Special Report on Business Computing: Resistant executives keep their doors shut: The potential usefulness of computer systems in easing workloads has not yet brought staff to adopt them full-scale

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Indy Lifestyle Online
OFFICE SYSTEMS do not spread uniformly through organisations. Market research confirms that some types of office have proved more resistant to computerisation than others.

In one notable exclusion zone, the closed doors belong to individual offices - those of senior executives. Only an estimated 9-10 per cent of companies have an Executive Information System (EIS) of any kind, which leads the company that claims to be the UK's biggest EIS supplier, Comshare, to conclude that only 5 per cent make full use of one.

For an industry devoted to helping people make better use of their time, this is a serious shortcoming; the time of senior executives is generally the most expensive on the payroll.

But there are also whole company departments where computerisation has been slow to gain acceptance - sales and marketing especially, although there are signs that the bridgeheads established here by suppliers are beginning to spread. Some suppliers in this area of computer systems estimate that only 5 per cent of UK companies have suitable computer support for their frontline sales staff.

The last bastions of pen and paper have various excuses for their recalcitrance. There is a suspicion that they have not been well served either by the computer industry or by their own company's computer specialists.

In the case of senior executives, Nigel Pendse, international marketing and support director for Comshare, identifies three factors: 'Some senior executives have information needs that computers simply aren't suited to - in a holding company, for example, the information needs are all about politics and relationships. So the more likely targets are the senior managers of an operating company,' says Pendse.

'Then you have to ask whether the information is actually available to them; in some companies the data is in a pretty poor state and the data processing department might be reluctant to let them see it.

'Also, there's the question of perception. Some senior executives are getting on and aren't sure they can cope with a computer, although they manage perfectly well with the computer in their car or their video recorder or washing machine, so perhaps it's the quality of the computing the Data Processing department is offering them that is poor,' he says.

Mr Pendse proposes a blend of techniques to attract executives: a 'fast-reaction prototyping' process to establish what the users will want, and a system that is easier to use than the established personal computer products such as Microsoft Windows. Comshare's system, Commander, does not oblige its users to work with a keyboard; it depends on touch-sensitive screens or pointing devices.

'Executives are the consumers, it's got to be sold to them,' he says. 'It probably can't meet conventional payback criteria.'

Mr Pendse is perhaps too diplomatic to point out that the outlook of in-house computing specialists may have been the key factor in restricting the access of executives to computer-borne information. In most companies, computing first developed as an adjunct of the finance and accounts departments, when it was called data processing. Only recently has corporate computing become known as Management Information Systems, including the suggestion of information provision in its title. Even so, EIS has remained a separate type of system.

The attitude of computer departments, with their traditional loyalty to corporate accountants, towards sales and marketing offices is held in some quarters to explain the lack of attention those offices have had from the DP specialists. Many sales and marketing systems run on personal computers. PCs have given people throughout companies an independence from the DP department, a turn of events the computer experts are said to have found hard to come to terms with.

Others argue (though with diminishing conviction) that sales and marketing operations are not suited to the structured, systematic style of a computer operation.

Robert Shaw, a consultant specialising in sales and marketing systems, points out that recent research indicates that 15-20 per cent of spending on information technology is now going into that area. 'The problem being hit by most people implementing this type of system is that they are trying to introduce a systematised, automated way of operating into areas of companies that are not systematised. The benefits come not from automating the status quo but from looking at the business processes.'

Not all the suppliers of programs for sales and marketing departments agree. Indeed, some of the leading suppliers in their field see the argument about structured work processes as a red herring, pointing out that those offices have formal reporting procedures, activity schedules, performance measurement and other elements of a formal structure. But there is general agreement on the crucial role of a company's DP department if sales and marketing are to be automated.

One of the problems companies considering this type of automation face is the sheer number of potential suppliers. A Price Waterhouse survey last year identified more than 100 software companies active in the sales and marketing area.

The lack of penetration makes sales and marketing an attractive area for software firms, but of the 100 or more suppliers, only four or five have more than 200 customers. The market is highly fragmented, another feature which prospective users of such systems find unappealing.

To try to counter these problems, software suppliers set up The Association for Information Systems in Sales and Marketing (Aims) three years ago. Aims is intended to be educational and promotional; in the computer industry context, it is an unusual instance of competitive suppliers calling a truce to advance their common interests.

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