Training is a key ingredient of any IT overhaul. But how best to do this when staff are scattered throughout Britain? Easy. Go to them.
Mike Manisty has £9m to spend. As head of of information and communications technology at Jarvis, he is overhauling the contractor’s computer systems. He started the process six months ago and expects it to take another 18. The main problem he faces is that different divisions have different networks, and some have e-mail and others do not.

Manisty decided that the best solution was to replace most of the hardware, software and servers. This should be complete by March. The second phase involves setting up a standard Internet-based document-handling system for project communication.

Co-ordinating such a shopping spree is a Herculean task. A large chunk of the £9m will go on 2000 PCs and 500 laptops. But Manisty believes there is no point in spending a fortune on equipment if staff do not know how to use it. He wants to train at least 2000 of the firm’s PC users by March 2000 – but here he hit a snag.

Jarvis has an IT training centre at its York office but the firm has about 200 other sites and offices around the country. Sending groups of core staff to York for a day to learn basic word processing and e-mail is not practical. “They might say in principle they will do it, but, in reality, people don’t go off site for a day in bulk,” says Manisty. The cost in train fares alone would be extortionate. So, how do you offer training to 2000 people scattered across the country?

Manisty’s answer was to fit out a bus as an IT training facility. He knew exactly what he wanted: a vehicle big enough to accommodate six students and a trainer comfortably but not so big that the trainer, who would also drive the bus, would need an HGV licence. The bus was to be equipped with state-of-the-art computers that allowed staff to access standard Jarvis systems, a giant computer screen to use as a high-tech blackboard, and air-conditioning.

Plush and air-conditioned

The IT training vehicle took to the road in early August. Building caught up with it in Crawley, West Sussex, where it was stationed in the car park of Prismo, Jarvis’ road maintenance division.

The bus is plush. Six flat-screened computers line the sides of the vehicle facing windows of smoked glass; those inside are not visible from outside. At the far end is a giant computer screen displaying the Jarvis logo. And, of course, it is air-conditioned. The only difficulty is that the Prismo car park is on an incline, so the trainees had to grip the floor with their feet to stop their chairs sliding towards the left-hand window.

Six Prismo employees were squeezed in for an IT session from Elaine Spencer, Jarvis’ training services manager. The four-hour class gets novices started and serves as a refresher course for experienced users. Spencer covers logging on and off, using Windows-based applications and file management. She also gives an introduction to the Internet and detailed e-mail training.

Debbie Walton is Prismo’s personnel manager and one of the first to use the training vehicle. In her job she uses a PC for writing letters and faxes and running a personnel database. Her computer system uses Windows and although she used this in a previous job, she was glad of the opportunity to brush up. “It was a useful refresher,” she says. “You have to understand how to use the system and you might not be aware of shortcuts that save time. The bus is quite novel.”

The training scheme extends beyond the half-day induction. Manisty’s team gives each user a manual that has been designed for the layperson. It is part-written by one of the IT team’s four trainers, a retired schoolteacher, who sits down with the IT support staff and gets them to explain each element until he has understood it and can put it into plain English.

Manisty is also encouraging employees to study for an IT certificate called the European Computer Driving Licence. The course takes about 30 hours and ends with an exam.

It all adds up

Manisty estimates that the Jarvis bus costs about £200 a day to run. It is leased from a bus company so there is no capital cost. But even £200 a day is much less than it would cost to ferry a dozen people up to York. Manisty has other big plans for the bus. A substantial amount of Jarvis’ business is rail maintenance. The operatives undergo strict health and safety training to gain a safety certificate and much of this training is done using CD-ROM. Manisty says rail and maintenance operatives could do their health and safety training on the bus.

Jarvis’ investment in IT training will pay off as users learn how to get more out of their new systems. Manisty is already preparing for the second phase of IT investment with the creation of systems to ease the construction process. But as he says: “You have to get the infrastructure right and the people trained before you put in other systems.” The bus will be just the ticket.