Digital Inequality

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Management summary of Dutch Report "Zicht op ICT-competenties"

Many organizations appear to underestimate the importance of ICT skills. They do little to assess the level of those skills among their staff, or to improve and consolidate ICT competences. It is often assumed that the current skills of the workforce are sufficient. Recruitment and selection processes devote little attention to a candidate’s computer ability. When we consider how many employees acknowledge that their own ICT competences fall short, these findings are remarkable to say the least. 


ICT competences
ICT is now an integral part of work for most Dutch employees. Nevertheless, only a small majority of the managers interviewed for this study (58%) consider their staff to have adequate ICT competences. This partly is because employees can usually ‘get by’ with the skills they have. If any shortcomings become apparent, they can generally be resolved by means of additional training. A significant number of managers (41%) consider the ICT skills of their staff to be below the required standard. This figure rises to 57% in the case of managers in the healthcare sector.

The impression gained from the interviews is that a significant number of employees do not possess the skills demanded by their work. More mature staff and those with lower educational qualifications are seen as the main ‘problem groups’, which is confirmed by the results of the survey. Over 75% of respondents can identify groups of employees who experience problems using ICT applications. In most cases, they are indeed the more senior workers, closely followed by staff entering employment for the first time (‘starters’) and those with lower educational qualifications. Older workers require assistance with all types of application. Employees with a lower level of education find business applications, spreadsheets and word processors difficult to use, although other types of application can also give rise to problems. Starters are most likely to struggle with specific business applications, which they are now encountering for the first time. The problem of poor ICT competences is not seen as particularly pressing, partly because other qualities are considered more important.

Help
Approximately three out of four respondents can (probably) rely on help if they experience difficulties in using ICT. The remainder receive no assistance, a situation reported by a relatively large number of respondents with lower educational qualifications: the very people who need help most. Where assistance is available, it is generally provided by colleagues or a helpdesk. Older staff and those with higher educational qualifications tend to make greater use of the helpdesk. A third of respondents report that they can often solve problems themselves by using the ‘Help’ function of the program concerned. Again, those with a higher level of education are more likely to do so than others. A small number of respondents seek help from external sources. This option is more common among those working in very small companies which have no formal help structure.

If we examine the efficacy of the assistance provided, we find that approximately 40% learn enough to avoid the same problem in future, whereupon further assistance becomes unnecessary. Assistance provided by colleagues is more effective than that offered by a formal helpdesk. Because there is a large group of respondents whose immediate problem is solved but who nevertheless seek further assistance at a later date, it will be useful to examine how the help provided can lead to a more permanent solution.

The role of education
According to the respondents, the main way in which ICT competences are acquired is through self-tuition, followed by informal training from colleagues. Approximately one in four favour more formal training courses, which are relatively popular among older employees and male respondents. Only 30% state that they acquired the necessary ICT competences at school or university. The education sector therefore plays a relatively minor role in developing the ICT skills required in professional practice. This is particularly true in the case of workers with few educational qualifications. Only a third of the starters consider the ICT skills they were taught at school or university to be relevant to the demands of the workplace. These findings prompt a critical re-evaluation of the ‘match’ between the curriculum and the needs of employers.

Training
When learning to use ICT applications, formal resources such as training courses are generally less important than more informal sources of help such as instruction by colleagues. Approximately one in three respondents has attended an ICT training course (or a course with an ICT component) during the three years prior to the survey. The manager interviews reveal that formal training is most common in the public administration sector and least common in healthcare. There is generally no proactive policy underlying the use of formal resources. The main reasons given for attending a course is that “it was compulsory”, “it reduces problems in working with ICT” and “it is good for my career”. A relatively high number of older employees state that they took a course only because it was compulsory. This should not be the motive for learning. Among this group in particular, the main reason for attending a training course should be the desire to resolve or reduce problems in working with ICT applications. Among respondents who have not attended a formal training course in the past three years (a majority of two thirds), the reason given most often by those with a lower level of education is that they were unable to obtain their employer’s permission to do so during working hours. This is remarkable in view of the necessity of helping this group to develop their ICT competences. Other reasons for not attending a course include “no time to do so” and “it is not important”, both of which are cited with some frequency by employees in the healthcare sector. This represents a missed opportunity given that a large proportion of respondents who have indeed attended a training course report that they now have to ask for help less often. A statistically significant number of respondents with a higher level of education state that the training they received was not effective, being either irrelevant or superfluous. Organizations should seek to establish a better match between the course and the individual’s requirements, particularly in the case of staff with higher qualifications. Mandatory training is rarely the best solution.

Personal initiative
Approximately two thirds of the respondent group have taken action to improve their ICT competences at their own initiative. They do so by asking to be sent on a training course, by self-tuition or by experimenting with the device in question (such as a smartphone). Again, it is those with a lower level of education who score lowest in this regard, although they are most in need of improvement. The main reasons cited for not taking action to improve personal skills are “lack of time” and “it’s not important”, the latter being relatively common among staff in the healthcare sector. Approximately a quarter of respondents report that they have not taken any action to improve their ICT skills because there is “no encouragement to do so from the organization”. Promoting ICT competences should be the first step taken by any organization in addressing ICT problems. A large proportion of employees in all six sectors examined would benefit from improving their ICT competences.

The effect of specific measures
Although managers know relatively little about the ICT competences of their staff, and indeed show a somewhat passive attitude, they are notably positive with regard to the efficacy of measures taken to improve ICT skills. No fewer than 73% state that measures such as training courses and the deployment of external experts have indeed made a difference. The effect most often cited is that staff have become more efficient. However, there have been no efforts to quantify the effectiveness of measures in any objective, evidence-based way.

Recruitment and selection
Approximately half of the employees in the survey report that their organization is aware of the ICT competences required to function effectively in a given position, the requirements forming part of the relevant job descriptions. ICT competences are considered relatively unimportant in the creative industry and the healthcare sector. This results in an incomplete understanding of the competences required and a failure to communicate the requirements. The same situation can be seen among smaller companies in all sectors.

Little attention is devoted to ICT competences during the job application procedure. Although over half (57%) of the managers state that their organization does take ICT skills into account when recruiting staff, only a third of employees report that they were asked about those skills during the initial interview. Of the managers who devote absolutely no attention to ICT competences during the recruitment process, 43% state that they find it unnecessary to do so: they expect candidates to have the necessary basic skills. Where specific attention is indeed devoted to ICT, candidates are merely asked whether they have the knowledge required: there is no actual test. Notably, the likelihood of ICT skills being overlooked during the application procedure rises in the case of older candidates and those with lower educational qualifications, while these are the groups which are most likely to have shortcomings which must be resolved before they can function effectively. It appears that ICT competences are not (yet) a priority when employers are looking for new staff.

Fewer than a third of current employees are subject to any monitoring of their ICT competences. Assessment often relies on self-reporting, perhaps as part of the annual performance appraisal. People are rarely able to give an accurate assessment of their own skills. A more formal assessment such as a practical test would be more effective in identifying shortcomings but is rarely applied.

Two thirds of the managers report little difficulty in finding staff with the appropriate ICT competences. Of this group, half state that candidates acquire the necessary knowledge and skills at school or university. Moreover, the current economic situation has made it somewhat easier to attract competent personnel. A third of the managers do experience some difficulty in finding staff of the appropriate calibre, particularly in the HTSM and healthcare sectors. This is primarily due to the extremely specialized nature of the work.