Despite the popularity of mobile phones, fax machines and electronic organisers, an irrational fear of technology is still quite prevalent among many bosses, writes Jane Bird.
Hugh Hamilton used to be extremely wary of new technology. As a lawyer he spent most of his life working with pen and paper. So when his firm asked him in 1979 to find a replacement for its office accounting machine he avoided the multi-purpose computers that had just begun to appear on the market.
"I didn't trust the new technology because everything was hidden away in screens and keyboards, so I chose a backroom accounting machine that still used paper. It was a total disaster," says Hamilton. Several years later he attended an open day at his son's prep school. Seeing simple computer programming techniques demonstrated by seven-year-olds persuaded him to look again at desktop screens.
"I was managing 500 probate trusts - a horrendous accounting problem," he says. "I suddenly realised how much easier it would be if I could just sit at my desk and type in a request for all items relating to specific bequests. And I had the idea of linking screens directly with stockbrokers so that they could send their evaluations electronically."
Most of Hamilton's ideas have now been implemented at his firm, Lawrence Graham, where all the 33 partners have a screen on the desks. A client database reminds them which organisation customers work for, whether they have a family and so on, so that polite enquiries can be dropped into the conversation. Hamilton is now an enthusiastic computer user and even programs his own spreadsheets. But his initial fears were by no means unusual.
Many bosses are barely able to program the video recorders in their sitting rooms, let alone tackle the latest in office automation. Despite the popularity of mobile phones, electronic organisers and personal fax machines, the irrational fear of technology is still widespread.
Neil Frood, senior lecturer in psychology at University College, Cardiff, is one of many experts who believe that technophobia is holding British companies back.
Frood, who has written a book on people and machines, identifies technophobia. "Firstly, there are the self-perceived incompetents. They feel that technology is beyond them because they've had bad experiences with it in the past," Frood says. "For instance, they may have had trouble with apparently simple things, like trying to record the BBC news on their video, and ended up with a Channel 4 documentary." Senior executives fear that technology will undermine their authority and remove their control, especially if they have a secretary who taps away happily on the keyboard.
Then there are people who believe that technology is dangerous. "They may be afraid to touch a machine for fear that they will break it, cause the hard disk to wipe, or do themselves some damage," says Frood.
Technophobia can also be born of arrogance, according to John Kay, manager of professional business services with PA Computers and Telecommunications, the technology consultancy. Keyboards are shunned by some ambitious professionals who associate them with secretarial or clerical work and the lower levels of management.
Finally, there is technoscepticism. This can be the most difficult to overcome because, unlike phobia, it is rational. The technosceptic's objections are likely to be based on previous undirected investment and a lack of strategic business direction in implementing new technology.
But for most cases of technophobia the computer industry has only itself to blame. "Computers are not inviting. In fact they're downright hostile, even before you touch the keyboard," says one self-confessed technophobe.