Growth of the PC army

Companies are realising the importance of updating skills. By Philip Schofield
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The Independent Online
Experts on both sides of the Atlantic predicted 50 years ago that there might be work for five or six computers worldwide. Now they are used by virtually every business. Costs have fallen in real terms almost as dramatically as power and memory have grown. Powerful personal computers are now well within the reach of even the one-person business. Moreover, the range of applications seems ever-expanding.

The ability of many businesses to survive in today's highly competitive markets depends in part on how well they use information technology. Increasing numbers of staff must have the appropriate skills and update them from time to time. To meet this need, computer training has become a huge and growing industry.

British employers last year spent pounds 431.5m on computer training from external providers. This is forecast to grow by 5.9 per cent a year until the year 2000.

Not only are the numbers to be trained growing; the areas of training and the methods of delivering that training are also changing.

Rob Clarke, marketing manager of CTEC, Britain's largest independent PC training company, says that for years they have run a large programme of open courses. Now, however, he is seeing a growing demand for courses tailored to client needs. He says: "Our biggest clients are sending less people on open courses, but calling us in to run bespoke courses for perhaps eight or more people at a time."

Among the new areas are training in the Internet and the Intranet. He says these are satisfied with mainly intensive courses on how to use the Internet, but there are longer courses for IT professionals on how to set up the service. He is also seeing a growth in systems training. "There is a large demand to re-skill IT professionals".

Companies also want staff in operational roles to be trained in IT technical skills so that they can take on a dual role, according to Mr Clarke. He says that the IT specialist has not always been responsive to the business needs of the end-user. Operations staff who combine business knowledge with technical skills will be more in control, although he would expect them to work within guidelines laid down by a smaller, specialised IT department.

Microsoft, which dominates the PC software market worldwide, has to ensure that quality training is available at all levels to meet the need of both the user and the technical specialist.

Debbie Walsh, Microsoft's education and certification marketing manager, has also seen a shift to tailored courses. "Employers, as they realise more training is needed as they move from mainframe to PC applications, want more flexible means of delivery and want courses to include applications specific to their business."

The training used to be mainly classroom-based. However, there has been a shift to self-study kits, which may be paper-based, book plus video tapes, or on CD-Rom. Since last summer on-line training has been available through the Microsoft On-line Institute (MOLI). This enables students to view training materials, take on-line classes and communicate with their tutor and other class members.

Miss Walsh says that employers now realise that some people are best suited to classroom learning, some to self-study, but that some need to combine both. Training providers are therefore being asked to give flexible access.

Many managers, especially those over 40, are said to remain computer illiterate, but there is conflicting evidence.

The Institute of Employment Studies, as part of a pilot study for the Employment Department's skills review programme, held a workshop for representatives of 15 large employers in the public and private sectors. In its report published last summer, Managers For The Millennium, the IES said: "Most workshop participants...were very clear that the successful managers of the future would have a degree of IT mastery which only a proportion have today. The capacity to access, model, manipulate, forecast and extrapolate trends in management data were felt to be essential if managers are to keep track of business trends, to engage in real-time global trading, to make sense of markets and to exercise genuine financial control."

This suggests that by no means all managers have the necessary mastery of IT. Debbie Walsh of Microsoft says: "Managers are increasingly embarrassed that their staff know more than they do." She accepts that some managers suffer from technophobia and that they will be best helped by one-to-one tutoring.

This fear of computers is a generation problem. School-leavers today are familiar with IT, but those who completed their education more than 10 years ago are likely to have acquired any computer skills afterwards. It is significant that Britain's largest institution for adult education, the Open University, sees neither technophobia nor lack of individual access to computers to be a problem. The number of students it requires to be on-line for the purpose of study has increased from 6,000 in 1995 to 15,000 in 1996. Britain should soon be a computer-literate society.