One disturbing result has emerged from the MT/Microsoft survey of UK managers - increased use of IT has not changed ways of doing business. By Jane Bird.
British managers are using computers in the worst possible way - to automate manual processes rather than to change work patterns and business practice. An exclusive survey by Management Today has revealed that although 76% of managers have direct use of screens and keyboards - a higher number than was previously thought to be the case - only 6% believe that the machines are being used to maximum effect in their organisations. Half of those questioned say there is substantial scope for improvement. In most cases, IT is used merely to speed up routine tasks, rather than as a competitive weapon. The inevitable conclusion is that unless companies make a major switch towards more creative applications, such as linking managers in electronic work-groups, tracking customer buying habits and monitoring the market position of their rivals, many will not survive to the end of the decade.
The survey, carried out in conjunction with Microsoft, the US software house, questioned more than 1,500 members of the British Institute of Management. It set out to discover how individual managers felt that IT affected their jobs, and whether computers were a useful tool. Only 18% of those surveyed were under 40, but, interestingly, few differences emerged between the attitudes of the younger and older age-groups.
Among the survey's most disturbing findings is that managers are isolated, short-sighted and unimaginative in their use of IT. At best they view computers as a personal productivity tool that can help them to produce more attractive documents faster. Only 11% of those questioned use PCs on networks to share information, compared with 45% using them mainly for individual work. Regular users regard text production such as reports and memos as top of the league of useful applications. Next in popularity comes manipulating information for financial modelling, planning and forecasting. The third most valued activity is accessing data to monitor the business and review performance. The wide-ranging benefits that can be gained by linking computers into electronic networks remain largely undiscovered.
Another surprising finding is that managers are extremely complacent about the need to use IT to cut costs. Small wonder many chief executives and company chairman feel that their heavy investment in IT over the past few years has yielded poor rewards. Just 60% of the sample believed that computers would save them money, and they did not appear to regard using IT to cut costs as important or part of their responsibility. This attitude was also reflected in the fact that a very small proportion of users' expectations on cost-reductions were exceeded - only 4% said savings had gone beyond their targets.
One reason for the poor exploitation of IT must be the fact that technophobia is still rife. Despite high levels of usage there was still widespread unease with the technology. Ninety-two per cent believe that managers are uncomfortable with computers. Only 7% consider that executives feel at ease about operating their systems, belying widespread claims by the industry that systems are intuitive and user-friendly. However, managers are less inclined to blame their inhibitions on hardware, than poor training and technical support. Another recurrent dislike is the use of jargon which non-experts find a complete turn-off. Of the 50% who perceive drawbacks to IT, 25% cited the length of time it takes to master systems. Difficult and frustrating systems were a deterrent highlighted by a further 27%. Other reasons for failing to exploit computers included lack of interest in, or use for, the technology, absence of keyboard skills, apathy and budgetary constraints. Only 14% blamed poor systems.
Another problem is that informal training is widespread. People like to learn their keyboard skills from their colleagues - a fact also highlighted in Management Today's last November 1991 IT survey. In this month's survey, 61% cited self-help as the most useful form of training, and 56% preferred self-help. But the trouble with this approach is that people pass on their bad habits.
One piece of good news is that most managers no longer feel IT is imposed on them without consultation. More than half believe that they have been sufficiently involved in deciding their IT requirements, with only 16% reporting that it was forcibly introduced. The conclusion must be that most managers at least begin with a positive attitude, even if that diminishes with use.
Overall, a favourable impression of IT departments is conveyed. Half the sample considered that those responsible for providing IT in their organisation understand the managers' part of the business and are able to support them. Gone are the days when data-processing staff hid away in their air-conditioned computer rooms and operated as a law unto themselves. There is also evidence to suggest that IT professionals have adapted to the needs of senior managers more effectively than to those of staff further down the hierarchy. Only 35% of middle managers felt that the IT department served them well, compared with 54% of senior managers being satisfied.
Despite the lack of enterprising IT applications, computers seem to be viewed as indispensable weapons in the business armoury. Three quarters of managers questioned perceived IT as an essential tool, and 34% said they could not do their job without it. The greatest level of commitment came from the younger managers. Of the under-40s, 40% felt that computers were vital.
In line with the tendency to view IT as a personal productivity tool, it is the ability of computers to speed up tasks which is most valued by users, 62% of whom listed it as the biggest benefit. However, an encouraging result was that 49% of users demonstrated some awareness of IT's ability to change business processes. They cited its biggest benefit as the ability to create the opportunity to do things that were not previously possible. Ranking third, with 22%, is the fact that IT enables managers to focus on priorities. Other benefits mentioned were better communications with colleagues and more interesting jobs. Only 2% said it had improved morale at work. It seems that managers are realistic and accurate in their forecasts of the benefits IT can deliver. The greatest area of expectation was improved performance which 94% anticipated. Not only was this expectation met, in 26% of cases it was exceeded. Less tangible benefits such as quality and service were also looked forward to by a hefty 85%. In this area, too, there was very little disappointment. In the event some 29% saw their expectations surpassed.
Managers are mostly optimistic in forecasting the future for IT. Half consider that computers are definitely becoming easier to use, and a further 37% think that this is possibly the case. The availability of more user-friendly software is identified as a primary influence on this process by 91% of respondents. The second most recurrent reason for optimism was better ways to work with computers, such as touch-sensitive screens, the mouse pointing-device and speech-recognition, which 39% thought had played a key role in the acceptability of executive computing. Other factors were improved consistency in software, better training and support.
More good news is that managers have recognised the need to make business requirements the driving force of IT procurement, rather than technology bells and whistles. When asked to identify the main influences on future use of IT within their organisations, 47% picked the development of business applications and 42% opted for cost-savings. Changes in how their organisations would see and work with IT came third with 36%.
Whatever their views for and against office technology in its current form, managers are convinced that IT is here to stay, and that it will have a significant impact on work in general in the future. Only 3% thought its future role negligible. The greatest consequence of increased use of IT was seen to be changes in how work is organised, such as new management processes and team-working, which 71% selected as a major trend for the future.
Changes in work patterns were identified by 54%. This includes home and tele-working, where individual workers might be located in different parts of the world but able to communicate via picture phone links and collaborate electronically on computers each viewing and interacting with the same text, graphics or video images on-screen. A third of respondents also forecast the flattening effect of IT on business, whereby the reduction in bureaucratic tiers of management streamlines and simplifies the information flow in an organisation.
UK companies can be proud of the high speed with which they have installed large volumes of computer equipment. But there is serious cause for concern in the way these machines are being used. Very few managers are linked into networks so that they can work on projects together in groups. Nor are they dreaming up creative applications to monitor their customers and competitors. Editing documents, the major application, is inappropriate as a prime use of senior management time. Training also needs urgent attention. Executives cannot hope to learn best use of their systems by looking over the shoulders of colleagues, and yet training is poorly regarded. There is little evidence that managers have recognised the need to start using IT to change the way they do business if they are to survive in the 1990s.
WHAT THE MANAGERS THINK ABOUT IT
(NB The first two questions are addressed to all respondents. The last three were only answered by those who use IT, however rarely.)
What have been the biggest deterrents to your use of IT? (Respondents could pick up to three items)
Insufficient time to learn 58%
Poor training/support 31%
Budgetary constraints 31%
Lack of keyboard skills 22%
Lack of access to computer 19%
Poor systems 14%
Lack of interest/apathy 6%
No uses for it in my job 4%
Do you consider that the IT currently employed in your organisation is used to its full potential?
Yes, it is used to potential 6%
Adequate, but some scope for improvement 42%
Considerable scope for improvement 49%
Don't know 2%
In which activities do you personally find IT most useful? (Respondents could pick up to two only)
Monitoring/reviewing performance 44%
Producing documents 53%
Communicating with others 14%
Don't know 2%
Would you say that IT is now:
Fundamental to your job 34%
Important in your job 41%
Supports job in the background 19%
Largely peripheral to your job 4%
Don't know 2%
What do you most like about the impact of IT on your job/work? (Respondents could pick up to two)
Speeds up tasks 62%
Enables me to do things I could not do before 49%
Allows me to focus on priorities 22%
Enables better communication with colleagues 16%
Makes job more interesting 12%
Don't know 3%
Has improved morale in my work area 2%
Nothing, no impact 2%
Jane Bird is a freelance computer writer.