It is now possible to buy fluffy stick-on ears and tail to make your machine seem more friendly, but this does little to alleviate most difficulties experienced by unaccustomed users. These include having to hunt about for the on/off switch and discovering that the machine will not work without a password. Instruction manuals tend to be far too technical, and computer commands are frequently more like hieroglyphics than natural English.
Gordon Ross, European director of consulting services for Microsoft, the American software house, says: "I get technophobia every time I work with a new system. There is a really awful three-month period during which you feel totally inadequate. The machine seems stupid, you feel certain that the problems are not your fault, and you wonder if you will ever get to grips with it."
The problem is that computer systems are not instinctive. There is seldom an obvious procedure, and the huge range of commands used by different machines are easy to muddle or forget. Also the lengthy training requirement is a serious drawback for bosses because they have the least time available for fiddling on keyboards. Yet these problems must be overcome if companies are to survive into the next century, because technology offers the key opportunity for growth. If senior managers are not involved in its implementation, expensive mistakes will be made.
Computers on their own have never given anyone a business advantage, says Peter Bonfield, chairman of ICL, the British computer company recently bought by Fujitsu of Japan. There is little to be gained from merely automating existing business procedures. Technology can only make a company more competitive by being used to do something new, Bonfield says. "Senior executives must overcome the fear factor when it comes to information technology and see it as a powerful strategic tool that can help steer them through the turbulent waters of the 1990s."
Accordingly, companies such as ICL and Microsoft are moving away from selling hardware and software towards management consultancy, helping customers to use technology. Demonstrations are a potent method of getting the message across, according to Microsoft's Ross.
Another training technique used by Microsoft is to confront managers with a potentially nightmarish situation. "We get them to rehearse the scenario where there has been a major disaster on a Friday night and they need to come into the office to prepare a press release on Saturday morning," explains Ross. "They are confronted by a heap of machines with no idea how to work them - this would be the worst possible time to start learning."
Finally, the method of introduction is crucial. Kay recalls one company where a dozen directors arrived at their offices one morning to discover new personal computers on their desks. "The company's IT department put them there with no explanation or suggestion as to how they might be useful. Three months later they were all thrown out. The company's office automation strategy was delayed at least a year, costing it millions of pounds in lost business benefit."
But perhaps the most promising move in the fight against technophobia is the introduction of "friendlier" machines. Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Acorn Computers, plans soon to launch a pocket machine with an electronic pen and software modelled on a book. "It is so simple that even your grandmother could understand it," Hauser says.
So there is hope yet for Britain's bosses.
(Jane Bird is technology editor of The Sunday Times.)