Having closed an initial IT gap with the more developed West in the mid 1990s, Slovak Internet providers are beginning to finally corner the market in their own country in installation of the latest and most complex office technology systems.
Foreign investors have said that there is no longer a need to rely on their own IT specialists to install intranet and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems in their local branches with well-trained and highly-skilled local IT
consultants taking over the job with ease.
"We needed to find local specialists who would help us install the latest SAP [an internal communication and business management system] technology together with a group of Brazilian and Italian specialists, and train our employees in Slovak to use the system properly. We decided to give the contract to [Žilina based firm] Varias, and were very impressed with the knowledge and skill their consultants showed with this up-to-date technology," said Antonello Lanfranco, head of Brazilian fridge compressor producer Embraco.
Lanfranco added that when choosing Varias, Embraco had taken into account the Slovak firms' successes with installation and integration of more than 50 similar systems in other companies. "When we asked them about this and got their response we were confident in their abilities because they had so much experience."
Lafranco's praise of Varias was seen by independent IT experts as not only a sign of recognition of the skills of Slovak ISPs, but also an indication that they had reached "a common standard" of quality IT skills. Since the mid-1990s, experts said, Slovak Internet providers have developed versatility and become fully competitive with western specialists to the point of being an integral part of a network integration process for any foreign or domestic business wanting to utilise intranet technologies.
"Today almost all foreign firms realise that they need local experts to install these systems for them," said Ladislav Matuška from Internet marketing and solution provider Core4. According to Matuška, the advantage when hiring a local firm to install complex technology was that these companies had better knowledge of local network connections and legislation concerning systems integration and were also able to communicate with office workers in their native tongue.
"The majority of foreign firms know they need local specialist teams who know these things best. There is no question over these people's skill levels, no investor would not trust them," he said.
Vladimír Hric, co-owner of Varias agreed. He said that foreign companies importing their own experts to implement systems could run a risk of coming up against insurmountable language barriers and a lack of knowledge of the local legislative and work culture environment.
"Also, foreign firms would have to spend more money. If, for example, a German company wanted to have the system implemented by Germans, they would have to pay these people extra travel and lodging expenses. But there are several local firms which have the same skills plus they have all of the above mentioned advantages and can therefore do the job more efficiently," Hric said.
Lanfranco's management team has been surprised not just by the skill shown by the Slovaks installing the SAP technology, but also by the speed at which the system has been put in place so far. SAP software, taken from the name of the German company which developed existing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, gives a company an internal communication and business management system allowing a firm's HR, finance, accounting and storage solutions departments to link up and be on view to members of all departments. Most companies allow more than six months for installation of the system. Varias is aiming to have the system operational in January, just five months after starting installation.
The current success of firms like Varias and a generally high level of IT literacy and technical skills throughout the country, Hric explained, lay in the beginning of the 1990s when demand for IT services far outstripped the supply of a few trained Slovak specialists. At that time, Hric said, many firms did the same as Varias. "We placed our bet with the young, university educated IT specialists who we were sending abroad. We invested money into having them trained in Germany or elsewhere in western Europe," Hric said.
According to Matuška, legislative changes have allowed Slovak firms to cut their training costs somewhat. Before 1995, he said, Slovak IT firms had to send their employees to be trained abroad to gain internationally recognised licences to install the latest ERP software-based systems. Today the licences can be obtained from either SAP Slovakia, the Slovak subsidiary of the German firm, or Oracle Slovakia.
Many experts have also pointed to a growing IT literacy in schools fostering young IT talent on the back of initiatives such as Project Infovek, a government funded scheme to connect all secondary and high schools in Slovakia to the Internet by the end of 2003. A proliferation of Internet cafes is also, they say, promoting the honing of IT skills among the young.
Core4's Matuška added that because of the high level of IT skills possessed by Slovak specialists, an initial lack of qualified IT consultants has been overcome and there is now a situation where large numbers of Slovak firms have the skilled manpower to compete for contracts.
"Customers have become more demanding and more IT educated themselves, having realised that they can get the highest standard of service from more than one or two firms in the Slovak IT market," he said.
"If we took the installation of the ERP systems as an example, there are definitely about 50 or more firms who are able to install it. The competition is strong indeed."