Imagine you own a car repair garage and buy each mechanic a magnificent set of tools so they have everything needed to do the job.

But it turns out the mechanics know only how to use the hammers and screwdrivers, so it takes much longer to do the job than you had hoped. Not to mention that most of the tools are never used.

This is pretty much what happens in offices around the world, research suggests, where workforces say they lack skills to operate some of the expensive IT systems employers are investing in.

Just 40 per cent of computer users have received any IT training while 90 per cent of new jobs now require IT skills, according to a survey from E-Skills UK, a training organisation. The survey found 67 per cent of employers think the staff’s level of IT skills “defines” the impact on productivity.

“What we’re seeing is we have an issue with the generic workforce and their ability to use IT,” says Karen Price, chief executive of E-Skills UK. “More and more workers who’ve had no experience with IT are required to know about it. Yet IT is a key driver of productivity.”

Research from analyst Gartner claims that every hour of professional end-user IT training is worth at least five hours to the business. But it argues companies should realise the need for training is related to the level of complexity of IT – so if people require more training for one specific tool, it would be better to simplify the processes.

Andrew Marlot, senior executive in IT effectiveness for consultancy Accenture believes employers are struggling to get the best out of IT because people are unsure of what to do. “It is getting better,” he says. “But there’s a real need for companies to focus on simplifying technology to the critical needs of the workforce. The other thing employers focus on too much is efficiency rather than effectiveness. Users have to work out how to use technology tools.

“Companies need to focus on basic understanding of these tools. This has an impact on productivity. It’s an issue in the more senior professional environment just as much as the generic workforce.”

At the start of the millennium, software vendors put great pressure on companies to buy into Enterprise Resource Planning systems, claiming they would boost productivity and cut costs. In retrospect however, not every company has been happy with the results.

“These benefits were not realised,” says John Whitings, director of executive IT practice for recruitment company Harvey Nash. “Now it is understood the system alone will not do this – it has to be linked to business process change. There’s been a big resurgence in this and working practices are being changed to ensure systems add value. Companies that derive most value position the transformation as being business-led, rather than technology-led.”

Mr Marlot adds that companies making staff more productive have also taken on new concepts.

“One area that we see more discipline in is the development of the workspace,” he says. “In Toyota when they re-designed end-to-end production they created this cell-based workspace idea, making sure everything is at people’s fingertips at the workbench. Now we’re seeing more tools at the workbench on PCs too.”

British Airways is one company making efforts to give its employees the tools and the skills they need to do their job. It is investing heavily in IT education and designing systems around the workforce. For example, cabin crew can access their work rota through the company intranet out of the office, much in the same way as passengers can check in online. And 95 per cent of BA’s staff use the intranet to work on, it claims.

Paul Coby, chief information officer for the company, says: “Being able to use technology is a fundamental part of working at BA and any business – it’s something people need. At the moment we’ve a rolling programme of employee self-service. You don’t need to shuffle paper any more.

“But you do have to make [a system] intuitive, easy to use and you have to train people. If you get it right you have some pretty well-equipped people. You can use the technology to simplify a very complex process.”

The E-Skills research found age made a difference: “It’s the older people who need training. Younger people are much more in tune with it,” adds Ms Price.

But Mr Coby disagrees. He says with the right training, any member of staff should be able to use the tools at hand. “People always say that but I don’t buy into it. We haven’t found any signs of it. You shouldn’t expect that people of that age can use IT the same way as people who have just left school though.”

For those who need a helping hand, the BBC website offers a good starting point for anyone wanting to learn about the basics of desktop IT.

There is also an International Computer Driving Licence ( that provides a solid syllabus of IT skills, and provides a few free tips.

Yet while 2m people in the UK alone are thought to have gaps in their IT skill gaps for their jobs, and roughly a third of companies are finding it hard to fill vacancies for IT staff, business chiefs need to be aware that there is much more to investing in technology than just buying the tools.

■ Dan Ilett writes for

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