Low-tech bosses 'wasting' IT investment

A 'lost generation' of managers is keeping the UK's massive IT spend from making an impact, because they don't understand the technology, argues iSociety

The UK is failing to use technology effectively in the workplace, largely because a generation of managers are incapable of understanding and implementing IT.

That's the message from a new report from iSociety, which claims that the £50bn that British business spends on information and communication technology (ICT) each year isn't being effectively used.

ISociety, part of The Work Foundation, warns that many ICT projects are handled badly, with new technology adding to the existing work burden rather than supplanting old and less efficient methods. Other implementations fail to deliver the desired results because staff aren't properly trained in the new system, or simply reject this new way of working.

As a result, iSociety says, both employees and employers are being frustrated by the very technology that is supposed to make life easier.

"Our research legitimises the lay experience -- technology isn't working," said Max Nathan, a senior researcher with The Work Foundation. "Not only does this create daily frustration and misery for many, it damages the performance of British businesses and the economy in general. British firms have sunk billions into ICT systems over the past decade, an investment that needs to work harder."

"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," Nathan added.

The iSociety study, called Getting By, Not Getting On: Technology In UK Workplaces, was based on case studies of eight UK businesses, ranging from small firms to multinationals.

Laying blame
The key message, that working with technology can be intensely frustrating, shouldn't come as a surprise. But iSociety's claim that this is a basic part of working life puts the issue on a higher level.

Responsibility for this situation is apportioned widely -- from users who lack basic ICT skills, to IT staff who can't or won't connect with the people they serve, to a tech industry which iSociety says is over-hyping its products and failing to deliver on its promises.

But the report gives particular mention to the "lost generation of low-tech managers" who don't understand what technology is about, and therefore fail to make the right strategic decisions.

"Much of UK management make up a 'lost generation' that does not understand ICT, because it did not grow up immersed in technology," the organisation said in a statement. "Technologists, who do have this knowledge, tend to be sidelined in 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."

With many firms currently setting budgets for 2004, now is a good time for companies to think about addressing their own failings before coughing up their share of next year's £50bn spend.

ISociety recommends that firms evaluate the tech skills of their staff, including compulsory IT literacy skills for chief executives, and also try to bring the IT department closer to the heart of the organisation. It also says that vendors who want to earn a large share of the £50bn cake must drop the overselling, and concentrate instead on offering better after-sales support and training.