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A Great Big Helping

A Great Big Helping

A longtime innovator, the Australian Bureau of Statistics ups the ante with a week-long IT awareness program for its staff.

There is something about working in large, modern organisations that teaches people to think small. Some contaminant in the atmosphere tells them they cannot influence their environment. They cannot make a difference. Since nothing they do will matter overly much, they do not need to take responsibility, nor have any personal accountability for delivering change. Psychologists call it “learned helplessness”. It occurs wherever people see precious little connection between their actions and the outcomes. Learned helplessness inhibits sufferers from positively participating in change and generates a state of apathy. And there is nothing like complex IT systems for generating this kind of dysfunction.

Learned helplessness is a sign of an unhealthy organisation, and Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) CIO Jonathan Palmer says it is something that the ABS, despite having one of the most IT-literate populations in any organisation anywhere, is constantly concerned about and determined to avoid. “We worry about this. The last thing you want is an organisation where people say: ‘Well of course I can’t do that, I haven’t been sent on a training course’,” Palmer says. “Certainly we have a very IT-literate user population, but when people are working hard and focused on the things they do day-to-day, I guess it might be a bit of luxury to go off and learn things they may or may not need in the future.”

The ABS corporate plan tries to counter any tendency to learned helplessness by encouraging staff to view skills development as a duty they have to the organisation under the ABS model of mutual obligation.

In 2001 the Information Resource Management Committee (IRMC) and the ABSTech Organising Committee went further by running the first ABSTech, a week-long IT awareness program aimed at providing resources to help IT staff gain necessary IT skills and at launching major IT environment upgrades. Borrowing extensively from the many vendor conferences that fill IT executives’ calendars, ABSTech included information sessions, displays, workshops, online learning resources and “sandpits” designed to help workers familiarise themselves with new technology in a safe environment. Altogether 370-plus attendees were offered 54 presentations (40 captured on video and now available through the ABS e-learning portal) and 25 exhibitions/displays.

To reach as many people as possible, the ABS streamed many sessions, including question and answer segments, live to all capital cities. Even social sessions like debates, music and art exhibitions were extended to as many out-of-state staff as possible. And employees loved it. The first event was so well received that ABSTech 2002, with the theme “Help Yourself to IT”, extended the conference to all ABS employees. Its objectives were:

  • an improved level of awareness by all ABS staff of the set of IT skills required to work effectively in the ABS
  • ABS staff able to do their job effectively through having the right skills and information delivered at the right time in the right way
  • the ABS getting the most out of existing and new technology investments
  • the ABS programs and staff getting the most out of the evolution of the IT environment
  • greater self-reliance among ABS staff in acquiring IT skills and in solving IT problems.

Fresh Approach

No one quite remembers who first conceived the notion of ABSTech, but Palmer says the impetus was a group discussion about the difficulties the ABS faced in rolling out changes to its environment, and the fact that each environmental change required its own communication and education strategy. Individual project teams were frequently either under-resourced or ineffective in following through on that part of a project; the last thing they were typically thinking about when getting the project under way was the education and rollout that follows.

“We realised that as an organisation with offices in each state capital, if you’re rolling out something that impacts everyone then that’s another eight offices you’ve got to visit, and that’s non-trivial,” Palmer says. “And then if you’re only at an office for an afternoon, or a day, what happens to the people you didn’t interact with when you were there?”

Every participant in that group discussion had been to numerous vendor conferences, and seen how vendors typically used an annual event as a focal point for new announcements and client education. They particularly admired the ComTech Forum [now the Dimension Data Forum] for its ability to provide a mixture of fun and technology. Clearly a ComTech-like event was not in the ABS’ budget, but the model itself was attractive.

The ABS decided to try holding its own event, incorporating numbers of streams of presentations, a bit of fun and the involvement of selected vendors by way of presentations and booths. At the first event — the one held just for IT staff — the key issue was the rollout of a new enterprise architecture, but there were also “a bunch of other presentations” designed to promote awareness across the division. The ABS has about 450 IT staff Australia-wide, with about half of those based in Canberra, so the team brought many people from interstate to the nation’s capital for the week-long event and hosted it at the University of Canberra.

Feedback was enthusiastic. Buoyed with fresh confidence about its ability to deliver ABSTech to the entire organisation, the ABS last September held the second event, aimed at improving the IT skills of the entire organisation.

“The difference between the last one and this most recent one is we had to make it more virtual, because you can get 300 people in the room if we go up to the University of Canberra. Here our auditorium holds 130,” Palmer says. “So we said: ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something different.’ We decided to do live video streaming to all desktops. Once we made that decision it became quite a different exercise, actually.”

To deliver the live streaming the organising committee put together an application called the Broadcast Centre, where anyone could access the sessions from their desktop. That centre provides a permanent repository of all broadcast material, with more than 100 presentations organised under four streams. It also incorporates built-in measurements so the committee can tell how many people have watched each session.

As one of the world’s showcases for Lotus Notes, nothing could have been more natural than for the ABS to build the Broadcast Centre in Notes. Now part of the corporate communications infrastructure, the Broadcast Centre provides video capture and streaming of presentations out to all regional offices in what has become a powerful learning portal.

“It’s really low tech,” Palmer says. “What we have is a slideshow you can just browse through. You can keep that active and at the same time you can watch the video. People seem unable to schedule anything for less than an hour, but a lot of this stuff only takes 10 minutes. It’s great for new recruits.”

Streams & Sessions

ABSTech 2002 featured a program called Desktop at the ABS, designed to familiarise people with the new features that would hit their desktop when the ABS upgraded to Windows XP, along with the many other applications it is bundling in with that process. Another stream called Personal Efficiency provided tips and tricks around organising the work environment to save time and minimise stress. A third steam, called Information Resources and Management, concentrated on tools and techniques to help staff manage personal workgroup and corporate information effectively. And Next Generation Business Systems looked at emerging technology and the ways the ABS plans to take advantage of it.

Palmer says the sessions were carefully planned to help staff maximise their technology knowledge and avoid the need to use “workarounds” to cover a lack of knowledge.

“For example, there was a session called Screen Capture. We’ve rolled out a little utility called Hypersnap — which is on every desktop — where you can capture a screen,” Palmer says. “I’ve never really bothered to think through the difference between TIFs, JPEGs, BPSs or even 19 of the good features of Hypersnap — I just used the one. So you watch this session and you actually think: ‘Oh good, I now know a lot more about formats and I think I can use Hypersnap a lot better next time around.’ But without that session you’d probably just muddle through.”

Also popular were the showcases. The ABS exploited the exhibition areas in its spanking new Canberra head office to stage presentations and booths on subjects like occupational hazards, input data warehouse, Lotus Notes and multi-function devices. It even packaged the content of some of the booths so they could travel to regional offices.

And every region arranged social events around the week, including an opening and closing ceremony. In Canberra they had an extremely popular debate, during which Palmer had to argue the next Australian Statistician should not be an IT professional. He won. There was also a cocktail party, and what Palmer calls: “the most technologically supported quiz night I have ever seen”.

Attendance figures for each day were impressive. According to Palmer, the most popular sessions were:

  • The opening ceremony
  • The great debate
  • Personal efficiency (a headline session)
  • The BSIP panel (Q&A session)
  • The changing face of producing statistics (a headline session)
  • Technology Directions (Q&A session)

It quickly became clear desktop viewing was much more popular than going to a room — something the ABS may attempt to address next time around.

“We put in a fair amount of effort upfront to making people aware well in advance of when the event was being held, and encouraged people to put a time in their diaries, so we did a certain amount of helping people plan ahead,” Palmer says. “But one thing that surprised us a bit was we’d expected a lot of people to want to watch in the auditoriums and what we call broadcast lounges — the meeting rooms that we’d set up. But a lot of people, having had a quick look at what they got on their desktop, decided that they’d rather just stay at their desk and do it where they worked.

“I’m not sure how effective it is to do it while you work. I’m certainly someone that will delude myself into thinking I’ll listen to something while I work and then a quarter of an hour later realised I’ve heard nothing.”

So next time, Palmer says there will be a rethink. Last year the committee tried to create an aura of excitement around the week to encourage people to seize the opportunity to learn. Presentations were scheduled like TV programs, so if you wanted to learn about your new desktop you might have had the choice of a session at 9.00am on Wednesday or 3.00pm on Thursday. Next time around the committee may choose to move away from this fixed schedule paradigm, and choose to instead say: “As of Monday there are 100 new sessions you can attend; attend them whenever you like,” and hold an awareness campaign to ensure people find them and use them.

“We heard back from a few people that given that the technology lets you do what you like, when you like, why try and fit it into a different model? And I’ve got some sympathy with that,” Palmer says. “And some of these things we are launching have yet to happen for some of our staff, but the material is there when they do need it.”

Palmer says putting on ABSTech was so time- and labour-intensive that crediting everyone involved at the end of the exercise meant drawing up a list that looked a lot like the list of credits for a major motion picture.

But he says ABSTech was so worthwhile it is not only set to become an annual event, but will even affect the timing of some future rollouts. “Previously we might have said: ‘We think we’ll roll out Notes 6.0 say in June next year’, but if it requires significant education, we’ll actually roll it out when we do ABSTech 2003.”

The ABS is now thinking of holding a parallel event focused on statistics: the ABS’ core business. Palmer says that reflects the fact that one motivation for hosting ABSTech 2002 was to give the organisation confidence in a new model for educating and communicating.

Certainly Palmer isn’t limiting his horizons. “Looking out even further, I think it is something we could do for other departments to develop their statistical skills,” he says.

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More about ABS AustraliaAustralian Bureau of StatisticsComTechDimension DataInformation ResourcesOnline LearningUniversity of CanberraUniversity of Canberra

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