Certain propositions seem so obvious they enjoy universal acceptance. One is that information technology increases SME productivity. The opposite – that IT might deplete productivity – seems absurd. Yet there are good grounds for believing IT can reduce as well as enhance productivity.

Arno Joubert, a director of Omniholdings, discusses the possibility.
South Africa faces an additional challenge as reliable data on SME productivity is hard to come by. When SME productivity is discussed the issues tend to be absenteeism, AIDS and skills shortages rather than the hidden risks of sloppy IT controls.
The skills context is relevant as any shortage creates an implicit challenge to make the most of the skills you have when you have them.
SMEs often pay a premium for skills. Therefore the business should demand the most bang for its buck by ensuring greater focus on output and time efficiency.
However, SME management tends to see the skills issue in motivational rather than productivity terms. This is why SMEs ensure skilled staff members derive maximum job satisfaction by allowing them greater scope for individual initiative than they might find in a corporate environment. Controls may be deliberately loose.
In these scenarios, IT, email and Internet are regarded without question as tools that leverage productivity. In fact, this may be only partially true.
SMEs are cost sensitive. Working capital management, inventory controls and the sweating of fixed assets are focus areas. Strangely, IT access, bandwidth abuse and Internet utilisation are rarely seen in this context, though rising costs often sound the alarm bell that eventually leads to corrective action.
Practical experience on IT installations and infrastructure audits at numerous SMEs indicates that four out of five allow staff unfettered Internet access. In those businesses that have a policy on staff access, almost none regularly communicate, review and update those protocols.
At large corporates the situation is a little better. Major international groups became aware some time ago of the productivity-depleting potential of uncontrolled system and Internet access.
They set up barriers and benchmarks to prevent staff slowing their systems through excessive emailing and the communication and storage of resource-rich files and attachments.
At SMEs this is work in progress or has yet to make it on to the business agenda.
Over the last four years, audits of Internet use and abuse and email traffic at SMEs across the South African economy reveal:
* Increasing bandwidth abuse and network violations;
* Growing maintenance costs and rising risk of system underperformance, including the crashing of email servers;
* Growing vulnerability to virus attack;
* Unmeasured, but substantial drains on productivity (the rule of thumb is one hour lost per day per staff member to time spent on personal Net and email usage, though the figure may be much higher);
* Growing ancillary costs attributed to failures to monitor and manage work-related email traffic;
* Performance impacts traced to poor email management;
* Growing risk of reputational damage.
At the beginning of the decade, the IT industry guestimate was that 80% of email traffic and Net-derived communication within the workplace was personal. Initial work tracking and blocking inappropriate traffic for an SME client-base confirmed this figure. In the last two years, however, the 'junk-chunk' has risen to 85%.
No wonder more SME owners complain of stalled systems, slow response times and rising ISP bills.
What drives email and Net abuse?
The growing popularity of social utilities like Facebook, YouTube and chat forums is not the main culprit. Spamming is the principal problem.
The SME under virus and spam attack is rarely the victim of malicious acts by a staff member. The naïve employee is more likely to create the problem. Staff members unthinkingly give out the company's email address or respond to various forms of solicitation.
Problems even arise with work-related communication, though it is difficult to measure these ancillary costs.
One example might be insurance claims relating to a vehicle fleet and instructions to the underwriter that were communicated by email without proper tracking and record keeping. It can be costly when a claim is repudiated because email management was sloppy and no records can be found.
Performance impacts linked to email abuse receive little attention until a tipping point is reached. There is no telling how much productivity was affected in the months prior to that. One case involved the emailing of racist 'jokes' by a low level manager, creating rising anger among black colleagues while souring the industrial relations climate.
Reputational damage can obviously occur when racist sites are visited and respond, but the issue is often crystallised when staff members visit porn sites or other unsavoury web pages.
The good news for companies is that it is relatively easy to drive behavioural change.
The employee who hogs bandwidth by streaming music all day is usually totally unaware of the impact on system performance. The worker who responds to spam, contributes to chain mail or downloads multiple files is simply not aware of the consequences.
Staff member denials are usually sincere when the network fails under a virus attack. They didn't deliberately render the system vulnerable. They just didn't know any better.
Virus scans, data back-up and other systems can be installed, but the first thing to fix is employee awareness.
A company policy on system use and abuse has to be established. It has to be periodically reviewed and updated. Management has to set an example by scrupulous compliance. Induction of new staff should include instruction in the policy.
Playing games on the Net is fun . on your own time at your own cost. All investments have to earn their keep at an SME. And that includes Net and email connectivity. Get connected, but get real on the cost and productivity issues while you're at it.