The British Chambers of Commerce and the DTI yesterday launched the UK Online for Business programme designed to help more small and medium-sized businesses through their 'transition to e-businesses'.

A network of 16 e-business clubs has been set up in a bid to strengthen public confidence in trading online.

With help from some of the IT industry's main players, including BT, HP and Cisco, the scheme will allow small firms to visit clubs and meet with e-businesses, gaining information and guidance from them on how to get their business online.

"These clubs will help small firms tap into a market worth billions of pounds in the UK alone," said e-commerce and competition minister Douglas Alexander. "By creating a community of local businesses that face similar issues, these clubs will assist companies [in] exploit[ing] what e-commerce really has to offer."

Each of the 16 clubs will decide what resources are needed in their particular area from training courses to legal advice.

But some smaller firms have also expressed their reluctance of receiving guidance from large corporations which are in very different situations to their own.

"Smaller businesses appreciate the input from other small businesses who are leading the way. We can more readily identify with both the aspirations and the problems SMEs face in trying to cut through the technology jungle." said John Kirk, a visitor to the e-business clubs' website, where smaller companies are asked for their opinions on the scheme.

"The partnerships with corporations provide funding and resources for research and the clubs, rather than sharing their experiences in getting online," said Vanessa Wood, spokesperson at UK Online for Business' publicity centre. "Of course SMEs can communicate better with other small businesses. At every meeting we will call on local SMEs to talk about their problems and experiences."

The scheme will run monthly for one year, with a one-off administration fee per company of £35.

Members "from time to time may also be offered benefits and discounts from [the corporate] partners", so the big boys may be able to wangle themselves a few business benefits as well.