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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 November, 2003, 10:06 GMT
Computers 'hamper the workplace'
Frustrated computer user at work
Technology is failing people despite millions spent
Computer systems at work are not working as they should, despite costing millions, a report says.

The problem lies with people rather than the systems themselves, concludes the iSociety think-tank.

Workers do not have enough guidance about technology, support staff are cut off from other staff and managers are "naive", said the year-long study.

This contributes to "endemic annoyance" with computers which can be avoided with better understanding.

Low expectations

When technologies are implemented and understood well, they can make life much easier at work, and bring a two to five-fold return on money ploughed into it.

But currently, although it is accepted that technology matters in most workplaces, it is working "pretty badly", suggests iSociety.

Instead of technology being foisted down from uninformed upper management, people should have more opportunity to muck around with it and make it work for them, report co-author Max Nathan told BBC News Online.

"The situation varies across workplaces," he said.

Computer monitors in a pile
The problem is there is a built-in negativity about technology. When it works well, it becomes invisible, but people only notice it when it goes wrong
Max Nathan, iSociety
"Typically problems range from computers crashing, systems going down and computers not talking to each other like they should."

On an everyday level, the common attitude to technology at work is mix of pragmatism and stoicism, with a touch of rage at times.

People are "pretty accepting" of technological failures and their expectations about what technology claims to do compared to the reality, are low.

In the end, technology seems to create more work than it saves. Many rely too much on e-mailing, squirreling away thousands of messages unnecessarily, for instance.

"What would be useful is to have ground rules on when it is good idea to send e-mail and when it is not," said Mr Nathan.

"Obviously you cannot tell people what to do, but giving them guidance is a very useful way for people to see what was good and bad about the tools they have."

When it goes wrong

When there are problems with computers, the researchers found people will fix it themselves if they know how, or ask colleagues if they want to know how to do something.

When that fails, they are quick to blame technical support staff, who are too often physically cut off from everyone else.

About 40% of people also said technical support people talk a different language.

"There is a cultural divide as well as spatial and structural divide," explained Mr Nathan.

"You have technical support staff who don't help themselves, but also people who don't have the understanding.

"When something goes wrong they automatically ring the support desk and demand solutions."

The spatial and cultural divisions mean technical people who know what they are talking about are often sidelined by management in decision-making processes.

"The problem is there is a built-in negativity about technology," Mr Nathan said.

"When it works well, it becomes invisible. People only notice it when it goes wrong."

The research concluded firms have to work harder to avoid falling into a "low tech equilibrium", in which workers are technologically unskilled, management is uninformed and technology support staff are disconnected.

"Government, businesses and the technology industry must drive change, transforming workplaces from a mood of stoicism to optimism," the report's authors said.

The iSociety project, part of the think-tank The Work Foundation, published the report on Thursday.

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