When budgets are tight and the going gets tough, training is often the first thing to go. But undertrained staff are a liability for any company, and an investment in targeted training can bring huge productivity improvements.
Training is a bit like a pension: everyone knows it’s good for you, but it can be hard to find the necessary time, money or enthusiasm to do anything about it. Whether you are an employee facing multiple deadlines or an employer stretching ever-shrinking budgets, it is not unusual for training request forms to sink to the bottom of the things-to-do pile.

But the question of IT training reared its awkward head late last year, when a survey by a DETR-backed research team found that a “lack of skills and training” was the single largest factor putting a brake on IT use in the industry.

A picture emerged of frontline staff using software to a fraction of its potential, while the boardroom decision-makers tried to steer into the IT age without a map.

So where exactly is the industry falling down on IT training, and what can it do to increase the IT IQ of its organisations? As always, the first stage in solving a problem is acknowledging that it exists. The good news is that most industry IT managers are aware that they have a lot of ground to make up. “There’s a general assumption that by delivering technology to the desktop, everyone will be able to use it,” says Steve Connor, IT director at contractor Carillion. “But here, we’ve accepted that people have to take their driving test before they get the car.”

Similarly, at Jarvis, IT director Mike Manisty concedes: “Training is the Achilles’ heel of implementation. If someone wants a PC, it gets delivered. But making sure some training goes with it is a huge logistical challenge.”

If training delivery is successful, there can be huge productivity improvements. For instance, everyone at Jarvis can self-teach themselves on Microsoft’s straightforward Outlook e-mail program. Yet Manisty knows that not everyone uses its shared diaries or out-of-office automatic replies – where the real benefits of e-mail lie.

Keith Aldis, director of training at the Construction Confederation, believes the main problem lies with smaller contractors where the lack of construction-specific, commercially-run courses is a serious handicap. The confederation is working on a new guide to give employers advice about the affordable resources available to improve IT training and awareness, which will be ready in April.

IT directors such as Connor and Manisty are starting to appreciate that exhortations to staff and directors to put more resources into training are not enough in themselves. They argue that those who want more training have to make a watertight case for it, those who deliver it have to devise cost-effective ways of doing so, and that more incentives are needed to link IT skills to an individual’s promotion prospects.

According to Bob Nicholl, director of IT and human resources at contractor Christiani & Nielsen, a rigorous cost-benefit analysis should be the first step in a company’s training policy: “Unless you can demonstrate a return on investment, you’re not likely to be understood in the boardroom.” Here, the calculations need to include the cost of not doing training – such as software underused, and colleagues’ time wasted.

PC-based, on-line or intranet training is seen as the way forward by many industry employers. Typically, a self-assessment questionnaire would help each member of staff to establish what their weak points are. The program then suggests remedies, such as downloading a training module from the Internet, or buying a training manual or CD-ROM from an Internet bookshop, or it may advise staff to get in touch with the firm’s training department to book a traditional classroom course.

Christiani & Nielsen’s Nicholl, who is developing an in-house intranet system, points out that this form of training could be ideal for the mobile construction industry, where staff are often out of sight of head office, and gives them the flexibility to learn at their own pace. “You’ve got to look at the return on investment and savings you can achieve compared with getting people into a classroom,” he says.

At Carillion, where staff previously had to take the initiative to request training, a new system is being introduced that intertwines an analysis of what IT training is needed with annual staff appraisals. In the future, its junior QSs and engineers nearing chartered status will also have to pass in-house IT proficiency tests before their external qualifications are recognised. “We want to raise IT awareness by an order of magnitude,” says Connor.

A new initiative at Christiani & Nielsen involves appointing 15 IT champions, to whom other members of staff can turn for help or initial training requests. Meanwhile, a new IT steering group means training is now led by users rather than the IT department.

Where contractors are concerned, several IT managers, including Carillion’s Connor, raised the problem of Construction Industry Training Board grants not being available for IT-related training. The organisation’s senior training manager, Bill Temple, confirmed that the CITB’s policy of only funding construction skills was set to continue.

But the CITB is not ignoring the importance of IT, and is supporting a Construction Confederation-led and DETR-funded national seminar programme starting in April, which hopes to take IT novices and staff with more experience on to the next level, whether that is tendering by e-mail, or sophisticated document management.

As with pensions, hearing the same training message over and over may not be enough. But in at least some quarters of the industry, it looks as though there is some recognition that creative initiatives and high-tech training solutions can achieve what good intentions cannot.

Useful websites

www.bcs.org.uk For information on the Europe-wide IT “driving licence”, as used by Jarvis

www.click2learn.com Website of US-based training organisation

www.smartforce.com Personalised “e-learning” website

Undertrained staff are a liability …

Ipswich-based contractor Featherstone has always taken IT investment seriously and viewed training investment as an essential part of its overall spend. That’s not to say that finding the money for training courses has always been easy – as director Jamie Featherstone admits. “The cost of training is a burden for a small company. If your budget is tight, it’s often the first thing to get cut.” The £2.5m turnover contractor has a staff of 45, of whom 13 are office-based and have networked PCs. Featherstone runs Microsoft Office, a DOS-based accounts and contract management package called Foundation 2000, and a project and contract management package called Powerproject, purchased six months ago. A group training day for half-a-dozen staff on how to use the new software will not take place until later this month, because of a particularly busy period last summer and autumn. The result, as Featherstone admits, is that the software has only been “dabbled with” and used at perhaps 10% of its potential. He dismisses the idea that staff will eventually teach themselves how to use new software: “It’s OK if you work with it every day and have plenty of time to experiment. But if you’re not using it all the time, you need upfront knowledge.” The training day, hosted by the software supplier, will cost £800 for tuition and £200 for the hire of a room. But Featherstone will only have to foot half the bill for the tuition costs, since it is eligible for a Training and Enterprise Council grant from the Department of Trade and Industry’s Investors in People programme. “We’re able to get matched funding for training related to the business. It helps make it more affordable,” says Featherstone. The TEC grants could also be said to compensate for the fact that no CITB grants are available for IT training – but he warns against taking on the heavy responsibilities of Investors in People purely as a means to secure grants. The company’s new trainee estimator/ surveyor also has a training day booked for Featherstone’s estimating package, at a cost of £300, plus travel to Oxford and an overnight stay. Two office administration staff are also having training on Excel and Word. For all these courses, the company has to calculate not just the amount on the invoice but the knock-on effect of staff not doing their normal jobs. But Jamie Featherstone argues that undertrained staff are a liability for the firm, not least in terms of the demands they make on colleagues’ time. “I could build a case to put a large price tag on that. But if you spend £150 upfront, you release everyone from that frustration.” The company also has a collection of training CD-ROMs, purchased from the software suppliers, that staff can use as a refresher after the course itself. At a cost of around £30, Featherstone sees them as a very worthwhile investment. In general, Featherstone believes that IT training is an indivisible part of IT investment as a whole. “Releasing people for training is an investment to make them more knowledgeable and skilful. We’ve never been of the mindset that looks at the costs and weighs them up. We’ve always taken the risk of investing the money in that person.”