In the past information technology was held up as the ideal solution to any organisation's communication problems, but bad implementation of systems has resulted in disappointing returns.
A plethora of reports on UK industry's use - or rather misuse - of information technology have made grim reading over the past couple of years. Their collective message leaves no doubt about the problem: companies' investments in IT are not producing the returns they expected. But what about the solution?
It is easy to point an accusing finger at suppliers of hardware and software for years of overselling and unrealistically raising the expectations of the buyers. Or to take a stab at consultants for ill-considered advice. Both have contributed to the problem, but it is the users who have the final say in defining what they want and in determining how well they use it.
In the past - when data processing aptly described most companies' IT aspirations - it was easy enough to specify a maintenance computer and some software to handle the payroll, say. It was also simple to justify the investment on perceived cost savings from replacing an army of clerks with a few, better skilled but more highly paid computer operators. Then IT barely touched anyone in an organisation.
Today all that has changed. The ubiquitous personal computer is appearing on more and desks. It is being linked to others on site by local area networks which in turn are being linked to company-wide, even worldwide communication infrastructures. Why? In theory so that people can have immediate access to information which will help them in their jobs.
Herein lies the crux of the matter, says Catherine Griffiths, a consultant with the Kobler Unit, a research centre at London's Imperial College. Along with colleague Beat Hochstrasser, she spent three years researching what constitutes good management practice of IT in 34 UK companies. The end result, inevitably, was an IT report (Regaining Control of IT Investments: a handbook for senior UK management) but one which attempts to quash a few myths and supply some answers.
Information, she says, is seen to be a vital corporate resource but few companies have an information strategy. They have spent vast amounts on the technology which delivers the goods but, more often than not, in an unpalatable form. The result is information overload.
Her advice to companies is clear: hold the information technology strategy and further investments until someone decides who needs what information when and where. She agrees that this is likely to be a time-consuming process but it has to be done'.
It should start by defining a set of management goals, six of them in all.
Once these goals are set, the information that is needed to meet them can be defined. However, it is not sufficient to think in terms only of information content. …