The Scottish Internet Business Association as a Virtual Trade Body

Glen Collie <glenc@siba.org.uk>
Gordon Howell

During the last half of 1994, Scotland, along with other parts of the world, began to see evidence of a new medium of communication. The Internet, which had been available in the United Kingdom to academics, in the form of JANET, (the Joint Academic Network) was beginning to be seen by the business community as a legitimate method of national and international communication. Many had acquired accounts on local and international bulletin board systems such as Compuserve and obtained the experience of sending messages using electronic mail, virtually for the price of a local telephone call (In the UK we still pay extra for local calls). The ability to send mail messages, and carry on keyboard conversations with individuals and within groups anywhere in the world, was viewed as a positive benefit among those using these systems.

Some companies, such as my own, soon came up against the limitations of bulletin boards, despite their being quite large. As public awareness of the Internet grew and access providers began to multiply, many of us took the step of joining the greater community.

Scotland has, for a number of years, been increasingly involved in the development and manufacture of technology. As traditional Scottish heavy industry, such as shipbuilding on the Clyde, was lost, there was a necessity to turn to new industries. New industries, particularly those which were technology-based required the acquisition of new skills and as the workforce obtained them, we saw a substantial shift toward the development and production of both computer software and hardware systems. Inward investment brought companies such as IBM and Compaq and a significant number of offshoot companies were created to service them, creating a 'Silicon Glen' in lowlands Scotland. Indeed, some 35 percent of all PCs sold in Europe are manufactured in Scotland. Furthermore, the existence of these companies promoted the uptake of computer technology by users in other areas of business.

As the Internet gained public awareness, it became obvious that an Internet Trade Body had become a viable proposition. In February 1995, my colleague, Gordon Howell, posted an invitation on the scot.announce newsgroup for any interested parties to attend an organizational meeting in Glasgow. The purpose of this meeting was to explore the possibility of forming such an group. This meeting was held in the Glasgow Central Hotel on 26 March, and was attended by about 50 individuals representing some 40 different companies, university departments, and government agencies.

Initially, the majority of representatives from the private sector represented companies providing access to the Internet as well as general information technology consultants. Gordon suggested to the meeting that, broadly speaking, the benefits of an umbrella organization representing businesses which were involved in Internet related activities would be:

  1. To provide a forum for transfer of technical information;
  2. To provide a focal point for the developing industry with regard to the media; and
  3. To provide a point of contact for companies and individuals requiring Internet-related services.

At the end of this initial meeting, it was generally agreed that the concept was a viable one and there should be a further meeting scheduled for the last Tuesday in April, at which time, more concrete proposals could be made by any interested parties. This second meeting was attended by 65 individuals. The general ground rules for the as-yet-unnamed organization were discussed and it was proposed that there be a general call via scot.announce for nominations to a board of directors. It was further proposed that the election of this board of directors be conducted using electronic mail. Applications for membership to the organization were solicited and accepted via e-mail.

At this point, membership in the organization would be free of charge and the only criteria for membership would be that the individual or organization has some business connection with the Internet and a valid e-mail address.

By the end of May, the membership had grown to 74 and a board of directors numbering six had been elected. As well, the name Scottish Internet Business Association (SIBA) was proposed to the membership and accepted. SIBA was up and running.

During the next few months, various members contributed to the creation of a newsgroup, mailing lists to cover both general membership and board members, and a basic Web site. We had attracted a number of international members in Bermuda, California, Texas, and here in Montreal.

Progress was made toward the establishment of a constitution which stated the specific aims of SIBA:

  1. To promote the use, by business in Scotland, of the Internet;
  2. To share information about developments in the Internet industry;
  3. To share technology and contacts where appropriate;
  4. To provide a focal point for collective action; and
  5. To establish, administer, and maintain a code of practice for members.

As SIBA became better known, the media began approaching us for information and opinion on the Internet as a viable business tool. Their response was that we were now able to see stories in the popular press which did not simply mention the Internet in connection with pornographers and pedophiles.

SIBA has recently held its first Annual Gerneral Meeting. It now has some 150 members, runs a regular series of seminars, has had an exhibition, and is planning the first Scottish Internet conference to be held in September.

Our use of the Web and e-mail, as an organizational communication tools, was reasonably successful within the normal constrains of any sort of voluntary organization which was being driven by a relatively small number of dedicated individuals.

Here then, begins what I suppose is the main point to my story:

Any organization will either succeed or fail on the basis of the initiative and drive of those individuals willing to push the thing along regardless of what means of communication are open to it. This is probably a rule or maxim which will apply equally no matter what sort of business or organization you are involved in, whether or not it makes use of the Internet.

We all hear and read of amazing success stories with respect to individuals, groups, organizations companies, etc. using the Internet. Somehow, if we choose to believe the hype, we get the feeling that this wonderful new means of communication will somehow guarantee us success. Of course the Internet is a superb means of communications. But then so were smoke signals if you had the skill and time to read them. My point here is that, first, regardless of the efficiency and excitement which surrounds the Internet, it is only as good as the content of the information which is carried on it. And second, without the enthusiasm and drive of people there is no information to carry.

With respect to SIBA, we can point to some good successes and in turn, to some equally good failures. If you wish to become involved in, or create such an organization then my story offers both some encouragements and some warnings.

First of all, on the plus side, the Internet does provide an efficient vehicle for disseminating information among the members of an organization, particularly one like SIBA which is geographically disparate (albeit within a small country). Standard organizational communications such as notices of meetings and minutes can be posted to all members without the necessity of the usual problems of physical duplication and posting.

Our experience has been, that it is possible to use e-mail as an efficient means of carrying out a plebiscite among the members of the organization. Given that, generally speaking, the issues which surround our electronic votes, are such that we can live with the possibility that the potential does exist for false ballots being submitted, we can obtain a general picture of the members' feelings on a wide range of issues. That said, however, there is a down-side to extensive use of this sort of communication.

Consider for a moment this example. We have under discussion a "hot topic." For instance, perhaps whether we should limit our provision of refreshment at the SIBA Annual General Meeting to Scottish beer and not provide English bitter.[1]

As you can appreciate, as we have a some members with a preference for this particular inferior English tipple, the debate can tend to get a little heated. Now if this debate were to take place here in this room, the 50 or so members who might hold a strong enough opinion on the subject to voice it, will probably each put forward their main point once, rebut someone else's perhaps once or twice, and even may defend their position three or four times. The whole procedure, unless we have a particularly intransigent individual, might take something in the order of an hour or so. After suitable discussion, the chair would call for the vote and the matter would be decided.

In the electronic mail voting scenario, however, we have the potential for something rather different occurring. First of all, the initial proposition, i.e. no English beer at the picnic, would be put to the membership. A communication of one to 150. Because we live in a democracy, everyone has the opportunity to put his or her case, however, like every democracy, a proportion of those within it choose not to exercise this right or don't drink the beer anyway. However let's say 50 do. This involves 50 e-mails to 150 individuals or an additional 7,500 messages. Assuming perhaps half of those with an expressed point of view choose to rebut some other point of view, or amplify on their own, then we have an additional 25 times 150 e-mails or 3,750 more bringing the total e-mail messages on this topic alone to 11,400. The chair, in addition to having been bombarded with the pros and cons of the beer discussion, also begins receiving mail from members who are getting a bit tired of waiting while 60 or 70 messages on the subject download. Several dozen complaints on the number of messages being received are not posted to the administrator, but to the general mailing list, thereby swelling the flow to something approaching a tidal wave. At this point, the chair steps in, sends a message calling for a vote, and finally, the matter is decided. Except that someone suggests that only vegetarian food be served, starting the process all over.

Of course solutions exist to this problem, such as using Web-based forms for voting and a newsgroup for the ongoing dialogue surrounding such issues. One learns!

On the positive side, we have obtained significant benefits from existing, as it were, on the Internet. We make significant use of the various tools; the World Wide Web, newsgroups, and controlled mailings, for purposes other than simply communicating among ourselves. As we have become better known as the "voice of Internet business" in Scotland, we have found that in addition to the media, others have turned to us for information and advice.

One of our main objectives is to provide members with the opportunity for knowledge transfer. To this end, we have set up a newsgroup and a mailing list which enables members to both seek and provide solutions to problems. As many of our members tend to be from small companies, SIBA provides the avenue to source additional resources from other members. One member may be in the envious position of having more work than staff and time. A simple posting to the SIBA-tender mailing list will provide other members, who may not have a particularly high level of work on at the moment, with the opportunity to bid for the supply of goods and services.

In addition, the list allows for polling members for solutions to specific problems. We believe that sharing information and expertise is valuable, and on numerous occasions significant time and effort has been saved, simply by asking for a little help. The attitude is that provision of advice and help is beneficial in a number of respects. It speaks of a general high level of professionalism and at the same time it's nice to help out, as the next time the situation may be the reversed.

The Internet has provided a number of positive benefits to SIBA in addition to simply a "reason for existing." Regardless of the purpose of existence of an organization, it is probable that similar benefits could be obtained, given that members of that organization have access to the Internet. For example, SIBA does hold regular non-virtual meetings and seminars. The fact that all of our members have at least an e-mail account means that minutes, motions, and notifications can be sent to the entire membership with speed and efficiency.

Use of e-mail also simplifies setting organizational meetings between board and committee members. The secretary simply suggests several possible dates and venues and those required at the meeting do a kind of round-robin of possibilities until we arrive at a time and place which is suitable to all--or at least to most. Again, those members not able to attend meetings can receive information with sufficient efficiency to enable them to contribute toward any final decisions. In addition, where a consensus is required on a small number of issues, perhaps too few to require a face-to-face meeting, then e-mail provides a quick and efficient means of resolution.

On the down side, there are a number of areas which any organization contemplating extensive use of the Internet should consider. There are some problems, which every organization or group is prone to, which seem to be amplified by the use of the Internet as the main channel of communication. I began by suggesting that any organization is only as good as the people involved in it. The one-to-some and one-to-many communication channels which the Internet allows for, seem to bring about an increase in the potential for "diffusion of responsibility." This seems to occur where a request or suggestion is posted, for example, to the board of directors. Our mailing list allows for this so that simple decisions, as previously outlined, can take place between directors and between members and the entire board.

It does happen, however, that individual members use the board mailing list to ask questions or make suggestions which would be better directed to an individual. What can happens is, because no single director perceives the question as being specifically directed to his or her portfolio, the question lies unanswered. Or simply because the question is of a general nature, there is an assumption that someone else will have answered it. Where face-to-face meetings in conventional organizations, tend to have correspondence dealt with either by the individual in receipt of it or by assignment at the meeting, when dealing with electronic correspondence, where the entire executive structure is automatically carbon-copied, there is an even greater potential for issues to slip between the cracks. If you intend to use this sort of system, you must take great care in setting the ground rules so that there exists a specific assignment for dealing with and responding to each category of inquiry.

Of course, the potential exists in the opposite direction, and that is that an inquiry may end up being dealt with by several individuals. This can result in the same question being answered a number of times. Sometimes, where there exists a potential for opinion to be expressed, the individual requesting the information can end up with several conflicting answers. This does not do the public image of the organization any good.

The key here, is to have a well-defined set of responsibilities and guidelines for handling electronic correspondence and, if possible, a moderator who will, upon seeing a query which doesn't fit an existing category, deal with it and notify everyone within the list structure, or appoint a suitable person to handle the question.

Another area which needs to be addressed by any organization attempting to use the Internet as a primary means of communication, is the perception of its efficiency. There is no question that we are able to send messages anywhere in the world as simply as we can within our own offices. Those of us who use the Internet on a daily basis well appreciate this. There is however a potential here for something which would normally be ignored and tolerated to become a cause celebre.

People don't always do things right away. The minutes from a meeting don't get written up and sent out immediately following the meeting. Correspondence, even e-mail, doesn't always get dealt with immediately. It may not be the case, that the answer to a question is at the fingertips of the person charged with providing it or simply a case of busy people managing their time. But, because the Internet is constantly being hyped as the "Information Superhighway," people's attitude toward its efficiency will magnify simple human frailties. Invariably, within one or two days of a meeting, we will receive an e-mail complaining about the non-receipt of minutes. These messages can tend to amplify the difficulties which attend normal processes, particularly when, as sometimes happens, they are posted to the entire membership mailing list. There is an issue of organizational morale which constantly needs to be re-addressed. Invariably within any public group there will be the type of individual who, for whatever reason, takes great delight in criticizing those in authority. I'm sure you have all encountered such individuals and one of the down-sides of the use of the Internet is that these individuals are presented with a simple-to-use public arena in which to voice their seemingly never-ending complaints.

We have experienced one or two fire storms involving such individuals, and this required steps to be taken to protect members, who were indifferent to the issues, from being bombarded with unwanted e-mail. These complaints sometime engender responses from other members either in support or in opposition. Invariably, these have tended to fuel the fire and add to the already growing mountain of messages as members not only involve themselves in the discussion, but put forward complaints about the level of e-mail being generated on discussions in which they have no interest in participating.

Our solutions to the problems have tended to be somewhat ad hoc. In addition to our member-wide list, we have set up specific mailing lists which members can choose to subscribe and set ground rules for the way they are used. We provide a list specifically for "sales" messages between members, and prohibit announcements about things like "training course" offers and "pitches" for the supply of goods and services (as opposed for requests for services) from being posted to the entire mailing list.

With respect to the age old problem of too few willing people and too much work, as SIBA has grown, we have also found it necessary to set up a series of "portfolios." Each of these is managed by an individual director or team, to provide for various member services. We are still at the stage of requiring members to supply services to the organization on a voluntary basis, with the exception of certain secretariat functions which require rather a larger commitment of time than members can be expected to contribute.

In the beginning, we attempted to have a more general structure but found that the lack of specifically assigned tasks, combined with the diffusion of responsibility, meant that certain jobs were either not being done or were taking inordinate amounts of time to complete. This was occurring, either because extensive discussion was required to achieve a decision, or because no one felt they had sufficient authority to take the necessary steps to complete the task. These are common problems within any sort organization be it government, private, or corporate. It has been our experience, however, that like some of the other problems which we have encountered, the Internet seems to enhance our perception of them or indeed has actually made the problems bigger. We all feel that this wonderful means of communication which we have at our fingertips should simplify the way things are done, and in fact in some cases our tasks have become considerably more complex.

When organizations are run on the basis of face-to-face meetings, it is a fairly simple matter for the chair to control order and set about covering the items on an agenda. As we conduct more of our business in the form of e-mail correspondence, we find that the issue of control becomes more and more important. Each member must agree to specific ground rules and conventions on how business will be conducted. Because we lose all of the non-verbal aspects of communicating on a face-to-face basis, we must take much greater care that the information we provide within the electronic discussions cannot be open to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Otherwise, such discussions can become so protracted and involved that the association becomes almost impossible to run.

In Scotland, there is a great tradition of cooperative decision making. It provides for a wonderfully democratic feeling about being involved in any sort of organization. However, when we take the step of using the Internet as our fundamental means of communication, we must decide on one of two courses. The first, as I have outlined, is the setting of firm and specific rules for how the system will operate and how the means of communication that will be used by the members in the decision making process. The second, less desirable, is that the organization, to function with any degree of efficiency, must become less democratic and be increasingly run by decisions being taken by individuals from the top. To date, we in SIBA have worked through some of these problems and come up with some solutions without the necessity of sacrificing democracy. In other areas we have not yet solved our problems, or even decided whether a solution might exist.

Many of the points I have raised indicate problems which are inherent in any organization. Our experience has been that, in some ways, the expectation that the use of the Information Superhighway should eliminate or reduce problems has not been borne out in practice. Indeed we have found that the additional efficiency of communication which the Internet affords in fact magnifies some of the problems and even creates new ones.

I am not for the moment suggesting that you shouldn't use the Internet as an integral means of communication within your organization. What I hope I have done here is to suggest some areas where care and consideration must be taken if you expect to communicate successfully. We are working through our solutions and would be pleased to share them with you. For each of you, there may be different problems and different solutions based on the nature of your organization. Used sensibly, the Internet can and will enhance how you communicate..

SIBA Administration

For more information on SIBA, see http://www.siba.org.uk/ or e-mail siba@siba.org.uk. For information about Scotland on the Internet, see http://www.scotland.org/.

Membership is open to anyone with an interest in the development of the commercial Internet in Scotland.

Note

[1] You understand as we are the Scottish Internet Business Association, and we sometimes have a tendency to be a wee bit parochial. We do allow members who were born south of Hadrian's Wall (the border between Scotland and England), but we draw the line at English beer.