Full IT mobility remains a corporate pipe dream

An annual research study of IT trends makes uncomfortable reading, revealing limited corporate commitment to new business enterprise.

For those solely interested in UK manufacturing, surveys of corporate attitudes to IT and e-business need to be taken with a decent-sized pinch of salt.

Many studies range freely across economic sectors, lumping manufacturing together with retailing, financial services and so on under the banner of ‘UK plc’. This is useful up to a point, but ignores crucial differences in what each sector needs from its IT infrastructure.

Other surveys will mix UK manufacturers in with European counterparts, or use too small a sample to be reliable.

So the annual Benchmark Research study of trends in 1,000 businesses – exclusively UK manufacturers employing more than 50 people – has a strong claim to be taken seriously.

Apart from the headline figure that overall IT spending by manufacturers declined this year for the first time since the early 1990s – perhaps no huge surprise in the current climate – the latest Benchmark study contains much for hardware and software vendors to ponder.

Two strong messages emerge from the mass of data, one concerning mobile computing, the other e-marketplaces.

The need to establish a mobile infrastructure is talked up with evangelical zeal by many in the IT industry. But looking at Benchmark’s data, it would be an understatement to say mobile enterprise computing is in its infancy.

Two thirds of the companies told Benchmark that less than 10% of their IT set-up is mobile. And it is a fair bet that for most of them, that means none at all.

Any visitor to last week’s Computers In Manufacturing show – where Benchmark unveiled its survey findings – could testify that there are no shortage of mobile applications on the market, with more being launched all the time.

But a major commitment to mobility by companies is costly. As well as investing in specific mobile software applications, firms need to give their workers the hardware to run them. And if they are really serious, they will need to build a wireless infrastructure capable of supporting true two-way working between roving employees and the core enterprise.

At a time of severe pressure on IT budgets, significant mobile computing is likely to remain a longer-term ideal rather than a short-term must-have for many companies.But the fledgling mobile enterprise sector within manufacturing can take some comfort from the fact that its potential is plain to see, even if it won’t be fulfilled tomorrow.

The same cannot be said about e-marketplaces, those supposed linchpins of e-business which were expected to carry all before them. The views on e-marketplaces expressed by the 1,000 manufacturers quizzed by Benchmark veered from indifference to outright contempt.

A whopping 77% claimed they made no use of e-marketplace or trading exchange technology, and had no plans to do so.

Various doubts were expressed. Many said online auctions were unsuitable for their business, that internal collaboration was more important than exchanges, and that the auction purchasing model gives you no chance to assess the quality of what you are buying.

Just one in 10 manufacturers questioned said they were beyond a pilot phase and actively involved in a live trading exchange. The e-marketplace community might have hoped for some good news from them, if only to use as a carrot to tempt their more sceptical colleagues.

But there was no comfort here either. Of the handful of companies using the technology, three quarters have yet to see any return on investment, adding up to a massive challenge for the whole concept.

There was no evidence in the survey that UK manufacturers are blind to the benefits of various e-business technologies. Improved internal communications, the chance to collaborate more effectively with customers and better marketing all rate highly as potential pluses.

But the era of blind faith in all things ‘e’ to change the business world – if it ever existed – is certainly over.