On the state of computer & internet skills in business today

Have you read the 2006 State of the Industry report from NAPL? In the chapter on client relationships, they report on some responses the survey participants gave on how contact with clients is changing. The first was that client contact was becoming:

â??More electronic, less face-to-face, less personal.â??

Sounds true enough, and probably true for every industry. But the response right after it is what made me chuckle:

â??Need to see clients more often to counter effects of electronic communication.â??

More often than what? More often than when communication was less electronic, more face to face and more personal? â??â?¦counter effectsâ?¦?â?? Is electronic communication poisonous?

I think this response is indicative of a very real problem in business today â?? the technology gap. There are still a lot of folks out there who see the Internet and associated technologies as alien and evil. Theyâ??re fighting them.

In the past no one was expected to understand computers or the Internet. Neither existed, or at best only experts were involved. In the past 20 years both have gone mainstream, and I think everyone would agree that 20 years from now everyone will be as well-versed in using both as using a telephone or driving car. Itâ??s neither the past nor the future thatâ??s the problem. Itâ??s the present, and the shift from a workforce thatâ??s not techno-savvy to one that is of concern.

As each companyâ??s workforce ages the non-savvy folks will retire and be replaced by folks who are savvier. Yes, I know there are plenty of older folks who are very savvy â?? my 75 year-old father is one of them â?? but as a generality older folks tend to be less adept with technology. The problem is that in any given industry, some companies will make this transition faster than others. We all invest in technology because of the tremendous competitive advantage it provides, and the technological literacy of the workforce is probably the strongest aspect of this phenomenon.

Put another way, companies with technologically literate workforces will have a competitive advantage over those who donâ??t.

We all know that. But what I donâ??t think most people are considering is that technological literacy as a competitive advantage is itself changing. It used to be that literacy meant that Bob or Jane could perform the work related tasks they needed to without having to bother IT. That is, the work that the company had established as standard operating procedure. Anything beyond that, like creating a new report or template or database was ITâ??s job. However, as we all know, being successful means improving at an ever increasing rate and that means moving the source of innovation and improvement closer and closer to people who will benefit. That means people have to invent for themselves. We may expect our IT departments to being doing this innovation, but increasingly they are tasked with reducing costs and keeping users under control â?? which kills innovation at both ends.

It also means being at home with email, instant messaging, and other forms of modern communication. Millions of teenagers form personal (in some cases very personal) relationships using little more than text messaging on cell phones, so itâ??s not impossible.

Being functionally competent with computers is a whole different story than being comfortable enough to innovate new ways of using them. Yet most training programs are aimed at getting users to follow specific procedures to do specific tasks â?? add a network printer, or create a spreadsheet for example. They arenâ??t focused on general knowledge to enable users to find and create their own solutions or absorb the exploding array of new stuff on the web.

Computer literacy is also usually seen as a lower-level skill. How many upper management people do you know who pride themselves on being able to query a database or write their own macros?

In order to solve these problems companies need to do several things. They need to move more responsibility to the employee for IT tasks, to drive increased competence at that level. They need to change their culture to include technological innovation in oneâ??s work among the things to be rewarded. They need to work as hard to educate people on technology as they do on more business oriented subjects.

All other things being equal, those companies who close the technology gap faster are going to have greater success than those who donâ??t. What will your company do?

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