Small business IT: It's what you make of it

When looking at new IT systems, don't just make sure you need them: make sure your staff will use them

If you have ever been asked to fill in a form online only then to be asked to print it out and fax - or even post - it back, then you have experienced dealing with a firm that just doesn't get IT.

Thankfully there are far fewer around today than just a few years ago, but they are still there, as research published this week by Brunel University found. Researchers at Brunel tested how long it took staff to carry out a series of business tasks: in the case of one rural marketing firm, we are told, staff actually took longer to complete their work after they got broadband. This was because they began to send information electronically to their customers, but continued to also post a hardcopy.

Such failure by small businesses to realise the true benefits of technology is put down to bad training. We'd add that it is also possibly the tools. Broadband is there - or at least getting there - throughout most of the country now, hosting is cheap and fairly reliable, and equipment continues to get ever better and cheaper. Which leaves the software. If employees continue to deal with manual forms in preference to the electronic version - there is obviously something wrong.

It's human nature to take the path of least resistance, and if it is just easier to deal with paper then we shall continue to deal with paper, however flash those drop-down menus look.

The big vendors smell fresh meat here, hence the jostling for position we're seeing this week from Oracle and SAP. This just the latest in a long line of tussles between big vendors who traditionally sold their wares to large enterprises, trying to muscle in on the vast market of small businesses who are trying to make sense of IT.

But if the big software vendors want to make a difference here they have to make it easy, and taking big applications and scaling them down is not always the best way to do that. If you're a small business, you need to look very carefully behind the gloss and ask what you need, but just as important is what your staff will use.