Smart Investment

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2003-05-19 Print this article Print

Coffee: Strengthening IT users' skills is a sound investment.

You buy new technology to make your company more productive. Ironically, actual measures of worker performance in IT tasks suggest that much of our information technology has long been as good as it needs to be. Upgrading IT users, with emphasis on strengthening employees basic skills and improving their problem-solving abilities, is a too-often-overlooked option.

Bell Labs researchers gave us a pointer in this direction almost 20 years ago, when they clocked six-dozen users performing document editing tasks. Some of the users were furnished with what were, at the time, newfangled full-screen word processors; others employed command-based line editors. It turned out that task performance was predicted better—by a factor of 20—from knowledge of user age and cognitive ability scores than from knowing which software each one used. Remembering where a topic was located in the document, or recognizing errors such as a "not" in the wrong place, improved performance far more than point-and-click convenience.

While we obsess about details of interface design and the names of menu commands, were ignoring the elephant in the living room. The modern workplace demands employees, even in production-line tasks, who can process symbolic information. Look at the control panel of a modern manufacturing plant. Rapid product cycles in consumer product manufacturing and frequent customer contacts in service-centered businesses demand creative response to unexpected situations. The modern work force needs more help in meeting that demand.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, in his book, "The Work of Nations," put numbers on the shift from concrete to abstract skills. "In 1920," Reich reported, "more than 85 percent of the cost of an automobile went to pay routine laborers and investors. By 1990, these two groups received less than 60 percent." The remainder, Reich determined, went to what he has called the "symbolic analysts," including "designers, engineers, stylists, planners, strategists, financial specialists, executive officers, lawyers, advertisers, marketers and the like."

With that in mind, tell me if this sounds like a reasonable expectation of a 21st-century worker: "Can handle jobs that involve following simple written instructions and diagrams; can read procedural texts, where the information is supported by diagrams, to remedy a problem; can learn or work with most basic computer software, such as using a word processor to produce own texts; can follow simple instructions for using technology." An Idaho adult education program uses that language to describe the 8th-to-9th-grade level of ability, but most surveys find the average American adult performing at or below this level.

Technology-centered solutions can shift the problem from one place to another, but they cant make it go away. For example, we can try to relocate complexity from desktop PCs to application servers, but this creates a need for more people who can write more reliable code. Michigans Department of Career Development advises aspiring programmers that they should achieve 12th-grade reading proficiency, and application development sounds to me like a Level 5 task on the five-tier scale used in the National Adult Literacy Survey of 1992—that is, a task that requires a person to "search for information in dense text that contains a number of plausible distractors ... make high-level text-based inferences and use specialized knowledge." Only 3 to 5 percent of the labor force is estimated to be at Level 5, and I hope they dont all have to spend their time writing software. I might need a good doctor someday.

Its clear that vastly more attention needs to go toward reducing the complexity and the abstraction of user manuals, menu hierarchies and other aspects of application design. But its a false victory to stratify our work force into those who can solve problems and those who can only perform routine procedures. Well wind up with people who can accurately take orders for delivery of innovative products and services developed somewhere else.

User confusion with IT is partly a problem for IT vendors to solve, but its also a canary in the coal mine of U.S. competitiveness. To reverse the usual mantra, invest in your people, and your IT will become more productive—and the additional payoffs will be huge.

More from Peter Coffee:
Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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