Why can't Johnny compute?

When I suggested recently that a problematic 5 percent of employees account for 75 percent of the IT support burden, I expected a wave of "right on!" from IT support staffers. But mostly they disagreed with my premise, with one suggesting that the real whiner was yours truly.

I still think it's outside the realm of overextended IT departments to provide training on basic computing skills (which I defined as "managing and finding files, and basic working knowledge of suites such as MS Office"). But my thinking was adjusted a bit by the thoughtful feedback.

Many argued that hard-coded human aptitude plays a more significant role than I recognized in my earlier statement. Carl Weddle wrote that computer aptitude was "not unlike the demonstrated fact that less than half the human population can think naturally and easily in spatial terms (3D). That means that at least half the people are making some kind of mental adjustment to deal with computers in the first place. Many of them are assisted in large measure by clever abstractions (either in the application or the user interface) or by some compensating talent (something like memory tricks)." Carl suggested that my "5-percenters" were doing their best, and that I should recognize the value of their other talents to an organization.

Some readers simply disagreed that IT should be able to assume basic computer literacy on the part of users. Rik Ahlberg wrote: "When did IT stop teaching users basic skills? Is there no remedial professional development course to encourage those who can't right-click to learn?

RTFM (read the *&%#* manual) is too often not accompanied by the M, never mind the patience or passion to leave no user behind." Believe me, I have large reserves of patience when rolling out disruptive new technologies. But after almost a decade of relative UI stability (at least in the Windows world), I think it's fair to expect users to know what the Start menu is and how to find files they just saved.

I don't think IT has any more responsibility for teaching basic computer skills than the finance department has for teaching employees math. IT professionals might understand computing in the same way that the people in finance understand numbers, but that does not necessarily make them good teachers. This depth of knowledge might make them the worst teachers, because the basic tasks have become second nature for them. So how should the special needs of the 5-percenters be handled?

I never suggested that companies should not bear any responsibility for offering basic computer training to their employees. But in a business world where computers have become essential tools, basic computer literacy should evolve into a more general human resources concern, both in hiring new employees and training existing ones. As long as basic training remains purely an IT issue, an issue that affects all employees will be marginalized.

Although I still think that office workers should be expected to bring basic levels of computer literacy to work with them, I'm willing to recognize that developing those skills is clearly more difficult for some than others. When I run up against my own aptitude limitations, though, I know that means I must study the problem and work harder. That's just the way life is.

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