Computer skills: HR’s role in creating the Web 2.0 workplace

The definition of ‘computer skills’ is changing, but are employers and HR keeping up with the times? David Binning takes a look.

The term ‘computer skills’ used to imply an ability to switch on a machine and navigate through a few Microsoft Office applications beyond basic Word. But with today’s emphasis on internet communications, multimedia presentation and mobile technology, the average worker boasts a much broader skillset.

The challenge for employers is properly identifying and managing these skills and technologies to their advantage, although with the rapid development and evolution of new products and applications, there is uncertainty about exactly how to achieve this.

“Many staff have acquired these skills in their own time, but lack proper instruction,” says Lars Hyland, director of learning services with e-learning specialists Brightwave.

Inconsistency

Simon Haines, workplace specialist at accounting and consulting firm Deloitte, says there has been very little consistency to date in many organisations’ approach to this challenge.

“There’s certainly not been a uniform response to up-skilling people [for technology] and what they need to be able to do,” he says, adding that while some companies have managed to exploit it “brilliantly”, others have done very little or even actively rejected it.

For instance, while there is a growing acceptance of the value of Web 2.0 and using social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook as legitimate professional tools, many companies continue to restrict or even ban their use.

Kirrily Nicholls, manager, human capital business at Deloitte, points out that the web has evolved into a vital tool for direct human communication, and believes companies should be thinking about how they can harness this potential. “Technology is aligning itself more with how people want to work and interact,” she says.

Social networking sites have spawned the powerful new concept of viral marketing, whereby digital communities are used to disseminate information in targeted ways, and analysts predict that within a few years it will be an indispensable marketing tool.

Further, the shift towards broadband internet has seen a sharp rise in the number of telecommuters over the past few years, with several studies reporting that employees actually put in more hours a week working from home, while companies save on real estate and other costs.

Content

While employers are naturally wary of how much non-work related time is spent online in the office, increasing staff exposure to the internet can have its benefits. For example, a recent study by the University of Melbourne found that staff who use the net at work for pleasure are often more productive.

“People who surf the internet for fun at work – within a reasonable limit of less than 20% of their total time in the office – are more productive by about 9% than those who don’t,” says Dr Brent Coker, author of the report.

“Firms spend millions on software to block their employees from watching videos on YouTube, using social networking sites suh as Facebook or shopping online under the pretence that it costs millions in lost productivity, but that’s not always the case.”

With so much importance now placed on the functionality and quality of websites, companies with more staff able to understand things such as HTTP (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol) and FTP (File Transfer Protocol) are probably better placed than others to keep on top of it all.

Of course ‘content’ these days means more than text and images. More and more organisations are employing tools such as audio streaming and video to communicate with customers and partners as well as with their own staff.

BT recently introduced an innovative new online training and staff communications program called Dare to Share, which allows employees to download content and rate it, as well as add comments. People are free to add their own content, such as blogs or video, which are made available via a kind of peer-to-peer network which allows people to share what they want, when they want. BT executives hope that by harnessing technology in this way they will expedite the sharing and development of ideas, while connecting like-minded people.

Brightwave’s Hyland says that there is a greater general emphasis on multi-media presentation in the workforce, but that there is to date very little in the way of formal training to guide its use. “Take Power Point,” he explains. “It’s highly prevalent but the vast majority of material is arguably pretty poor.”

Employee awareness

Brightwave offers a number of courses aimed at improving employee’s awareness of design and aesthetics relating to anything from over-head projections to digital media encompassing audio and video. “There are strong design skills that need to be acquired,” adds Hyland.

Conceptualising and building websites is another growing area of interest, and one which more companies increasingly require for staff at various levels in the organisation. Organisations have also become increasingly reliant on the internet for staff training, with new inductees typically directed online to bone up on company policy and procedures.

With so many new modes of communication come new codes of behaviour. “Because technology is so central to the way we communicate now, with core skills being mediated through a screen, people naturally need to know, for instance: ‘how do I videoconference?’,” says Hyland. “There’s an etiquette to these skills.”

Perhaps even more importantly for many organisations, especially their IT managers, is the need to educate staff and guide behaviour with regard to security. Recent incidents where cyber criminals have managed to dupe staff into surrendering sensitive information via e-mail highlight the importance of staff recognising suspicious behaviour.

Haines says that with so much new enabling technology and wider access to information, organisations need to think more carefully about defining base skillsets around things such as determining whether information has come from a good source. “Companies need to ask: ‘What are the implications and benefits of the new technologies: how can people connect with each other and with better data, while managing risk?'”

For example, the increased reliance on ‘cloud computing’ – services which provide shared resources for applications, storage and processing – raises important issues around security and compliance, as well as organisational reputation in the event of data being breached.

Portable storage media is another risk for organisations, often leading to viruses and other nasties being introduced to the corporate network. Many companies have sought to ban the use of devices such as USB memory sticks, but there remains limited awareness of what the actual risks are.

Powerful potential

Mobile communications clearly has powerful potential applications for business, yet many companies are still grappling with how to manage its use. The increased use of portable computers, as well as the emergence of sophisticated devices such as smart phones capable of connecting with corporate systems and storing large amounts of data, have presented new challenges for employers to ensure that sensitive information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Staff need to be educated about proper password authentication as well as technologies that enable devices that have been lost to have their data wiped remotely. Nevertheless, recent developments in mobile communications promise to greatly increase staff efficiency as well as satisfaction.

Unified communications is one such area, allowing employees to be contactable via a variety of means, such as text and instant messaging, internet telephony, mobile and fixed phone and fax, from the one contact number.

A complementary development is ‘fixed to mobile communications’ (FMC), which aims to harness the capabilities of things such as dual mode handsets and wi-fi networks to improve mobile communications while at the same time reducing costs.

Competition in the mobile space is spawning ever-smarter solutions, including multiple communications sessions, location-based services incorporating street maps and GPS, as well as new and better ways to access real-time news and other information.

Clearly organisations face some interesting times in terms of managing and harnessing the myriad new technologies and applications now available. But without proper acknowledgement and discussion of the issues, confusion will continue to reign.

“I’m yet to see a dominant view at corporate level about what all of this technology actually means to people,” says Haines. “Many companies could profit from developing their thinking further.”

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