Is investment in information technology simply money down the drain? That, more or less, seems the remarkable conclusion emerging from a survey of 740 companies conducted by the IT Skills Forum, an industry-sponsored research group. The survey found that 70% of users reckoned their IT systems were not providing a return on investment. Between 30% and 40% of IT projects were reported to realise no net benefits - however measured. Barely 30% regarded their conversion to IT as having been 'very successful'.'Technology is capable of solving business problems but in reality this isn't happening,' says Meenu Vora, managing director of IT Skills Forum. 'People are building up a track record of aborted projects.' There is increasing disenchantment among company chiefs, who see their businesses acquiring an additional layer of expense to little or no apparent purpose. One reason for this, according to Vora, is that since almost every business is spending heavily on IT the investments effectively cancel each other out. 'Companies feel they have to spend more and more simply to stay in the same place.' But that's not the whole story. Another factor is the gap in understanding between IT experts and users who are 'unable to map technology on to business needs,' in Vora's words. 'They also tend to use a DIY approach based on personal enthusiasm, which often includes a great deal of trial and error.' Ray Todd, senior manager for training at NatWest, agrees. 'Software developers frequently underestimate the complexity of a task and the length of time it will take to build,' Todd says. 'They might typically say they can build a system in three months and find after 10 weeks that it is only half complete.' Other problems sometimes arise because designers make decisions off the tops of their heads. Users do not escape blame, however. 'They tend to be bad at specifying what they want, so it's hardly surprising that they don't get what they expect.' Lack of training increases disillusionment because staff are unable to make full use of systems. They are left to learn on the job, which encourages bad practice. Businesses are discouraged from investing sufficiently in training because the pace of technological development means that skills will soon be redundant. Further, companies are reluctant to spend on training in the use of desktop PCs because they expect the machines to be simple, says Martin Windmill, information services training supervisor at Clerical Medical Investment Group. 'The development of IT has outstripped the development of skills needed to exploit it effectively.' Moreover many corporate users have a fundamental misconception about IT. They have tended to computerise their manual systems rather than look for new ways to do things with technology.' Technophobia is yet another key inhibitor. The survey found 12e that fear of technology was preventing 75% of employees from using IT properly. 'This is not necessarily fear of the keyboard, but worries people have about the impact of technology on their jobs,' says Vora. However, she believes that many of the negative views about technology have more to do with perception than reality. Companies may have benefited, but they do not recognise the fact. They may lack the ability to analyse the business advantages.
Simon Ognall, sales and marketing director of Simmons Magee, a leading PC reseller, echoes this opinion. 'I'm very sceptical of the findings,' says Ognall. 'They sound like rubbish to me. I believe that companies don't know the benefits they have realised from IT, or how they would have got to where they are without it.' Many organisations have made bad investments in technology. 'But to argue that they'd have been better off spending nothing on IT sounds extremely far-fetched.'.