We’re undergoing something of a social and cultural revolution. Technology, previously the domain of the geeks and the experts, has begun to permeate mainstream social consciousness.

The UK launch of Facebook saw nearly four million users signed up in a matter of a few months; broadband penetration has been growing dramatically (The Oxford Internet Institute estimates that in 2007 56% of UK households have broadband, well above the EU average), and we have had more mobile phones in the UK than people for a few years now. This mass adoption of broadband, spurred on by a plethora of useful and addictive online ‘web 2.0’ services, is changing the way we think and act in many ways.

Given how entrenched these new technologies are in our lives as consumers, it’s important to look at how UK businesses are doing. The answer is quite well, for the most part.

Statistics from Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, show that the majority of businesses have adopted basic services such as broadband and email and many are beginning to be much more sophisticated.

However, a major research study of 600 business and technology managers in business around the UK, The IQ of the British Network, conducted for Cisco highlights some key issues.

Skills & employment

There are skills shortages. Across every industry, organisations struggle to recruit and retain talent. The IQ research shows that finding and retaining talent is the number one headache for business managers. And yet – despite the cultural shift driven by social networks and new online communications media, the study found that nearly half of UK businesses aren’t providing the facility to allow employees to work flexibly, and that this is at the bottom of the priority list for IT investment.

Why is this? The cultural shift at the business needs to change in line with worker requirements, and indeed government policy – the Work and Families Act requires provisions to be made for employees with children under the age of 18 to be able to work flexibly one day per week.

Unfortunately, many employers still carry the view that if they can’t see their employees working, they’re not – this needs to change. Businesses need to combine technology with best practise flexible working policy that will maximise productivity, and simultaneously help capture and retain the talent needed to remain competitive.

Taking this approach, flexible workers would leverage presence-based applications which advertise their availability status to their teams irrespective of location, and additionally utilise web meeting tools, video telephony and even TelePresence to support collaboration from geographically dispersed locations.

Combining the emerging class of Enterprise 2.0 applications with the new wave of client devices such as dual-mode handsets truly facilitates the delivery of increased flexibility.

If well implemented, and if businesses embrace the concomitant cultural changes that need to take place, the impact on productivity could be significant. After all, these tools aren’t a world away from the web technologies employees are using every day in their downtime.

The need for business input

The IQ study found the most successful companies, those whose turnover grew by more than 15% in the past year, exhibited a close alignment of business strategy and IT adoption.

These organisations are more likely to view their IT network as a strategic asset to their business, are twice as likely as other companies to offer flexible working capabilities, are likely to have better security provisions and are more confident in their abilities to recover business data on demand.

The findings show management support is a vital ingredient in the success of any IT project. Without it, the project’s ability to deliver return on investment is potentially undermined. Given the pressures on UK businesses to stay competitive, this is a message executives would do well to heed.

A call to action

IQ of the British Network shows that IT can only promise business benefits when executives provide leadership and support. Cultural readjustment may be required here, to bring corporate IQ in line with the capabilities of employees who have been growing up alongside the development of the social, collaborative web.

The IT network can provide the platform for new and productive working experiences, but the bottom-line growth is only really guaranteed when executives show leadership and support for IT in their organisation. Directors who communicate their strategy in a way IT professionals can bring to life through technology will ensure their businesses’ future prosperity in an increasingly competitive and interdependent world.