The report, first conceived in 2009, was scheduled for release in March but has been held back for a further six months in order to “broaden the consultation” on its findings.
Several industry experts have told the Sunday Herald that they fear the report is being watered down to remove implied criticism of Scottish officialdom.
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government denied suggestions that the delay was caused by demands for changes, saying: “We requested further information but no changes”.
Brian Mathers of ICT Consulting, a pioneer of internet marketing since the late 1990s and a consultee in the original version, said: “The report should have been released as it was written. There is great frustration that Scotland is not ‘getting’ this industrial revolution. We have to educate businesses and help them plan for the future.”
According to the Office for National Statistics, UK online sales increased by 25% to £408 billion in 2009, up from 2008’s £326.9bn. This represented 16.7% of the value of all sales by UK non-financial businesses.
A share of this equivalent to Scotland’s 8% of the UK economy would be £35bn, the same as the Scottish Government’s entire budget. In reality, the only Scottish-based company to appear in the 2011 Experian/IMRG top 100 websites (at 88) is West Lothian-based fashion footwear company Schuh, which was sold to US firm Genesco last month.
Dr Peter Mowforth, of e-commerce supplier Indez, said: “E-commerce is not about broadband or general ICT, its simply about ways of selling more stuff online. The barriers are in marketing, supply chain, order fulfilment, ending the dearth of training in Scotland. Lack of these skills makes it almost impossible to recruit up here.
“This project to investigate the highly specialised and specific skills for e-commerce in Scotland is two years old. I’m puzzled why it’s taking so long when what needs doing is so obvious.
“Lots of Scottish businesses try to sell online – but it is hard to do and most of the 100,000 or so e-commerce businesses in Scotland will fail. Better skills means a reduced failure rate.”
According to a report last autumn by the Boston Consulting Group, the “e-commerce sector” is the fifth largest in the UK economy, destined to comprise 10% of UK GDP by 2015. The report identified the UK as the world’s leading nation for e-commerce. It expects 1.5 million people will be employed in the UK e-commerce industry within the next four years.
The Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise have been criticised for routinely confusing e-commerce with the related but separate fields of information and communications technology (ICT) and broadband access. Scottish Enterprise maintains that e-commerce is “not a discrete sector” but rather a “business function [that] sits within each company’s overall ICT strategy”.
To Mowforth, this “category mistake” suggests that “ministers and civil servants don’t know what they don’t know”.
No Scottish minister has overall responsibility for e-commerce, which sits between the portfolios of Learning and Skills Minister Alasdair Allan and Finance Secretary John Swinney. Asked to provide details of its “many interventions ... to ensure the value of e-commerce is fully recognised by Scottish business”, a Scottish Government spokeswoman listed projects in ICT support, promotion of unspecified “digital skills”, and also projects designed to help rural businesses get online.
Polly Purvis, director of digital technology trade group ScotlandIS, said: “As the high street struggles, the online market continues to flourish. Companies as diverse as Aktiv8, Craig & Rose, Montgomery Litho, and Bohemia are transforming their businesses not only in the UK but by accessing international markets which can be more buoyant than those closer to home.
“We urge the Scottish Government to focus on the specialist skills needed so the companies using e-commerce to grow their business can find individuals with the right expertise here in Scotland.”