As the number of people using personal computers at work increases, employers must utilise the new technology by offering courses - otherwise they may face disastrous problems. Liz Heron reports
In the next two years the number of people in Britain using personal computers at work - currently 7 to 8 million - is expected to double. Employers are boosting their investment in information technology in search of efficiency gains and competitive advantage.

But IT professionals warn that unless employers find more effective ways of training staff to use the new technology, the benefits will prove elusive. Gordon Ewan, director of the Information Technology Industry Training Organisation, says: ``In the past there has not been much good training and a lot of the current hardware is sitting around being underused.''

Part of the problem, Mr Ewan says, was a nave expectation, especially in small firms, that buying the hardware and software would solve the business problem. But, while most employers now realise training is necessary to achieve efficiency gains - and to prevent disastrous errors - they face a further problem: a highly fragmented training market.

Most computer training is tightly focused on particular software and is often provided by the manufacturer or trainers it has sub-contracted or accredited. The big software houses Microsoft, Lotus and Novel, all run training accreditation schemes that tend to reinforce use of their own systems.

Mr Ewan says: ``Where you really run up against it is where you have Lotus Notes, Microsoft Works and Novel Netware in one company. If you want to get staff trained up to use the system, you've got to talk to separate trainers for each company.''

However, a new, more generic approach to training - in which trainees learn key principles and skills that they can transfer across various word-processing or spreadsheet packages is emerging in response to national training standards for IT set up by the ITITO under the Government's drive to improve vocational training.

Several small, leading-edge training firms are already committed to the generic approach, while many major trainers are currently preparing National Vocational Qualifications in the use of IT based on the national standards. Yet other trainers are planning to introduce NVQs once revised standards are published in April [1995] and the ITITO is working with Microsoft and Novel to match up the companies' accreditation schemes with NVQs. The National Computing Centre offers a variety of courses leading to a "PC Driving Test" that tests generic skills in the use of spreadsheets, word-processors, databases and presentation tools. The test was commissioned by Bass Taverns, the retail arm of Bass Brewers, which is introducing information technology with rare enthusiasm and thoroughness.

Brian Jones, Bass Taverns' training manager, says: "We trained over 900 people to use IT and then thought: `Wouldn't it be nice to have some proof that they were competent'. We wanted to see that there was going to be some pay-back for all this IT training." John Eary, NCC manager for training and multimedia services, says: "We now offer a company training course based on the Driving Test that the TSB, the Post Office and NatWest Bank are currently using and we will provide the course on an open basis to the general public from April. We also have computer-based training products that mirror the courses. They are currently offered on floppy disk and will soon be available on CD-rom."

The courses are available from NCCs in Manchester, Glasgow, London and Bristol and the PC Driving Test is offered by Drake Prometric, specialists in computer-based testing, at its 700 centres around the world, including 30 in Britain. "We build up generic, transferable skills by emphasising the task being performed through the use of IT rather than the specific commands required to perform it and by stressing the underlying principles and concepts," Mr Eary says.

A generic training course on CD-rom is offered by CRT, a fast-growing training firm with 45 centres in Britain. How To: Computers gives a general introduction to computer software and covers desk-top publishing, word processing, spread sheets and databases. The eight-hour programme requires learners to use the application in simulated sales and marketing, finance, administration and purchasing situations.

NCC and CRT are developing NVQs in the use of IT. Bass Taverns has moved on from the Driving Test and commissioned NCC, which is an awarding body for NVQs, to develop an NVQ-based training in the use of IT that the company can offer to all staff who need improved computing skills. The first 12 Bass trainees attained NVQ level one in December.

Mr Jones says: "The programme is going very, very well. The NVQ is probably giving people greater variety and greater awareness of how applications can be put to use. And its good for the employee because they are getting a qualification that is recognised throughout the country."

CRT's subsidiary Link Training is piloting NVQs with trainees following Government training schemes. Alvina Jones, materials development director, says: "Once the standards are changed we will be converting our existing materials and will have a full NVQ programme combining live training, tutoring, student notes, computer-based training and CD-rom."

NVQ in the use of IT can be offered only at levels one, two and three of the five-level NVQ scale as higher degrees of competence than this fall into the field of management. In common with all NVQs, they are competence- based qualifications taken on the job. Employees learn through performing set tasks and are assessed through a portfolio of evidence they accumulate.

Assessors are usually training managers within the company who have been approved by one of the six NVQ awarding body for IT. Once the portfolio for a particular level is complete it is checked by an external examiner, and if it is satisfactory, a qualification is issued by the awarding body.

The qualifications were designed in close consultation with major corporate users of IT to codify best practice in the training of staff. Mr Ewan says: "We would argue that the best way for companies to use the standards is to integrate them into their own appraisal and review schemes."