IT training and support, when applied properly, can produce remarkable productivity improvements almost overnight. Kevin Kevany reports.
ou’ve finally accepted that you simply aren’t getting the return you need out of your IT system. All your colleagues are flaunting their productivity gains, their iPads and smartphones. And you know you only use about a third of the functions in Microsoft Office.
So what do you do first: get smart or get help? It’s not quite the ‘chicken or the egg?’ conundrum. But you need to find the right, non-geek-speak experts, replete with firm opinions and armed with experience in applying both, to not find yourself being left behind the opposition.
Pam Martin, the IT dynamo who heads up Positive Connexions and author of Beneath the Knowledge Wave, is also the guiding light behind the Kiwi Computer Challenge – an initiative which might subsequently be seen as more important than the Rugby World Cup for New Zealand, irrespective of whether we win or lose, to ensure 1,000,000 Kiwis will have the internationally-recognised Internet and Computer Core Certificate (IC3) qualification by 2015.
She puts it in her inimitable style thus: “Our local business owners/managers spend more time and care on their company cars – after all, we watch Top Gear; we know about cars! – than we do around our IT systems.
“Yet crashing a car will have less impact on a business than losing all your records because you didn’t back up your computer system.”
Martin believes IT training should be enhanced to “initiating, familiarising and educating”, so the real problem facing SME entrepreneurs, both at the outset and as the business grows, is correctly addressed.
“After all, if you look at the NZTE capability training or the Biz website there is no reference to needing to learn how to use a computer to start or grow a business. Even the ‘frequently asked questions’ around starting a business don’t mention that you need computer skills – before you start.
“In fact, it’s worse; most books, courses and mentor/coaching programmes fail to include the need for at least core computer skills,” she says.
NZBusiness has a high opinion of both those organisations, but she certainly has a point.
Martin again: “The other key issue is that even if small business owners decide they want to learn how to use a computer, where do they go? The Government has systematically cut funding for level 2 courses (high school level) through Community Education and many other training organisations.
“Yet technology and ultra-fast broadband are lauded as the solution to our low productivity. All that initiative is going to do is ‘help’ people to make mistakes faster, if they aren’t trained.”
Stu Lees, founder of the aptly named, Zero Down, is another refreshing and challenging voice on the issue of IT training and support. He puts his money where his mouth is: his customers should expect more than 99 percent “up-time”. His message? Do it properly; or don’t bother.
“It’s essential that the business and the IT support provider establish agreed outcomes, with measurable KPIs, to keep the IT partner ‘honest’.”
His examples of these agreed support outcomes include:
• A Service Level Agreement on response time and job closure times.
• System uptime targets should be higher than 99 percent.
• System Maintenance Completion and Backup Tests.
• IT Support Usage by Fault Type (where am I spending my money?).
• Most businesses do NOT want to be tied-down to lengthy contracts with penalty clauses for making changes.
“All training requires end-user buy-in to the outcomes for it to be successful. In other words, there’s no point teaching someone in accounts on how to create snazzy Powerpoint presentations and, likewise, Excel macro writing is probably completely wasted on the marketing team.”
And when last did you hear anything as refreshing as this?
“I’ve actually heard of IT guys who state in a contract, ‘backups are the responsibility of the customer’. But aren’t IT people supposed to look after all of the IT? Have you ever calculated the cost of not having backups working 100 percent?
“Don’t tolerate this,” says Lees. It should be the responsibility of the IT firm to manage your data backups and to prove to you on a regular basis, that the backup solution they’ve put in place is actually working.”
This should be music to anyone’s ears. And so different to what Lees cautions against: the “he did, she did” playground twirl you too often hear between the hardware and software provider.
“It’s called a lack of accountability. Or blaming other IT vendors or the systems themselves.
I call this the ‘IT Vendor Shuffle’. You may have experienced it: the IT guy blames a problem on the Internet provider, who blames the telco, and no-one works together to sort the problem out.
“Your costs can skyrocket in these situations as everyone is charging you, but problems can
take a long time to resolve. Your IT provider should be the central point of accountability for all IT matters. Their job is to keep IT stuff working so that you can focus on the business,” says Lees.
What’s holding you back?
According to Pam Martin, once you are IT aware you can go out and ask for help.
“Finding the right IT support can ensure that you buy the right technology for your business.
Before signing on; do a reference-check. When you are dealing with a subject you don’t fully understand, it is important to check references.”
So what is holding NZ SMEs back?
Martin again: “The main excuses for small businesses are: “I can’t afford it”, “I’m too busy”, “I don’t want staff out of the office”, “I don’t know what training we need”, and “I need to understand the ROI”.
Could online training – largely rejected by the corporate IT gatekeepers in the 80s when companies like Boeing were training pilots on the Plato computer-based training system, which achieved “mastery” (or total knowledge) – finally turn out to be the answer?
“Yes,” says Diane Coomber of the Kinetics Group, winner of the 2010 Microsoft New Zealand Small Business Solution of the Year Award and three times past winner of a Microsoft New Zealand Small Business Partner Award.
“There are several ways they can do this. Online training is one option. The Microsoft Virtual Academy will help you improve your IT skill-set and help you advance in your career with a free, easy to access training portal. You can learn at your own pace, focusing on Microsoft technologies, gain points and get recognition.
“Another option is personal training at the desk – computer coaching. Kinetics Group has recognised the efficiencies enjoyed by having an expert come to the user’s desk to help ‘in their context’.
“We’ve invested in a dedicated coaching team which will visit client sites and deliver training specific to their requirements. Whether it is one-on-one training or in a group session, we believe that our clients should have the best return on their software investment.”
Or you could ‘grow your own’ trainer or get an ‘organic’ graduate of the Computer Power Institute?
Kate Deans, area manager for the Computer Power Institute, which provides a free Graduate Placement Service from its branches in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, examines the two options.
“Why spend time and money on recruiting for entry-level and specialised IT roles; be they Help Desk and Customer Service support or on through to Network Engineer? The IT industry has the highest growth of all industries at 69 percent growth, so demand for ICT staff is very competitive in the job marketplace.
“Our qualified graduates are industry-ready and available for internships, work experience or for permanent job engagement,” Deans says.
Ray Delany, CEO of Designertech, a client of the Computer Power Institute, is enthusiastic about the Graduate Placement Service. “We want the best quality people. The Computer Power Institute needs work experience for their graduates and we need IT work completed. All parties benefit.”
Delany leverages the working relationship to ensure only those candidates who match Designertech’s job specifications, selection criteria and work-culture are referred.
Deans again: “On the other hand, if you need to upgrade the IT skills of your staff in diploma or certificate qualifications, or in short-courses, it is wise to invest in your key staff to improve their productivity and your IT trouble-shooting.
“Training to improve your staff’s skills does have a direct ROI for companies and helps to retain top staff.”
Zero Down’s Stu Lees believes online training is a very cost-effective model.
“But staff must be ‘booked in’ with dedicated time focused on the training session – with no distractions allowed. My best advice is to host any online training sessions in a meeting room to achieve this.”
Positive Connexions’ Pam Martin prefers online training with tutor support. “It is very flexible and allows business owners and their staff to work wherever and whenever they can fit it in.
“All they need is an Internet connection.They can also go over things a number of times if they don’t understand. This provides options for all skill levels as they can go as fast or as slow as they like, depending on their current skills.
“They also don’t have to be out of the office or pay for travel. It is great value for money,” says Martin.
She reckons tutor support is also essential in keeping people motivated to finish the courses.
“This is also where the Kiwi Computer Challenge can help, as it adds an extra element to the training. The IC3 covers all the key skills needed, no matter what job a person does or business they run. It builds confidence around technology, rather than just Word or Excel.
“Gaining certification also ensures they have actually learned the content. I believe a core computer skills course can save approximately 20 to 30 minutes per day, around 120 hours a year.”
Positive Connexions also offers company training where a half- or full-day course on particular software is offered, or one-to-one assistance, paying by the hour.
“While this tends to be expensive; it’s excellent if customers need help with a specific problem, such as an Excel spreadsheet, etcetera,” says Martin. “We often provide this as just-in-time training to get them out of a fix.”
What about the in-house versus outsourced support for those organisations approaching the 100 employee mark? What are the criteria to be considered?
Lees again doesn’t pull any punches here: “Only large organisations (150-plus staff) with complex IT needs should have in-house IT. That option is best utilised when there is a specialist system to support – for example, enterprise resource planning (ERP) which integrates internal and external management information across an entire organization.”
Here are his pros and cons on both options:
• Always available onsite.
• Very aligned with the business goals.
• Available to do ‘other’ stuff (“I’ve seen a few IT guys who are also graphic designers and/or software developers”).
• Loyal to business.
• Cheaper by the hour (“I actually believe that this is a fool’s gold perception; but, it is the perception out there”).
• Able to learn application specific skills (e.g. CRM or ERP data management).
• Broader range of specialist skills available when you need them.
• Competitively driven (always trying to improve).
• Large scope of experience allowing you to leverage off the mistakes of others.
• Economies of scale enabling better tools and processes to better manage IT.
• Available 24/7 with no impact from annual/sick leave.
• Able to leverage off vendor partnerships to get better product pricing.
• Do not require any training, HR or staff management.
Be assured, IT training and support is a sector stacked with motivated and creative leaders. Leaders who understand and can deliver the various and evolving requirements for New Zealand businesses to become more productive and exploit technological advances as they occur. Talk to them.
Kevin Kevany is an Auckland-based freelance writer.