Troubleshooter sees IT as enabler for small businesses

Famed as BBC's Troubleshooter, former ICI chairman John Harvey-Jones believes IT and the Internet make it possible for everyone...

Famed as BBC's Troubleshooter, former ICI chairman John Harvey-Jones believes IT and the Internet make it possible for everyone to set up their own businesses. Cliff Saran reports

When he took over as chairman of chemicals giant ICI in 1982 John Harvey-Jones faced a problem that is still apparent today.

"IT people are almost totally incapable of understanding what the technology can do for business," he says.

"I had a brilliant head of IT at ICI but I could not get him to talk IT to the board," not even after many months of coaching.

It was only after Harvey-Jones replaced this head of IT with a salesman who had an interest in IT that he was in a position to exploit technology within the business.

A good example of the problems confronting ICI at the time was the difficulty it had in handling communications between regional offices.

"I wanted a system that would allow any office around the world to communicate with any other," he says. "Basically I was asking our IT department to build the progenitor to the Net."

The former salesman who had taken charge of IT at ICI suggested a simpler solution: use a fax machine.

"We were the first company in the world to install a fax machine in every office," says Harvey-Jones.

Making the most effective use of information and communications technology has clear benefits for organisations operating in both in the private and the public sector.

Harvey-Jones recently visited three NHS trusts that are tagging patient records in XML. If this technique was applied nationally it could boost staff availability within the NHS. "If you apply XML to patient records you can get 30% greater availability of consultants and nurses," he says.

Harvey-Jones believes IT has great potential for UK businesses. "I have no doubt IT will be the third industrial revolution," he says.

He is currently involved in a campaign to promote the use of IT in smaller businesses as a way to drive profits. Businesses will lose out, he warns, if they only consider IT as a way to reduce costs."

Companies such as Egg, the online bank, were not formed simply out of the need to reduce costs, he points out. "Most people have no idea how to use a computer in an effective way," he says.

The smaller business has been one of Harvey-Jones' pet subjects and he says he regrets time spent climbing the corporate ladder. "I had a secure job and I suffered the golden handcuffs," he says.

Harvey-Jones believes everyone should consider setting up their own small businesses. "With access to broadband and cheap computing, small companies can match anything a larger business can do," he says.

Even when large companies are organised as business units, they find it difficult to replicate the sheer drive that exists in smaller companies.

For many 50-year-olds facing the prospect of redundancy, going it alone can be their best career move, Harvey-Jones asserts.

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)