Overcoming IT illiteracy

A lack of simple software training is losing many companies and other
organisations valuable time and money. Keith Rodgers looks at ways of
implementing strategies to fill the skills gap and improve IT literacy in the
workplace

Anyone who’s paused long enough to study the toolbars at the top of their
word processing application and discover what every button actually does, will
understand one truism of desktop technology. As the IT industry ploughs
evermore resources into features and functionality, the reality remains that
the bulk of its users only take advantage of a tiny percentage of what’s on
offer.

Given that the applications are relatively cheap, that is only a problem for
the purists. But the question of who knows what about their software’s
capabilities has far broader implications for HR.

In many organisations, software features that could raise productivity,
improve communications with customers or increase understanding about business
performance, are being ignored. Despite massive investment in technology, vast
numbers of employees are incapable of using their systems effectively.

In the heady days of the internet boom, when technology problems were
usually solved by throwing more technology at them, this was not an issue. But
in today’s cost-cutting, efficiency-driven environment, it definitely is. The
emergence of training initiatives such as the European Computer Driving Licence
(ECDL), demonstrate that improving IT skills is recognised as a central driver
to better productivity by government and commerce alike.

The problems of IT illiteracy are typically felt in two areas: general
desktop IT skills and project-specific training. At a general level, problems
experienced by staff in using basic systems such as word processing,
spreadsheets or presentation packages such as Microsoft PowerPoint, have a
direct impact on productivity.

Pete Bayley, director of ECDL UK, points to research carried out at a major
UK health authority, which shows that the average employee saved 38 minutes per
day by simply completing the ECDL IT programme.

Under-estimating costs

Worse still, the problem doesn’t stop with the one badly-trained employee.
Struggling workers will usually ask another colleague for help, and that is where
the productivity costs start to escalate – especially when senior managers or
highly-skilled IT professionals get sucked in. As Bayley says: "If you’re
paying expensive IT support staff to help with a mail-merge, it’s not the best
way of spending their time."

While general desktop skills are often overlooked, much of the end-user
training that does take place is designed to support specific product rollouts.
But even here, where the need for training is most obvious, the level of
investment required is frequently under-estimated.

In the 1990s, when enterprise-class IT rollouts tended to be far lengthier,
the total cost of consultancy and implementation services could be four or five
times higher than the licence fee itself. This inevitably caused pressure to
cut corners, and training was an early casualty.

More recently, poor training has been one of several factors behind the
backlash against customer relationship management software, which despite a
massive surge at the end of the 1990s, frequently resulted in poor take-up
among users.

These will become increasingly pressing issues as cost-conscious managers
start to examine the real costs of investing in IT. Heads of IT and finance are
looking at their IT purchases in terms of total cost of ownership, rather than
just the software licence and associated consulting fees.

Along with maintenance charges and support fees, the time spent by IT
professionals in tackling basic skills shortages results in a significant
mark-up to the purchase price of any system, whether it’s a laptop, or a
full-blown HRMS application.

The training industry is now responding to these challenges with enthusiasm.

In the enterprise application software sector, there is a growing
recognition that training is closely connected to successful implementation,
and research firm IDC reports that vendors are now paying much closer attention
to the issue. For one thing, with software margins under pressure and licence
sales slowing down, it is an increasingly attractive revenue stream for both
suppliers and their partners.

Competency training

In the general desktop sector, the number of courses has rocketed, fuelled
by the growing acceptance of computer-based training and e-learning. Users now
have a wide choice of off-the-shelf packages to learn specific applications
such as Microsoft Word and Excel, including the Microsoft Office User
Specialist (Mous) programme.

In addition, there is a growing emphasis on general IT competency training
and testing, designed to arm users with the ability and confidence to use basic
tools. As one training expert puts it, this process is merely catching up with
the evolution of business. Numeracy and literacy have long been standard
criteria for office roles – computer literacy is now becoming the third
non-negotiable requirement.

Several of these certification programmes have a long pedigree, evolving to
meet today’s computing demands. Computer Literacy and Information Technology
(CLAIT), for example, is endorsed by Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations
(OCR), and is now a well-known qualification – particularly in the education
sector.

Other newer initiatives, such as Internet Computing and Core Certification
(IC3), are globally-recognised efforts to provide basic skills, offering
modules which cover hardware, software, operating systems, basic desktop
applications and networking, and even a section on the impact of computers on
society.

It is ECDL, however, which has been grabbing recent headlines. Two million
European IT users are said to have now registered or completed the course.

Originating in Finland in 1994 and now driven in the UK by the British
Computer Society, the course is built around seven core modules:

– Basic concepts of IT

– Using a computer and managing files

– Word processing

– Spreadsheets

– Databases

– Presentation

– Information and Communication (incorporating the internet and e-mail)

Users must complete all seven modules to gain certification. That
requirement has been criticised by some in the training industry, who argue
that many users do not require the complete skillset. They may not need to make
presentations or manage a database, for example.

A comprehensive approach

ECDL’s Bayley, however, is a staunch supporter of the comprehensive
approach.

"We are trying to encourage people to be IT literate across the
board," he says.

"If people are only ever taught how to use a word processor or a
spreadsheet, they won’t realise what tools are available in the database or
what presentation tools there are, and they will be missing out. If they go for
further training in the future, they won’t have such an innate ability to move
between the seven core elements of the programme."

He is also a firm believer in the power of the certification process, a point
of view reinforced by Cushing Anderson, programme director for IDC’s learning
services research group.

Bayley argues: "It is the skills that are required, not so much the
test – but behaviourally, adults need a benchmark.

"If you are just put in a class with no test, you are likely to learn
less than if you were given one. It is a significant incentive to concentrate
on the material."

Given how widely it is being accepted across Europe, ECDL and similar
qualifications could ultimately become proficiency requirements during the
recruitment process. The NHS is already beginning to adopt the qualification as
standard, along with other public bodies such as the Ministry of Defence, and
commercial organisations such as HSBC and the Bank of England.

If the qualification becomes a compulsory requirement in such organisations,
senior executives will also have to bite the bullet and train up. For many, it
will be challenging to train alongside junior staff who are more adept at IT
use, and HR managers will have to help them overcome any perceived stigmas.

In addition to choosing the right programme, HR managers also need to
exercise some caution in selecting a vendor. For one thing, the market has
become crowded of late, and inevitably, as Colin Bell, UK sales director at
NETg points out, a number have either exited or are on the brink of doing so.

Financial stability is clearly an important factor in the selection process,
given that training service provision benefits from long-term relationships.

More than just a quality issue

Major training vendors also stress, however, that focusing on the quality of
training alone is a mistake.

Janet Way, head of international operations at QA International, argues that
most complaints made against training companies aren’t about the quality of the
teaching, but about the preparation, administration and post-event support that
should accompany it.

Basic management tasks – such as getting the right person on the right
course on the right day – can be the things that cause customers problems.

While training prices tend to be broadly similar between different vendors,
the extra services offered around the core learning experience differ greatly.

QA, for example, carries out basic competency profiling of training
candidates before its learning programmes kick off, catering for the fact that
many HR departments do not have a detailed assessment of individual need. It
also offers post-training support, a critical part of the learning
reinforcement process.

The company, which offers the bulk of its end-user training around IT
rollouts, also stresses the importance of replicating the look-and-feel of an
organisation’s IT system in the training process.

Recognising the investment

Netg’s Bell supports that view, arguing that it is the vendor’s
responsibility to guide customers through the whole training programme, helping
to tackle the issues that can make the difference between success and failure.

Getting management buy-in and support, for example, is critical. It is also
important that delegates recognise the investment made by the company,
particularly when it is driven globally. There is generally more pressure on a
user to attend IT training when its driven and supervised by their immediate
boss, than when it is a worldwide programme.

Again, that reflects the service provider’s administrative skills – even on
self-paced e-learning courses, for example, it may be worthwhile for the
trainer to run virtual enrolment classes.

Ultimately, as QA’s brief competency assessment initiative demonstrates, IT
certification extends beyond training to encompass broader Human Capital
Management issues.

IT4all, a business unit of the non-profit organisation E-skills UK, is
currently working on a skills framework for non-IT professionals, following on
from a similar initiative aimed at professional IT practitioners, Skills
Framework for the Information Age (SFIA).

The new programme is designed to help employers understand which user skills
are required, assess what they have, and build their recruitment and training
plans around them. In effect, that broadens the emphasis from skills training
to embrace recruitment and succession planning.

A major challenge

The problem of IT competence is not going to go away. While the demographics
of IT literacy will change as younger, tech-savvy people join the workforce,
skills shortages represent a major challenge at the macro-economic level.

IT4all suggests that around three-quarters of the 27 million people employed
in 2001 were using IT at work. To keep that proportion at the same level by
2009, some 1.6 million additional IT users will be needed. And if productivity
levels are to increase, that proportion needs to climb – to reach a level of 95
per cent competent IT users, around 7 million new IT users will need to be
groomed.

The technology approach to technology training

There would be a pleasing symmetry if
it was IT training that finally established e-learning as the best way to
deliver learning content, but the evidence so far suggests that is unlikely to
happen.

Certainly, plenty of training courses have been successfully
delivered over an e-learning infrastructure, but experiences in this sector
tend to reflect those of the wider training environment. E-learning does have a
key role to play in delivering and managing training – but it’s just one
mechanism of many.

Janet Way, head of international operations at QA
International, argues that the way training material is delivered is usually
dictated by the nature of the organisation and the experiences of end-users.
The skill profiling that QA undertakes before starting a programme helps to
identify the way that people learn best – be that self-study, instructor-led,
or through online mentoring. A blended approach, combining different elements
and different environments, will often work best.

Colin Bell, UK sales director at Netg, reinforces that argument
by pointing to a recent research study carried out for the group among 128
learners. It compared the impact of three approaches – a blended learning
solution, pure e-learning and no training – on learners’ accuracy and time
performance in carrying out real tasks.

The results showed that the blended learning group performed
with 30 per cent more accuracy than the pure e-learning group, and was 159 per
cent more accurate than the group which had no training at all. In addition, it
performed the tasks 41 per cent faster than those in the pure e-learning group.
While e-learning alone led to improvements – resulting in 99 per cent more
accuracy than the control group – the results come down strongly in favour of
the blended approach.

HR managers considering going down the e-learning route as part
of a blended solution must weigh up a number of factors. Some companies, for
example, have run into cultural problems as they impose this new delivery
mechanism on a less-than-receptive audience. Organisations also need to be
fully aware of the true costs. Library-based solutions that appear to offer
thousands of courses for a modest fixed fee sound great when the price is
averaged out across each title and every user. But the reality is that only a
minority of courses will ever be accessed.

The most widely-aired benefit of e-learning, by contrast, are
the cost savings derived from cutting travel and other classroom-related
expenses. However, advocates also highlight the flexibility offered by
self-paced learning compared to classroom training, and the management
improvements offered by automation of administration as well.

Bell notes the fact that unlike classroom courses, e-learning
systems can be tested before customers purchase them, and if content can be
easily accessed on a modular basis, learners also have a back-up resource to
compare against after the event.

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