which is a key promoter of reading and writing skills), access and skills, not everyone has an equal opportunity to benefit from the use of these technologies. The unequal distribution of opportunities of such nature is often broadly referred to as the digital divide. That is the gap between those who have access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and those who do not. One noted challenge that influences the use of ICT consists of socioeconomic conditions, which together elicit high levels of poverty. An identified strategy for uplifting these areas was (and still is) entrepreneurship, notably small businesses. These small businesses however, generally have very short and mostly unsuccessful lives. As a result the government at all levels (national, provincial and local) has endeavoured to provide support to these businesses. Some of this support is provided through mediums, such as the Internet (here named “electronic support”) to assist these small businesses. This support, which comes from government, is however, not being fully utilised by the intended beneficiaries. Thus, the small businesses are not benefiting from the support provided. Consequently, many are still experiencing a short and unsuccessful existence. This research thus analyses the small businesses in areas of the greater Cape Town, which are characterised by high levels of poverty and unemployment. Previous studies in these areas have reported the lack of ICT related skills, also known as electronic skills (e-skills), as one of the reasons for the low uptake of electronic support (e-support). This e-support is provided by various levels of government through selected agencies (service providers). In essence, this study is aimed at investigating the influence of e-skills in the access and use of the provided e-support by owners of small businesses. Considering that the lack of adequate e-skills has been identified as influencing the use of e-support, the study also aims to identify the e-skills needed to fully utilise the provided e-support. The approach to this investigation included a review of pertinent literature and devising a conceptual model. This model was then tested in the empirical setting of this study. This setting included: (i) Providers of e-support (various specialised government agencies) and (ii) the intended beneficiaries of this esupport, i.e. small businesses in the previously disadvantaged areas (PDAs) of the greater Cape Town. Through the use of case study methodology and face to face interviews, it was found that many small business owners were not able to appropriately use the provided e-support. This was due to their lack of e-skills, which resulted in their inability to use ICT. Additionally, some were unaware of the existence of the e-support or the service providers. During the review of pertinent literature done as part of the study, an e-skills framework was designed. The framework identified the e-skills considered necessary in order for small business owners to effectively utilise the provided e-support and other technologies. The e-skills framework suggested by this study could be used as a tool to assist: (i) The providers of e-support to understand the usage of their services and enable (ii) a more informed understanding of the need for appropriate e-skills among small business owners, in relation to their use of the provided e-support. Additionally, (iii) small business owners should be in a better position to recognise the benefits of using technology, especially the Internet. The contribution of this study is seen as twofold. Firstly, it should assist the providers and users of e-support. This is done by addressing the practical side of the provision and usage of these services. Secondly, the study contributes an informative e-skills framework related to the effective use of esupport. This study also furthers academic knowledge in the area of the investigation, and suggests further directions for research. Considering, the limited small business sample (only participants from three PDAs), the generalisation of this study is limited. This limitation does not however, influence the validity of this research, or the credibility of the findings.
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