Information technology: you need a sensible Internet policy.
A recent Department of Trade and Industry report shows that over one-third of SMEs now use the Internet for business purposes. Look at your own business card. It probably has an e-mail address on it. Perhaps it has a web site listed too. If it hasn't - well, then perhaps you should start looking at those of your business associates whose business cards do include this information.
If you are using the Internet then you should already be thinking about how you could be using it better, just as you do for any other business process. For a start, dealing with e-mail is really just another in-tray chore. Many staff have a tendency to check obsessively for e-mails several times a day, yet dealing with e-mail is really no different from getting on top of the post, distributing faxes and fielding phone calls. But if it is just another task, it is one with a huge potential for wasting time. Those regularly accessing web sites will know how many hours can be spent trying to find what you want.
Then there are those employees who should be working for you but who are instead pursuing their personal interests, be they cooking, genealogy, politics or porn. Unless the inefficiencies of using new processes are addressed, the enormous benefits that can be gained from getting a small-to-medium business on the Internet will be largely obscured.
A good way to take advantage of the new media is to involve all staff in developing policies on Internet usage. These may address the need to avoid frivolous or even defaming comments. Norwich Union recently paid out £450,000 in damages for an e-mail libel (the company was forced to settle with health insurance competitor Western Provident, after it admitted that it had libelled the company on its internal e-mail system). Other policies that will need to be developed, after close consultation, should include a limit on non-work-related use of the Internet facility similar to that allowed on personal phone calls, information security consciousness, and even guidance on over-zealous copying of messages to all and sundry. Knowing when it is appropriate to use e-mail - as opposed to sending a fax, writing a letter, making a call or meeting - is part of this policy too. Discussions could focus on such common office scenarios as replying to sales enquiries or dealing with complaints.
While developing clear guidelines, it is important not to put people off using the Internet. Remember that in the early days after installation, there is a definitely a role for 'play', exploration and discovery. But it must be recognised that the Internet can be addictive and the last thing you want is someone who is obsessed with e-mail to the extent that he or she stops talking to colleagues or customers directly.
Only after a few months of using it and marketing it as a preferred method of communication between your staff, your customers and suppliers, will you be able to assess the true value of the Internet to your business. E-mail and the web are very powerful new tools, but clear guidelines are essential - just providing the facility to staff, and hoping they'll use it effectively is wishful thinking.
Rob Wirszycz is head of the Computer Services and Software Association.