(2004), "UK IT is not working", International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, Vol. 53 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/ijppm.2004.07953caf.006Download as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
UK IT is not working
Information and communications technology (ICT) is not delivering for British organisations. New research from iSociety, The Work Foundation’s technology programme supported by Microsoft and PricewaterhouseCoopers, suggests that British businesses are not making the most of their annual £50 billion investments in IT. The result? It seems that we are becoming increasingly frustrated by the very technology that we thought would make our lives easier.
UK firms are managing, just: they are “getting by, not getting on” according to the first systematic, large-scale study of technology in UK workplaces. iSociety suggests a “low-tech equilibrium” could be the fate of many organisations; largely the result of unskilled users, uninformed managers and disconnected IT people. The result is that companies are consistently failing to use IT effectively, squandering productivity gains and even demotivating staff.
Much of UK management make up a “lost generation” that does not understand ICT, because it did not grow up immersed in technology. Technologists, who do have this knowledge, tend to be sidelined away from key decision making and are disconnected from the management mainstream. In effect, low-tech managers are forcing the UK economy into a low-tech equilibrium.
The research also found:
Individuals who often lack the skills to make best use of technology, relying on informal learning from other employees.
IT staff who can, quite literally, speak another language. The researchers found IT departments often disconnected from the organisations they serve, structurally, culturally and even spatially.
A technology industry which has sometimes been its own worst enemy, fostering unrealistic expectations through over-hyping and overselling offerings.
Paradoxically, the research clearly shows that when implemented well, ICT can be transformational, creating real value to organisations and drastically improving the users’ experiences, delivering up to five to seven times normal returns on investment. The key is to invest in people and processes at the same time. As it stands, technology matters, but it is not working.
The year-long project centred on eight in-depth case studies in a variety of companies across the UK, from small High Street firms to large multinationals. In each firm, the researchers talked to managers and spent time on the shop floor, observing what people actually did.
People=integration. Despite the investment in complex solutions, integration often happens at the human level, with individuals overcoming the shortcomings of the systems they use through their own ingenuity. People plug the holes in technology.
Technology is used to express and build status and hierarchy. Managers can set the terms of communication to staff, often insisting documents are printed out and taken to them. CEOs, middle managers and shopfloor staff use different styles of email.
Information overload is not an issue for the majority. Most people receive less than 30 e-mails a day. There is a clear preference for phone and face-to-face contact.
Knowledge management is failing. Large, expensive KM systems are less useful than managers have hoped. In some cases, staff have more or less abandoned them, relying on personal filing systems instead.
We are spamming each other. A good deal of email frustration stems from unwanted communication from colleagues. It is not the technology itself but the way we use it that is making us feel more pressured.
Technology can create as much work as it saves. The virtues of email, for example, can quickly become the vices. Email allows you to store conversations, but backlogs can quickly build up. Some subjects had thousands of mails in their inboxes.
“Big Brother” surveillance is rarely worth the candle. Monitoring staff through technology creates far more information than managers can use. Most firms use technology as a reactive “blind eye”, providing evidence where needed.
“Our research legitimises the lay experience – technology isn’t working. Not only does this create daily frustration and misery for many, but it damages the performance of British businesses and the economy in general. British firms have sunk billions into ICT systems over the past decade, investment that needs to work harder”, explained Max Nathan, Senior Researcher, The Work Foundation. “If the UK is to avoid being trapped in a low tech equilibrium, government, businesses and the technology industry must drive change, transforming workplaces from a mood of stoicism to one of optimism”.
Andy King, director of Business Productivity Solutions at Microsoft said, “This research is to be welcomed. Microsoft shares many of its conclusions. If UK companies are going to achieve the returns on ICT investment that they expect, they need to have a wider perspective. As the report suggests, better training, improved business structures, and new processes are as important to unlocking the productivity potential of new technology as the technology itself”.
There are striking similarities across organisations. Very few companies have every aspect of their ICT working perfectly. However, there are striking differences. Contrary to the image of smaller companies being fast moving, they seem to be at a disadvantage, with fewer resources to meet challenges. Similarly, the study found that public sector organisations can teach their private sector peers a thing or two when it comes to IT best practice.
What needs to be done to avoid the low-tech equilibrium?:
While there are signs of realism, many organisations still complain that IT vendors promise benefits or outcomes which are never achieved. This must end.
Suppliers and buyers should encourage each other to think organisationally and culturally not just technologically when talking about ICT.
Offer better after-sales support and training, particularly to smaller companies.
Test employees to check their “roadworthiness”, IT-wise. Compulsory IT literacy tests for chief executives.
End separation between technologists and mainstream management. Bring ICT in from the cold.
Put out the “welcome back” banners for IT support staff and managers. Do not hide them away, put them at the centre not the periphery of the business.