Small business owners in the UK have made "fundamental shifts" in the way they now use computers – but many are still missing out on the full potential of their IT systems, according to a new survey commissioned by the British Chambers of Commerce and software giant Microsoft.
Whereas IT was once used mainly for accounting and book-keeping – and continues to be – communication with customers and suppliers now comes in at a very close second.
Some 85 per cent of respondents told the YouGov researchers that this was one of the main activities they carry out on their computers.
Furthermore, Britain is fast becoming a nation of "web keepers," with 82 per cent of small businesses surveyed embracing the internet and having a web presence.
However, time-constrained owners and senior managers are having to spend too much time on tasks that are not considered a priority.
Instead of devoting time to client management and customer service, they are getting bogged down by looking for files and records, dealing with government red tape, and fixing IT problems associated with security and data storage.
However, the British Chambers of Commerce and Microsoft say simple changes can help business owners reprioritise their workloads to achieve increased efficiency and cut costs.
Areas highlighted by the research include:
Loss of data is considered to be one of the key reasons for business inefficiency, yet half of small businesses are not backing up their data on a daily basis.
With the DTI estimating that seven out of ten companies go out of business after major data loss, this is not an issue to be taken lightly.
IT security failures are costing two-thirds of the businesses surveyed an estimated #1,259 per annum.
Yet two-fifths of respondents have not even installed a basic firewall onto PCs and over half don’t patch or update all the PCs in the business. However, Microsoft's new Windows Vista operating system now incorporates more security features, including firewall protection.
The estimated cost of outsourcing the production of marketing materials is significant, at just over #6,000 a year.
Yet small businesses are not fully harnessing their PCs to develop marketing materials themselves.
While 82 per cent of small businesses surveyed have a web presence, less than a third of them are using it to trade.
This represents a huge potential growth opportunity through e-commerce.
The majority of small businesses surveyed claimed that it was their personalised approach to customer service that set them apart from their competitors. However at least a fifth of businesses are not using their PCs to maintain client and supplier databases.
David Frost, director general, British Chambers of Commerce, said: "This research shows how far small businesses have come in recent years and how much they all rely on their computers.
"It is particularly striking how e-mail communication is so widespread, but too much time is still being taken up fixing problems that could have been avoided.
"This is time they can ill afford to waste because it takes them away from those activities that really impact their success, like dealing with customers.
"Regularly performing some simple tasks like data back-up or scanning for viruses can make all the difference and now this couldn’t be easier to do."