What the bloody-minded Brits can teach the IT world

The British are the most cynical of nations, surveys say, but that's not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to buying IT

As Jerry Seinfeld might say: What's up with the British and technology? A recent survey by TNS tried to measure how much trust people feel towards their technology suppliers -- the global IT companies, office equipment companies, chip vendors, hardware, software and service companies that make up the global tech universe.

It's no surprise to discover in this post-Enron, post-dot-com world that levels of trust were fairly low, and the report concludes that there is a general wariness about the IT industry; the striking finding was in the regional differences.

The survey polled IT users in France, Germany, the UK, and the US, and what stands out are the strongly negative views of the UK respondents. Eighty percent of the UK respondents agreed with the statement that "one should be very cautious dealing with IT companies one has never done business with before," and 79 percent believed that "you must be alert or some IT companies will take advantage of you."

This research chimes with the peculiarly snarky -- that is, cynical and damning -- tone of the British technology discussion. The strength of this approach is in a refusal to be swept away by pie-in-the-sky dreams of tech nirvana. Its weakness is a refusal to actually engage in the technical detail, and a knee-jerk cynicism about the potential for new technology and the motives of the people supplying it.

At its best, English scepticism can provide a blunt, no-nonsense approach that cuts through the bullshit, and has an informed historical perspective. For me this approach is best typified by the writer Tom Standage's book, The Victorian Internet, which shed new light on the Internet phenomenon while explaining the history of the telegraph.

At its worst, it becomes a cynical exercise in won't-be-fooled worldliness touched with a distinct disinclination to tackle the issues. Anyone who saw the famous interview where normally pugnacious UK TV pundit Jeremy Paxman gave Bill Gates the lightest of grillings will know how badly that can go.

If you've had much contact with the US tech media, or worked in the US, the contrast in the attitude and tone of the entire technology discussion is very striking. The PR community in the US is -- for good or ill -- self-confident and proud of its mission. The vendors can be positively messianic in their belief that their technology will save the world. The journalists take the companies seriously, partly because the cultures of both business journalism and technology have much higher self-esteem in the US.

In the UK, the PR community has to be much more careful in its handling of the press, and local PR minders take time to explain to visiting executives from the US that they won't receive the same kind of deferential attention that US journalists often provide. The journalists are, well, a little jaded about Yankees preaching the next big thing, and UK technology executives keep a lower profile and toot their own horns much less than their US counterparts. The Winnersh triangle is not Silicon Valley.

It's tempting to blame all this negativity on the journalists who write about this stuff in the UK. Yet what I like about the research from TNS is that it seems to imply that the often hostile tone of the media covering technology in the UK is not something simply imposed by a cynical media culture, (although nobody would deny there's a bit of that. You know who you are.) TNS' research implies that carping tone may in fact reflect a wary IT culture among the people who buy IT in this country. It's an attitude that is ripe for global export.

The UK IT manager is a tough sell. He -- still usually a he -- has a hand on his wallet, a shrinking budget, and a raised eyebrow for US technology vendors promising to transform their business. He has little emotional attachment to the wonders of technology, and a demanding boss who thinks he's spending too much money. As IT managers all over the world struggle to manage high expectations on ever-smaller spending, it may be that more and more IT buyers around the world will be adopting a bloody-minded British attitude.

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