Organizations' IT Competence: The LIMITING factor?

Position paper for panel discussion
IFIP WG 8.1 Working Conference on Information Systems Development for Decentralized Organizations
Trondheim, Norway, 21-23 August 1995.
Espen Andersen
CSC Index Foundation

I really hate this damned machine
I wish that they would sell it
It never does quite what I want
but only what I tell it

As this little gruk shows, human tend to have problems specifying what computers should do for them--clearly a competence problem. In fact, as seen from the IS organization's point of view, it is easy to agree that organizational lack of IS and IT competence is a problem--if not the problem-- in properly exploiting the technology. I will, however, suggest that we take a look at what this competence should consist of before we start thinking about whether and how we should take steps to increase it. If we don't do that, we run the risk of sounding like help desk personnel late in the shift, constantly bemoaning users' inability to understand even the simplest of computer minutiae.

With CSC Index Foundation, I have done some research on reskilling, in the context of the rather pressing problem of what to do with the many mainframe-centric people now found around IS departments. We have found that in order to address the problem of reskilling the IS department to a world of distributed computing and rapidly changing technology, we need not only to pay more attention to reskilling--making it a core activity of the IS department, both for itself and the rest of the organization--but also to redefine what we mean by "skills". We have found that it is useful to divide skills into three types: Applied skills, such as knowledge of and proficiency in C++, Novell Netware or SCSI standards; Behavioral skills, such as the ability to behave in a manner consistent with the role the person is set to play (being able to listen and communicate, for instance); and lastly cognitive skills, the ability to think creatively and come up with new ways of regarding and using the elements that make up a technological platform.

To make a long story short, the way we see it, IS departments (which are as representative as any organization in this regard) tend to wish for people who have behavioral and cognitive skills, but only ask for the applied. Read any position announcement, particularly for skills that are in demand, and you will see that the focus is on hiring people with proven experience in specific technologies--that is, the right number of acronyms on their course list--rather than proven abilities in the behavioral and cognitive area, which will allow them to quickly and more innovatively acquire the applied skill necessary. When IS managers are asked what kind of skills they are looking for, they always mention the applied skills: Client-server, object orientation, relational databases, TCP/IP, and whatever the next buzzword may be. They fail to create reskilling plans and procedures that make people learn how to learn. While it is hard to teach behavioral and cognitive skills, it is not impossible, and the teaching tends to be more involved, demand more resources, be constant, and involve simulation rather than description. We know of organizations that have had courses where systems programmers face simulated environments of hostile users, changing technologies, cost overruns, difficult project teams and other inevitable elements of organizational life that somehow never makes it into the books. Case-based teaching is another way of doing this, as is coaching and conscious career planning.

But--what has all this got to do with the competence of the IT user?

This is a somewhat long-winded way of pointing out that we should be careful not to repeat the mistake done with the technology specialists now when we are about to demand system construction and use skills from other organizational members. In my opinion, the most fundamental applied skill in being able to really utilize a computer is touch typing; everything else is more a question of how well a person knows his or her job than the level of computer proficiency. No amount of spreadsheet training will make you good at budgeting and analysis, word processing courses will not help your language or reporting skills much, and all the e-mail and Internet training in the world will not have much effect on your communicative and information seeking ability, apart from perhaps triggering what was already there. More importantly, our ability to utilize the technology to change the world is not increased by acquiring applied skills in it--that will only happen as it becomes pervasive, and ceases to be an explicit part of the organizational landscape. When technology becomes infrastructure, it becomes assumed. When it is assumed, it can be used to fundamentally change things.

The most used example of technology and change is Nathan Rosenberg's story of how it took 40 years from the adoption of electric engines in factories to one learned that it was no longer necessary to sequence the machines in the order imposed by steam-driven belts and pulleys. Innovation tends to come when different disciplines meet and recognize the significance of each others' contribution. Dan Bricklin, one of the creators of Visicalc, the first PC-based spreadsheet, told the story of how he had shown computer jocks their creation, and they had reacted with a "Yup, computers can do that, so what?" When he showed it to an accounting and budgeting person, this person would start shaking all over, say "I spent all last week doing that", and pull out his credit card without even asking the price.

Therefore, while I recognize that technology skills are necessary to use a computer, I don't think we will really get much out of them until they are everywhere, and not being able to use one places a person in the same category as people who don't drive: Respected on the surface, but secretly seen as somewhat weird. Applied skills training should be available, but I don't think we IS guys are very good at doing it, on a broad basis. Where we can play a role, instead, is in making the technology as widespread and easy to use as possible, and in acting as technology transfer agents within the organization, through recognizing and making available smart programs and uses of IT outside the functional area they originated in. Most importantly, we must facilitate experimentation by the users, through making the infrastructure--the technology that is available and assumed--thick enough that there is room to play, also for the power user. Much of the success of the Internet is in my opinion due to the lack of penalty for heavy use: Users can spend hours surfing and experimenting cheaply. In this regard, a government interested in promoting the utilization of information technology would probably do better by making the technology ubiquitous and cheap--for instance by scrapping the antiquated notion of the metered telephone call--than by trying to explicitly teach its subjects how to use a computer that in a world where the technology changes quickly and constantly. Singapore, a country which has recognized that its only competitive advantage lies in its superior communications and administrative infrastructure, is now making Internet available to all homes through fiber-optic cables. In a world where computers soon will be stamped "best used before", we will to well in making our users able to cope with change on a continuing basis.


 CSC Index Foundation: Reskilling IS, Final Report 103, November 1995

 David, P. A. (1989). Computer and Dynamo: The Modern Productivity Paradox in a Not-Too-Distant Mirror Discussion Paper. Stanford, California: Center for Economic Policy Research, Stanford University.

 Licklider, T. R. (1990) 10 Years of Rows and Columns, BYTE, 14(13), pp. 384-390

 Rosenberg, N. (1982). Inside the Black Box: Technology and Economics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Copyright © 1995 Espen Andersen.
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