Skills? can't afford 'em Guvnor

It’s one of the greatest conundrums of all time – why are skills so critical to public sector workers when information technology is so easy to use? There are a series of logical steps here. Public services need to be more citizen centric. This can be achieved through technology and with efficiency gains. The IT is key to achieving the gains and it is (or should be) easy to use; so why does everyone bang on about IT skills all the time?

Easy or difficult?
The answer is simple – whilst technology is easy to use it’s actually hard to use well! Much of it is learnt by copying others and that way bad habits can be acquired very easily which, whilst since they work it’s OK, nevertheless errors can occur remarkably easily.
Take a simple example: the major auditing firms report that over 90 per cent of the spreadsheets they review during their audits contain errors. Just imagine how many irrational decisions that has lead to!
So there is an undeniable case for developing strong IT skills among your workforce, but the real issue is which skills are the most critical?

User skills in IT
The conventional starting place is Microsoft Office skills and the ECDL – and whilst they’re important, they’re just the start. Consider for a moment the issue of Office 2007. This release has a totally updated interface and a wealth of functionality that had already been included in Office 2003 – it’s just that people couldn’t find them.
Microsoft’s analysis of user requests for new functionality showed that over 80 per cent of the requested functionality was already included. The inference is obvious; the interface, which had grown in functionality but not in design since the first release of WORD et al, needed to be changed to make the functionality more accessible.
Now that raises two issues; firstly, if the functionality was there why didn’t people find it – that’s an issue of lack of training. Secondly, do people really need to use that functionality? There’s also another point; if you change the interface, the people that will find that least helpful are the power users – the very people who you need onside as role models.
Let’s go back to point one – the logical extension of my argument that there’s a training issue relating to Office 2003 means that if you train people you will be able to delay the upgrade to Office 2007 indefinitely.
Now let’s address that “do they need it?” argument; after all, there’s an argument that if people don’t know that the functionality’s there they may not need it anyway. Much of the benefit of the upgrade to Office 2007 is that your staff will be able to produce much more professional looking outputs. So what?

What’s the impact?
If someone’s drafting an internal communication does the fact that it looks much more pretty really have an impact? There’s an argument that it’s important for citizen-facing staff – but even that argument won’t contribute anything to achieving efficiency targets.
But the issue of the impact on power users is a real threat; this has never happened before since the concept of knowledge workers relying on IT first occurred. New releases have always been incremental so the skills required were simply how and when to use the new features. But picture a power user who needs to create a spreadsheet fast, they’ll open up Excel and as soon as they realise everything’s changed they’ll go back to the old release. Now, just think what impact that has on their co-workers!  

The big impact on user skills is completely outside the Office/ ECDL area – it’s collaboration, and that affects culture and values as well as skills.
The big change in the way people will work in the future is that cross-function collaboration will become the norm. The pressure on the public sector to be more citizen focused means that the current “stove pipes” will need to be supplemented by cross function networking.
Collaboration is the ability for people throughout the organisation to work together. That leads to information sharing, and the dinosaurs that argue “knowledge is king” are in for some very difficult appraisals.
Team working and collaboration also impact the “blame culture” that has become so prevalent in many hierarchical organisations. In a “stove pipe” oriented organisation the different functions will “finger point” at each other and will come to a conclusion on which function was to blame so that accountability issues can be addressed.
In a collaborative organisation, however, the conventional hierarchies have been reduced or disappeared. So who do you blame then? Actually, the answer is you blame the blame culture. A collaborative organisation means that the team is responsible and, given that they will do the best they can as a team, if there’s a problem the answer is learn from it and don’t do it again.

IT professionals
So far, we’ve been focusing on the skills of IT end users. The other group we have to consider are the IT Professionals.
What differentiates an IT Professional from an IT end user? Simple – the core value that IT Professionals offer to the organisation is their IT skills, whereas the core value that end users offer is in some other discipline – but they need IT to make them more productive in that discipline.

IT skills gap
We’re always being told there’s an IT skills gap – and there is! But it’s a skills gap and not a people gap so throwing additional people at the gap is totally ineffective. The gap can be closed by giving people the skills that are in short supply. These are typically related to security, resilience, and application development.
The way in which applications are developed today is fundamentally different from anything we have seen in the past; it’s known as “software as a service” and anyone that is used to programming styles of more than two years ago is a real dinosaur.
There are two major trends in IT procurement and supply; the first is the growth in packages over applications that are built for a specific client, and the second is outsourcing. Both of these trends have a real impact on the skills that our IT Professionals need today – and if they’re not taken into account the return on skills development will be minimal.

IT Professionalism
There’s another major trend - the Cabinet Office’s drive for IT Professionalism. Sounds important, but what does it really mean? There are three critical aspects to IT Professionalism.
The first, obviously enough, is the need for technical skills. There are a number of frameworks, but the main one has to be Skills for the Information Age (SFIA). This is a robust framework at a high level, but there is a lot of detail to fill in based on your specific environment and strategies.
The second is that technical skills on their own aren’t enough; there’s a real need for your IT Professionals to have strong personal and public sector skills as well. The frameworks for these skills are less developed and will take some time to identify, but that doesn’t mean they are less important.
Third and final; culture and ethics. This is a far more difficult area to codify and, whilst many people would argue that it’s innate and doesn’t need any further development, the experience of other professions would show that such a cavalier attitude just won’t do.
The IT Professionalism web site ( has a wealth of supporting material and initiatives that will assist you in driving the professionalism agenda – I recommend it unreservedly.

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