French Gov't Will Train SMEs to Use Google, Microsoft Tools

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Microsoft and Google recruited a new sales force of sorts on Thursday: a network of business counsellors and IT trainers partly funded by the French government.

The companies have struck an agreement with the government allowing them to promote productivity tools such as Web analytics, document sharing and unified communications, including their own product offerings, through a government-backed IT training plan for small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs).

The government wants to help the country's small businesses use IT to increase sales and become more profitable, and last month renewed the program intended to achieve that, "Passport for a digital economy," for a further three years.

The Passport program delivers free training courses and offers other benefits to startups and businesses with fewer than about 20 employees that have followed three of the courses. Those benefits include discounts on IT products and services, and access to government-backed financing for IT purchases.

Some of the training courses will be written by Google and Microsoft under an agreement signed Thursday morning with Hervé Novelli, the secretary of state responsible for SMEs, and Yves Fouchet of CEFAC, a government-funded agency that delivers training and support to small businesses.

Google will contribute three training modules written by the company's marketing and product teams, said Mats Carduner, the company's managing director for Southern Europe. The courses will teach businesses how to create a Web site, attract an audience and optimize the site to increase sales using tools such as Google Analytics. "We'll make the modules available to CEFAC, but we won't do the training," he said.

Microsoft, a supporter of the Passport program since it began, will offer training materials on Web site creation, along with additional modules on unified communications products and Microsoft Office Live Small Business, its online office productivity tool, said Eric Boustouller, CEO of Microsoft France.

The company is also a participant in the government-sponsored buying guide for small businesses, he said.

"It's not just about Microsoft products. We're open to any products that work with ours, whether from Google or others," he said.

Google and Microsoft are not the only IT vendors backing the Passport program: others include Cisco Systems, Dell, Fujitsu Siemens Computers, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, PayPal and Yahoo.

Since the launch of the program, 45,000 businesses have signed up for help, according to Fouchet.

However, that's just a small fraction of the 2.7 million microenterprises in France, said Novelli. One of the limiting factors for the Passport program is how to reach them all, as the network of small business advisers doesn't have sufficient geographic reach, he said.

That's why the government is almost doubling the number of advisers, said Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, secretary of state for IT.

She also wants to see improvements in the quality of IT training, and said the government is looking at a system of certification for trainers. With the level of demand for IT expertise today, "IT advisor" needs to become a recognized profession that people can put on their CV, she said.

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