Over the Christmas holidays we'll be giving you a taste of what else IDG's roving band of reporters do. A series of features from around the world, from corporate as well as consumer-focused publications, starts today with Jane Hamrin's piece from Egypt.

"Technology has come to be a very powerful representative of 'Western' superiority. It should therefore be treated with care both by users and customers," said Gamila Shoib.

Shoib, a specialist in businesses and information systems who works at the Judge Institute of Management Studies at the University of Cambridge, recently finished a study of an Egyptian subsidiary of a multinational corporation (in the field of selling fast-moving consumer goods). One of the aspects she looked into was a sales force automation project where the company's sales staff were given Compaq laptops running Windows 3.11, then later Dells running Windows 95 and expected to work from home. The company made no other changes to the work process, just handed out the computers.

"I think cutting costs was the main driver. This means that the head office was downsized and the regional depots closed with the move to the home operation. That translated into cuts in rent, etc. The second reason would appear to be the automation itself. Like most IT departments in multinationals, they seem to have endless ideas for the introduction of new hardware and software," said Shoib.

Shoib said the fact that there were no other changes to the business process wasn't clear. It could have been because there was a severe staff shortage in the IT department. The lack of other changes had been a surprise to her as she knew that in other cases the company had been very thorough in re-engineering processes when introducing new technology.

Training on the new system was outsourced to a third party and turned out to be inadequate. The training consisted essentially of an introduction to the laptops and Microsoft Office applications. Most salesmen were Arabic speakers and the computer system had an English language interface. In addition, sales staff now had to make reports and do data generation previously done by secretaries, and as a result the computers were seen as a burden and most salesmen used them as little as possible.

IT staff generally considered the salesmen to be ill educated and irrational with bad language skills. One IT manager told Shoib: "They're not very computer literate. Look, sales users, sales people in general, they do not have strong thinking and problem solving. So they just know enough to keep their work going."

Incidentally, salesmen basically thought the same about their customers and when they sometimes brought the computers on visits to clients, they used their new laptops to impress them.

"Here they appear as the rational, technologically capable ones, seeing themselves as superior to their customers because of their (company's) 'scientific' ways of doing business, and dismissive of what they see as their customers' backward, baladi (home-grown) usiness practices," said Shoib.

Shoib found though that most salesmen shied away from taking the laptops with them to the customers, perhaps because they were concerned that the customer would sense their incompetence and hesitation in front of English error messages. Instead, they regularly took computer print-outs, often produced by a more knowledgeable colleague as a favor, using them for 'objection handling' and as the last word if a dispute should arise with a customer.

This meant that in the perceived spectrum of rational versus irrational, traditional versus modern and technical versus personal, the same person could change positions, depending on which relationship was examined.

"Managing such perceptions, for example by creating awareness of these sensitivities, would be crucial to technology being a useful tool in supporting the selling task," said Shoib.

"Local Egyptian culture is said to emphasize such aspects of human activity," Gamila Shoib said. "Such efforts should not be stifled in the name of a 'superior Western rationality' or the correct way of using the technology."