Britain's bosses have embraced e-mail and the internet, according to a survey by Management Today and BT. But they seem unsure about the benefits.
Anyone who thinks that the barriers between humans and computers have crumbled should listen to the experiences of a few help-line engineers.
One caller, for instance, rang to say she'd just called the police - because her machine told her it had performed an 'illegal operation'. Another complained that his screen was blank, during a power cut. Then there was the chap who couldn't make his floppy-disc drive work. When the engineer suggested closing the door, the caller got up and shut the office door.
Such Luddite legends emphasise the enduring culture gap between computers and their creators. But, as a survey conducted for Management Today and BT, a leading provider of e-business technology, proves technology is now both indispensable and ubiquitous in the workplace. The research, which covered more than 400 managers, directors and chief executives across a broad range of sectors, has provided fresh evidence of the exploitation of technologies such as e-mail and the internet. Among the good points cited by respondents are faster decision-making, the ability to extend into overseas markets, and being able to deploy workforces far more flexibly.
Almost half the respondents agreed strongly that they will increase expenditure on electronic business systems during the next two years. 'The research,' comments Gail Gravett, BT's programme manager for e-business, 'shows that most senior managers are strongly committed to the idea of investing in electronic commerce.'
One of the big changes bought about by the proliferation of desktop PCs and communications technology has been a lessening of technophobia. The Management Today/BT study demonstrates that e-mail and the internet are being embraced at the highest levels: e-mail is used by an astonishing 98% of those interviewed, while almost nine out of 10 regularly access the internet. It is not all that rosy, though. Business communications technology is still falling short of expectations and creating problems of its own. Common gripes include junk e-mail, poorly designed and badly maintained web sites, and the rapid rate at which equipment becomes obsolete.
Software is seen as far too complex, making it time-consuming to learn and costly to maintain. Overall, a mere 12% of the of respondents agree strongly that electronic business and communications technology has helped improve their staff's working lives. Just over half say that it means they get more done in a working day. Moreover, despite reduced technofear, a number of people still feel they haven't the time, ability or inclination to use PCs, and that there is no good financial justification for doing so. Only half the survey see IT literacy as essential for themselves, while just one-quarter feel such skills are essential in their chairmen.
Others common concerns include the worry that electronic commerce will eliminate swathes of jobs in the retail and service sectors by cutting out agents and middle men. And the ability to work from home or while travelling is viewed as a double-edged sword. People welcome the flexibility but resent the fact that they are unable to escape from the pressures of work, day or night.
Views on e-mail are equivocal. Most people feel that it has speeded up business communications (87%) and the distribution of internal information (71%). People like the fact that they can save their messages without needing to print them, and that there is an automatic audit trail that shows if and when their messages have been answered. That said, the sheer volume of e-mail is seen to be a problem. It is a major cause of information overload - some company executives receive more than 40 e-mails a day and some arrive back from holiday to hundreds. What's more, a large proportion of them are unnecessary. Over 40% of respondents to the survey said they receive irrelevant messages at least once a day. Alan Pritchard, a respondent from a Watford-based consultant specialising in geographic and demographic data, finds this particularly irritating: 'At one point I was getting half a dozen messages a day from people offering me ways to make money, lose weight or look at their sex site.' Now he uses filtering software which can strip out most such unwanted messages. 'I'm down to one every two or three days now.'
Then there is the tone of e-mail messages and the risk of e-rage. 'A joke can easily be misunderstood if you don't know someone very well,' explains Simon Phillips, senior manager at Andersen, who says his cheerful demeanour can create problems. 'In an e-mail, a light-hearted approach can be seen as frivolous or disruptive.' This could undermine the ability of international teams to use the internet for online collaboration, at least until video conferencing becomes cheaper and easier to use.
Some companies have dealt with the e-mail deluge and the potential distraction it can cause by restricting times when e-mail can be accessed. Many also issue codes of conduct for electronic correspondence aimed at avoiding e-rage, for example mandating against its use for sensitive management tasks such as issuing redundancy notices. BT guidelines include the warning: 'Don't air controversial and inaccurate views on e-mail - it is subject to the libel laws and you could be had for defamation.' However, training in company etiquette or protocol for electronic communications is remains a relative rarity.
The widespread adoption of e-mail has given rise to a whole new syntax of abbreviations based on keyboard shortcuts to convey meaning. This causes considerable annoyance among many users, the report finds. A worsening of standards of spelling, punctuation and grammar was cited by 41% of respondents.
Nevertheless, the internet is widely accepted as vital channel for business communications and a huge business opportunity. 'Of the people we spoke to, one-third felt that it would open up new commercial opportunities and only 13% say it will have little impact,' says BT's Gravett. 'Even those who are not using it yet show a strong enthusiasm to move in that direction.'
So what aspect of the internet is most use? Of those accessing it at least once a week, nine out of 10 are searching for information about companies or goods and services and a healthy 82% are trying to keep up-to-date with news relevant to their business. Steve Blackmore, managing director of Datastrip, an Oxfordshire-based supplier of barcode systems, who also took part, regularly scours the net to spot the most potentially lucrative overseas markets. 'The internet enables us to gather information from around the world so we can make a decision on what markets we want to attack much more quickly.'
Finding sources and suppliers is another benefit of venturing into cyberspace.
Classic Furniture Group, of Newport, Shropshire, recently identified a highly cost-effective granite supplier by going online. 'Granite is pretty much the same wherever in the world it comes from,' says general manager John Clarke, also a survey respondent. 'But by using the net we found a company in Taiwan that supplies it at half the price it costs in the UK.'
For all the hype over the net's money-making potential, few companies are actually reaping financial rewards from their web sites. A tiny 5% say the internet is excellent for generating sales. Like Classic Furniture, most are focused on using it for marketing. Clarke is in the process of designing an online catalogue, but he is circumspect about the potential rewards. It could be as much a threat as an opportunity, he believes.
'The biggest impact will be on distribution - the middle men will have a rough time.'
Poor maintenance is a common failing of web sites, as Pritchard often finds: 'People start in a burst of enthusiasm, but they don't keep their sites updated. This makes it dangerous to rely on them for the latest information.' Another frequent criticism is over-elaborate graphics which take for ever to download. That's why Clarke is determined to proceed carefully in the design of Classic Furniture's online catalogue. 'It's got to be user-friendly,' he says. 'Users don't have time to faff around looking for information and downloading detailed images, so we'll stick to simple thumb-nail sketches of our products.'
It is the ability to work where and when convenient that has been the big liberation of communications technology for many people. Mobile phones, portable computers, fax machines and modems have made it easier to work at home, in clients' offices, in hotels or while on the move. More than three-quarters of managers feel that developments in electronic communications have made it easier for them to work from outside the office. Almost as many feel the same about being able to work from home. More than half occasionally do so, and nearly a third work from home at least once a week.
However, there has been a price to pay in terms of lost of personal privacy and increased expectations from employers. 'It's good if you want to avoid spending three hours a day on the M25,' says Michael Walton, chief executive of NVision, a start-up internet consultancy based in Berkshire. 'The disadvantage is if you're expected to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.' As companies go global, this pressure is intensified, Walton says. 'I feel I should be constantly in touch with my work and never out of contact.
This makes it particularly hard to divorce work from personal life.'
Such experiences may account for the mixed views of home-working expressed in the study. Although 36% felt that IT helped them integrate work and home life better, virtually the same number, 35%, felt that IT made it worse. However, there do appear to be strong regional differences in these views. People who feel that IT has helped them integrate work and home life tend to be living in Wales, the West, the M4 region and London. This could be because they are the ones who suffer most from traffic congestion and are more likely to appreciate not having to commute. Surprisingly perhaps, working at home appears to suit men better than women, 41% of whom say it made makes things worse compared with only 29% saying it improves things. This may be because women are more likely to have to combine work with domestic duties when at home.
In fact, women generally do not seem to be leaping into cyberspace as enthusiastically as their male counterparts. For example, whereas almost three in four males had used the internet for transferring data or information, only 45% of women had done so. Similarly, less than one in five had used it for buying goods and services, against a third of men.
A much-vaunted reason for working at home is to get more done - but the survey finds only a marginal difference in home and office productivity.
When people were questioned as to where they felt they were most productive: 47% cited home; 45% the office; and 8% elsewhere. A further (and perennial) teleworking issue that also crops up is the that people frequently feel out of sight and out of mind when it comes to promotion and financial rewards. Some also express concern about being measured by results rather than by effort. Few employers have found an answer to this, preferring to see flexible working as a way of getting more out of their employees.
Which may accounts for their enthusiasm in equipping people to work at home: 72% already do so and over three-quarters expect such provision to increase. High employer expectations can place extra pressure on teleworkers.
'Employers take the view that as people are working with all the information they need at their fingertips, they ought to be able to get much more done,' says Phillips. In fact, there may other hindrances, such as the lack of anyone immediately available for advice.
Flexible working can lead to long working hours, a risk intensified by the net, which has enabled some people to take on other commercial projects in the evenings and at weekends. Skills in personal discipline are therefore becoming increasingly important for flexible workers, especially those moving to self-employed or contracting roles. Teleworkers also need to understand time management, personal goal setting, and how to plan and prepare. Companies often overlook these issues when flexible working technology is introduced, with the result that, for example, people may be focused on doing the most urgent jobs rather than the most important ones. Perhaps surprisingly, teleworkers also have to be good at relationship building, listening and selling themselves. 'Most people think it's the introverts who get ahead with flexible working,' says Phillips. 'In fact, the successful ones are those who can sell their skills.'
There is also a big difference between being equipped to work from home, and being able to access electronic correspondence and personal files while on the move. Here the technology still has some way to go. 'The truly portable executive has still not yet arrived,' says Nigel Jacklin, founder of Sussex-based Objective Research, a market analysis company.
'There are not that many mobile e-mailers who can pick up the phone wherever they are and download their electronic correspondence or access their files online.' Moreover, there is a question as to whether people really want to be completely separated from the workplace, he suggests. 'You still need to go to the office because organisations consist of teams and you need other people around you.'
Many of these technical problems should recede over time as software becomes more intuitive and as the younger generation, which has grown up with computers, moves into more senior positions. Use of laptops, for example, is lowest among those aged 55 and older (44%), and highest among those aged under 35 (65%). And there remain a number of managers over 50 who combine phobia and contempt in their attitude to technology, according to Will Cappelli, a director of Giga Information, a Massachusetts-based IT research company. There is a 'quantum leap' in attitudes below the age of 50, Cappelli says. 'With younger managers there is almost a machismo in people's ability to configure complex software applications.'
However, older people are not all Luddites. The survey found that in some cases it is the younger generation that is more sceptical about the benefits of technology, and more cynical about industry hype. Those over 50, meanwhile, seem to believe that technology could provide the answer to its problems. In the case of using intranets for internal communications, for instance, those aged 55 or over were the most positive with seven out of 10 saying the technology had made them much better. In the UK, bosses who delegate the task of reading e-mail or sending electronic documents to an administrative assistant are now relatively rare. However, those in the older age group are more likely to turn to an assistant or secretary (9% in both cases); whereas under-35s tend to took towards the IT department (75%). Within the next five years Cappelli expects to see minimal competence in IT being as essential to board members as a basic knowledge of finance, sales, marketing and company law.
The increasing IT investment budgets of most organisations indicate a belief that they need to keep spending if only to keep up with their rivals.
The financial services industry plans to spend the most, followed by technology companies, energy/utilities and construction, and manufacturing. However, the compulsion to spend can feel like running faster and faster simply to stay in the same place. What's more, however fast they spend money on IT, they cannot beat the rapid pace of technological advance - systems are obsolete virtually as soon as they're out of the wrappings. This is one of the biggest worries revealed by the survey. Almost half those questioned cited obsolescence as their main fear, followed by costs (22%). IT is now viewed in many boardrooms as a bottomless pit into which money is poured with few quantifiable benefits. And, as the industry pumps out ever more powerful machines, organisations struggle to make use of the technology they already have. 'It's a well-known fact that most people only use a tiny percentage of their PC's functionality,' says BT's Gravett.
The growth of the internet should help this problem by enabling people to use simpler PCs and electronic devices to download the software they need for specific tasks as and when required. The internet has also inspired a new generation of more user-friendly software applications which use the familiar on-screen buttons and option boxes into which you type what you want. Such developments should help convert a few of the remaining sceptics. But the 44% of people who said that the phone was their preferred means of contact suggest that it will remains good to talk, for some time yet. Even if it is only to the help desk.
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IMPORTANCE OF BEING IT LITERATE
MANAGERS AT CHAIRMEN OF
THEIR LEVEL % LIKE COMPANY %
Essential 51 24
Very important 33 24
Fairly important 15 33
Not particularly important 2 20
Source: Objective Research.
EFFECT OF E-MAIL ON
COMMUNICATION INTERNAL EDITING ACCURACY
SPEED % DISTRIBUTION % DOCUMENTS % %
Improved 87 71 61 27
No difference 10 26 28 33
Worsened 3 3 3 41
Source: Objective Research.
PROPORTION RATING EACH AREA AS EXCELLENT
Increasing their company's presence outside the UK 21
Providing reliable, up-to-date information 16
Promoting their own company 15
Finding information quickly 14
Improving services to customers 12
Finding information easily 9
Being able to efficiently source or buy goods and services 6
Generating sales 5
Source: Objective Research.
SECTORS THAT AGREE STRONGLY
Other manufacturing 47
Source: Objective Research.