OPINION: Technology can only help when it's applied well

Sales people in the UK spend 7% of their time actively selling. And no, that's not a misprint. That's the finding, anyway, of an international survey of productivity efficiency carried out by Proudfoot Consulting. It concludes, from an in-depth survey of worker productivity, that sales staff get diverted away from what they should be doing into unproductive activities.

For example, administration and travelling alone account for an astonishing 26% and 28% respectively of available time. Add in inefficient proc-esses and poor time planning and it's little wonder that desperate senior executives have been throwing laptops at their sales forces like there were no tomorrow.

But there are signs that companies are beginning to wake up to the fact that technology itself isn't the answer to improved productivity. It's what you do with it that counts - which, going by the e-mania of the past few years, is definitely progress.

Take the findings of another survey on e-business from the Confederation of British Industry and KPMG Consulting. Based on research from January to March this year, it updates a previous report produced at the beginning of last year, which showed that many companies felt that e-business would transform their fortunes in terms of expanding markets and creating new commercial opportunities.

That's changed. The attitude in UK businesses is now far more pragmatic and prudent. Forget the impact on revenues in the short term. Instead, new technology should be aimed at cutting costs and improving efficiency, according to almost 90% of those surveyed. Any project has to show measurable results.

Hence the focus on technological initiatives such as streamlining internal processes and getting rid of those time-wasting administrative activities.

Tellingly, almost 60% of companies believe that e-business will reduce their costs by up to 10% over the next few years, with just under one third expecting higher results.

Shell shows what can be done. Electronic processes, including internet-based administration, customer services and business-to-business trading systems have contributed to groupwide savings of about £3.5bn since 1998, or 1% of revenues. What's particularly interesting is that all this is being done as an integral part of the business strategy, rather than being overseen by an e-group isolated from the main business. And that chimes with yet another key finding of the report: when it comes to e-business, the board is definitely taking charge.

But does this new hard-nosed approach mean that companies are in danger of forgetting that the web is supposed to be about transforming the nature of their relationship with customers? Maybe not. Getting on for 85% of firms in the survey believe that e-business will result in increased customer service quality by 2005.

And by then it will also start living up to its potential for boosting revenues: almost two-thirds of companies believe that new technology will increase the number of customers they serve, while a majority of them feel that it will increase revenues per customer.

Heed some advice from one company, however. Examine your business processes carefully before you start down this road. Because if you automate a mess that's what you get: an automated mess.

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