Ask CIOs to list their top 10 challenges and many will put increasing the IS department's business acumen on their lists. After all, if IS understands the business and its challenges, then IS is more apt to promote technology solutions more pertinent to end-user needs. However, the IMA organisation in its 1998 report "Making Your IS Investment Pay" looked at this from the other side. CEOs were asked what their organisation should do to better harness IS resources. Interestingly, CEOs thought one of their major challenges was not educating IS about the business but rather better educating the business about IS systems. In fact they rated this twice as important as giving IS staff better business training.
But how does one go about educating business about IS, especially in these fast-moving times? Technology is so dynamic that today's silver bullet quickly becomes tomorrow's spent cartridge. You could invest significant resources in training but find that staff churn requires you to continually repeat classes. Moreover, in our downsized world employees are reluctant to take time for training because of the backlog that will pile up in their absence.
One InTEP member spent a considerable amount of time and effort addressing this dilemma. With the catalyst of a new core business systems rollout in 1994, he deployed a learning centre approach. A dedicated facility allows staff to undertake self-paced training at their convenience. The results are impressive. Staff feedback is positive. Business disruptions are minimal and performance has improved. I felt I was on to something of a winner in scheduling this topic as the last InTEP session for 1999. I was wrong.
The session's turnout out was low and, of those who did come, most were from HR rather than IS. Over half the audience was female (perhaps indicative of the male ability to escape "household" chores). When I later questioned InTEP members about the low response, a typical reaction was that training is not an IS matter. CIOs saw it either as the province of HR, since they controlled the training budget, or else they had outsourced the task. In fact, at the last count over 42 per cent of local CIOs had contracted out the IS training task.
I wonder whether CIOs should be so nonchalant about training. Clearly, users need more technology training and the traditional classroom style is not always satisfactory. What are the alternatives?
Many CIOs are investigating the Internet and multimedia as avenues for training. However, both these approaches can overlook an important ingredient: education should be interactive. People need to bounce ideas and concerns off others to grasp the issues. While CDs, tapes and the Net allow the student to repeat areas they do not fully understand, people also need to compare their progress with others.
Learning centres are a viable solution. They combine both technology and an environment where staff can study together without disruption. As one of Australia's leading insurance companies discovered over the past five years, staff satisfaction with this delivery method is high. At the same time business performance has increased. Perhaps more CIOs need to investigate this option Ñ and not fob it off to HR - if they are going to satisfy the CEO's need to improve business's understanding of the investment made in IS.
Peter Hind is the manager of User Programs, which includes InTEP, at IDC Australia