Training 3: Tapping into the potential of PCs needn't be a daunting task once armed with a manual and motivation.
In these hi-tech, information-heavy times, even the plushest executive office looks bare without a personal computer. But the ubiquitousness of these busily flickering screens is not proof that the computer revolution is at last having a tangible effect on business. Many an executive has been led to the keyboard, but few understand the potential of PCs.
When Dan Murphy set up as a business consultant in the mid-1980s, he acquired an Amstrad PC, using it for everything from tax and accounts to producing high-quality reports for clients. The experience has proved invaluable in his current role as president and chief executive of Kvaerner H and G Offshore Engineering. Murphy uses his portable and desktop PC for a range of 'thinking and analysing' activities, from manipulating financial information and preparing minutes for meetings, to dealing with electronic mail. Murphy exemplifies that rare managerial breed: someone who understands, and has begun to tap into, the massive potential which PCs can provide. Many managers still see their PCs as glorified typewriters. The computer revolution in business has hardly begun, says Murphy. 'We have been playing with computers for 20 years. But, like the move from steam to electricity, it takes that long to achieve a major improvement.' The next five years, he thinks, will see a massive surge in PC productivity.
No one doubts the benefits of computer literacy. 'By the end of the decade, almost 100% of information communication in progressive and competitive businesses will be by computer,' Murphy claims. How, then, can managers learn about the potential of PCs? What do they need to know and what are the most effective training methods?
Realistic trainers who teach PC skills view computer training as a two-tier exercise. Managers must first master the simple keyboard skills. Self-motivation and a manual are all that are needed to achieve this. For top managers, says John French, managing consultant at Peritas, ICL's training subsidiary, there is no point in concentrating on basic computer skills. 'Trying to teach senior managers to use keyboards is a complete waste of time and totally the wrong approach.' Keyboard skills, after all, are only the means to an end. As one observer puts it: 'Paying someone £100,000 a year to type memos on screen is a waste of a resource.' On the other hand, having mastered the PC manual, the manager can then use his computer to run the company better. PC training, then, must concentrate not on the mechanics of the keyboard but on showing the executive how IT can improve an organisation's effectiveness, responsiveness, quality control and communications. The second tier of training must show managers how they can unleash the potential of their PCs for real business gain.
French believes that there is no need for senior staff to attend regular IT courses. The best way for them to keep up is by reading business and management journals. 'That is how they find out about other business issues, such as the latest human resources (HR) practices, or new financial developments. Not through tacky courses that offer updates on the latest technology.'
Another option for those whose time is short, or who prefer to study at home in an armchair, gin and tonic at hand, is video. A range of educational videos are now available covering everything from the problems of projects that run over time and over budget and IT as an agent of change, to case studies of outsourcing and business process reengineering. Viewers can press fast forward if anything looks boring or zip back a few frames for another look at more interesting parts.
According to a recent survey by BBC Select, which broadcasts training programmes, managers are extremely receptive to this form of education. The survey of 1,575 managers found that 69% thought video likely to catch their attention. They also praised its flexibility and ability to demonstrate how things work. Videos were felt to deliver information faster than other training methods, and to give a more vivid impression of the subject material. Tim Johnson, managing director of Computer Look, which produces the computer programmes for BBC Select, says: 'With video, so long as you don't insult peoples' intelligence you can get a whole half hour of their time, which is difficult to get in any other way.'
The disadvantage is that the content may not be geared specifically to an individual's needs, so there is a certain amount of wastage. However, the same goes for most forms of training - the brain can seldom absorb the full contents of a course first time round.
Increasing numbers of managers are taking the initiative and developing their own computing skills with the result that most people applying for management positions have some form of computer expertise, says Ivor Yeshin, HR manager at Mercury One-2-One, the mobile phone operator. Like many companies, Mercury One-2-One relies heavily on its IT staff to tell managers what they need to know. But there is also a large amount of individual responsibility. 'The advantage of this approach is that people become committed,' says Yeshin. 'If people are ordered to go on training courses you get resistance, but if you advertise that a training session is available on the latest software for their PCs, they are much more likely to show interest.'
A similar approach is taken at the engineering group, Perker Hannifin. Leszek Marcinowicz, the company's European vice president for HR, says: 'We invest heavily in IT training from shop floor to board level, but people are held accountable for their own development, finding things out and keeping up to date.' A policy of software standardisation has simplified the group's training requirements. 'But there is no such thing as a standard package. In practice, they all have to be modified for each department. Training is a never-ending process.'
Staff at BP Chemicals, are encouraged to map out their own careers and determine their IT training needs. Seven years ago, computers on desks at BP Chemicals were very rare. And those who had them were often reluctant to switch them on. But following a drive to get computers adopted as a competitive tool in the late 1980s, they have become widespread, and users are teaching themselves. Increasingly user-friendly computer software, such as Microsoft Windows and Apple's Macintosh, has helped, says David Gill, the company's manager for HR strategy. 'Staff can now learn quickly in their own time.'
The learn-as-you-go approach is particularly appropriate to senior managers because it enables them to pick up precisely what they need when they need it, rather than acquiring lots of unnecessary knowledge which they then forget. It also avoids the frustration of acquiring knowledge which rapidly becomes obsolete.
Just-in-time training will become much more common in the next few years says Jim Wilson, principal training consultant for Siemens Nixdorf, UK. 'Few people get around to loading training programs on their PCs. But in future, built-in training facilities will be available whenever needed by senior manager or junior clerk, and will adapt to the individual needs.' As computer power increases, these training programs will be able to exploit high-quality graphics, audio and video film to make learning an easier and more enjoyable multimedia experience.
Another driving force behind training is the increasing choice and complexity of computer products. It is no longer just a case of deciding to buy a word processing package, says Ian Lucas, training manager for London-based IT training consultancy Independent Computer Solutions. 'You have to choose between several advanced products and decide which best meets your needs.'
Nor is it enough for managers to understand how to read computer information such as spreadsheets. They have to know how it has been created, reckons Lucas. 'Today a managing director or financial director will ask staff for their floppy disks, and will go through spreadsheets examining the formulae to see how the figures were arrived at.' Lucas regularly trains board members to be more aware of what they need to know. He finds that senior staff, like many converts, often become powerful advocates of new technology. 'One MD was in his fifties, and terrified of computers. Once trained, he was like a child discovering chocolate.'
Murphy's excitement is almost as tangible. He is so enthused by the potential of electronic mail that he recently revised his target for the company to cut its paper mountain in half - now the goal is to cut it by 90%. No senior executive can afford to ignore the potential of computers, he says. 'The companies that survive in the 1990s and go forward strongly into the next millennium are those that have mastered the use of IT to improve the communications between all their people.'
Think not, it seems, of what your PC can do for you, think what it can do for your company as a whole.