Developing a Successful Information Technology Competency Strategy for Staff

Identifying the Barriers

Increasingly in the late 1990s, educational institutions as well as commercial enterprises are making significant capital investments in information technology. The main objectives for these investments include instituting effective corporate data collection and manipulation (e.g., accounts, stock control, enrolments), and creating opportunities for faculty, staff, and students to improve the quality and efficiency of their own work.

In many cases, the outcome does not justify the investment. Faculty, staff, and students struggle to come to grips with computer operating systems; network configurations and demands; and the constant changes in system software, access procedures, and applications.

The value of effective training systems to provide staff and students with the technology skills needed, is often underestimated. Although the capital value of the technology itself (hardware, software, telecommunications equipment, etc.) is well documented, audited, and depreciated, the skills of the people using this equipment are often not evaluated. Although a significant portion of the capital investment includes upgrades for already-existing hardware and software, there is often very little or no investment in providing opportunities to upgrade the users’ skills.

Instructional technology (IT) competency training must aim to remove barriers (real or perceived) that many faculty, staff, and students may consider to be insurmountable. The major objective of a competency program must be to instill a level of computer-operator confidence in order to develop the ability to adapt easily and confidently to a new application/environment.

Modern graphical-user interfaces go a long way to ease the transition between applications, but there must also be ready access to non-threatening support systems. [I don't understand above sentence. Please elaborate and clarify.] Despite the user-friendly nature of modern operating systems, many faculty, staff, and students struggle with the pace of technological change. The barriers to maintaining technological currency and competency fall into two categories:

Personal Barriers to Greater IT Competency

Institutional Barriers to Greater IT Competency:

Creating Training Resources

There are essentially four categories of training resources that can be made available to facutly and staff:

  • IT workshops
  • Software skills manuals for personal reference
  • Networked or Web-based Computer-Based-Training (CBT) materials
  • One-to-one consulting sessions

Considerations for Preparing Resources

2. Software Skills Manuals Available for Personal Reference

3. Networked or Web-based Computer-Based-Training (CBT) Materials Musts

An Example of Paper and Web-based Resources

At UNITEC Institute of Technology, a facilitator identified beneficial skills to staff and then presented them in a useful and non-threatening format.

The first step was to break down an application into its component "microskills," and to classify each as a basic, intermediate or advanced skill. The following are criteria for each level:

The initial draft of this document was simply a single page table, which looked like this:

[We will move the following graphics to a separate (linked) page so as not to interrupt the text.]


Competency Levels for Staff in Standard Applications





Pegasus Email Retrieve new mail

Send messages internally using Address books

Read Noticeboards

Use appropriate eMail etiquette

Send messages externally

Post message to noticeboard

Send mail to a distribution list

Create a signature file

Create and move mail between folders

Send and receive attached files

Subscribe to a list

File Management Create Directories – understand Directory Trees

Delete Files

Move files between directories

Copy files between drives for back-up

Understand file name extensions

Maintain a comprehensive backup process

File Attributes - Read Only, Hidden, etc

Word Processing New, Open, Save and Print documents

Text entry

Text editing

Moving text – cut & paste, drag & drop

Use of Spelling Checker

Page Setup and setting margins

Effective use of formatting - font and paragraph

Effective use of tabs and Indents

Simple graphics

Simple tables

Changing between different file formats

Mail Merge

Detailed graphics

Use of frames

Complex tables, borders and shading

Record and use Macros

Spreadsheet Understanding of spreadsheet concepts

Data entry and editing

Simple function, (e.g., SUM with cell references)

Altering column widths and row heights

Formatting numbers

Arithmetic formulae

Fill Right, Fill Down

Formatting worksheet, (i.e., borders etc.)

Simple graphs

Use of Paste Function for more complex formulae

Sorting data

Absolute cell references

Customizing graphs

Record and use Macros

Presentation (e.g. Powerpoint) Create a single slide

Create and edit text frames

Use simple drawing tools

Use the PowerPoint viewer

Create a number of slides

Apply a slide template

Use all drawing and rotation tool

Apply transition between slides

Use the Slide Sorter

Work with the Outline view for altering slide content

Customize Slide Masters

Apply Build effects

Customize color schemes

Database Understand concepts of a database

Create fields and enter data

Retrieve lists of records as required

Sort data according to one or more key fields

Query data to select a subgroup of records

Generate a Simple Report

Generate a report based on the results of a query

Calculation fields

Summaries and Sub-summaries

Internet EMail to anywhere in the world World Wide Web browsing, (e.g.) NetScape

Subscribe to and use a ListServ

Use eMail to access files

FTP and Gopher access

The concept of this breakdown of applications into individual skills met with enthusiastic support, and this encouraged further development of the process. Principles behind the decision to produce the document are discussed above, and so not listed here.

In the introduction to the manual, the author provided a chart on which users could plot their priority for training needs. The given applications appeared in list form, in the order of priority for usage, followed by an assessment of current competency per application. Plotting these values on a chart makes it possible to determine which applications do or do not require training.

1. Consider the following list of applications, and list them according to your priority

2. Rate your level of skill and competence with each of the applications listed:

1 2 3 4 5
no skill little skill average skill very skilled expert

Enter your assessment of your skill level in this table


Skill Level


Skill Level

word processing   student management  
spreadsheet   desktop publishing  
database   graphics  
email   network use  
Internet browsing   presentations  
multimedia>   (other)  

3. Now use the chart above to plot each application onto the chart below


The skills and help notes for each individual corresponded to a pair of facing pages. Although scrolling back and forth was considered undesirable, and meant that some notes were superficial, they were only a starting point.

In an example shown below, the two facing pages represented a single module. Applications such as word processing (Word 6 in this case) had three modules - beginner, intermediate and advanced.

Computer Basics

Process Level

  1. Switch computer on
  2. Restart computer
  3. Use and Handle floppy disk
  4. Format and name a floppy disk
  5. Use network and hard disks
  6. Save a file
  7. Save a file in a specified drive/directory
  8. Open a previously saved file from any drive/directory
  9. Use Save As when appropriate
  10. Print a document to a network printer
  11. Begin a new document
  12. Begin a new document based on a template
  13. Switch between currently open applications
  14. Create folders/directories (File Manager ...)
  15. Delete unwanted files
  16. Rename files
  17. Copy or move files between drives and directories
  18. Save a document as a template


  1. Switch computer on
    Know where the power switch of the computer is. Differentiate between the switch for the monitor and the computer processor
  2. Restart computer
    Know when to use the Reset command (i.e.,, when the computer has frozen, or when a restart is necessary to select different operating options, as after installing new or altering current Control Panels, etc., in a Macintosh system folder)
  3. Use and Handle floppy disk
    Be familiar with the conditions or influences that can cause a disk to become corrupted (e.g., extremes of temperature, magnetic field, dust and smoke particles). Be aware of the need to regularly check disks for viruses - contact ITSC (8484) about virus checking, cleaning and protection

  4. Format and name a floppy disk
    Understand the concept of formatting or initializing a floppy disk (which will also wipe all previous information on the disk). Be aware that most Macs will recognize PC format disks, but PCs will not read Mac disks

  5. Use network and hard disks
    Understand the difference between the local hard disk (e.g., c: drive) and the network directory (e.g.,, f: drive), and their relative benefits, (i.e., local disk gives faster access, and generally more storage space, while the network disk provides the opportunity to backup every night. Be familiar with the purpose of other network drives, (i.e., g: drive for programs, and h: drive as a Share directory). The Share directory can be used to share files between a number of users (within a department, for instance). Files such as the telephone lists, corporate logos, etc., can also be found in the share directories
  6. Save a file
    Understand the difference between Save and Save As - Save will retain the current file name and location, whereas Save As allows a change in either of these. Use Save As to create a copy of a file, or to save a copy to a new disk or directory
  7. Save a file in a specified drive/directory
    Be able to use the Save As dialogue box to change the drive or directory into which a file will be saved. Be able to move up and down the directory structure
  8. Open a previously saved file from any drive/directory
    Be familiar with the Drives and Directories portions of the Open dialogue box - (i.e., on a PC, be able to load a file from a: drive [floppy], c: drive [internal hard drive], f: drive [network personal directory] or h: drive [network share directory]. Also to be sufficiently familiar with a directory structure to locate files from other directories
  9. Use Save As when appropriate
    Use the Save As command if you wish to change any aspect of a file name, such as its title, or its location (i.e., drive or directory)
  10. Print a document to a network printer
    Use the Print command or button to send the document to a selected printer. Be familiar with the settings of the Print dialogue box (e.g., number of copies, and selected pages to print)
  11. Begin a New document
    Use the New command from the File menu, or the New button
  12. Begin a New document based on a template
    Select an appropriate template type from the list in the File .. Open dialogue box
  13. Switch between currently open applications
    If more than one application is open (e.g., email and a word processor), there is no need to close one to use the other. In Windows, use the Alt+Tab technique for switching - hold down the Alt key and tap Tab; let Alt go when the required application is listed on the screen. On a Macintosh, use the Application menu - a drop-down menu on the far right of the menu bar listing all currently open applications
  14. Create folders/directories
    Use File Manager (or Finder on a Mac) to create a subdirectory system for storing files in an organized way. Be familiar with naming conventions (e.g. 8 character file names on a PC) and the process of moving and copying files and folders between folders and drives
  15. Delete unwanted files
    Use the File Manager or the Finder to find and delete unwanted files. Sort files in order of modification date to find oldest files easily
  16. Rename files
    Rename files as necessary. Recognize the three character file extension required and the eight character restriction on PC-based systems
  17. Copy or move files between drives and directories
    Rearrange the directory structure and contents using either File Manager or the Finder
  18. Save a document as a template
    Using the Save As command, change the File Type to Template - this file can then be used as an untitled document, and saved without altering the contents of the original document

Competency Manual Online
The logical extension of the Competency Manual was an online version. The first question had to be why? There had to be some degree of extra functionality or convenience over the paper version.

A number of advantages were obvious from the start

  • easy update of content
  • ready access to each user's competency profile
  • availability of profiles for monitoring staff progress

There were also elements of concern

  • there are still a significant number of staff who are not sufficiently confident with the use of a browser
  • if individual permission was not granted for manager access, the system could be seen as more threatening, and so become used less willingly
  • extra thought and effort had to be given to the security of information

Currently, the online version assures that the database reliably stores and dates the competencies checked by the individual. A manager and individuals can be assigned to a specific department. A manager has access to the same files as the individual, but cannot change anything. A "super-user" or administrator access allows the configuration of managers and departments.

The online version of the competency manual can be used to complete the training-needs chart defined in the paper-based manual. It:

  • allows users to define their priority levels for applications (as above)
  • automatically assigns the competency rating based on the proportion of competencies checked for that application
  • plots each application on the chart, and archives each version of the chart to allow progress to be reviewed.

At this stage, one of the undeveloped major elements of the manual is an assessment tool. Currently, all skills are self-assessed, relying totally on the user-integrity. While there is no material incentive attached to the competency profile, this is not seen as a problem. If the campus decided to reward competency progress in some material way, some form of assessment tasks would clearly become necessary.

The present version of the online competency manual can be viewed at

[We need a summary and conclusion.]

Critical Reviews

The possibility to monitor your developments in IT learning in the way presented in the article and related Web site is a good idea.

There were some new viewpoints and tips for me in this article. It may be especially good for representatives of big schools and companies.

Overall, I liked this article. Maybe there were too many details in the descriptions, but this didn't disturb me much.

This is a well written article with excellent suggestions.  I have some additional ideas for this piece.  At my institution, we convinced our human resources department to negotiate a coupon purchase agreement with one of the local commercial computer applications training firms.  They sold us a number of course coupons, good for any of their classes, at a reduced rate.  These coupons were then made available to the departments to assist them in promoting staff development.

We also developed a professional partners mentoring program.  Faculty members with technology expertise serve as facilitators to groups of faculty and staff interested in learning more about particular technologies.  For example, I, along with our Academic Education Coordinator, facilitate the advanced web publishing mentoring group.  We meet twice a month with interested faculty and staff and discuss new web technologies, demonstrate new HTML design strategies, and encourage other members of the group to bring design challenges for all of us to tackle or web page design efforts for the group review.   In our group, we encourage the participants to share their own experiences and often lead discussions rather than conduct the meeting like a typical lecture class.   There are also mentoring groups on database design, introductory HTML, desktop publishing, spreadsheets, and datawarehouse information analysis.

The article also touched on the subject of assessment.  Self assessment is usually not a helpful indicator to use to design a training strategy.  Too often I have had to deal with staff that indicated on their hiring documents that they were "competent" in particular software packages only to discover they didn't even know what I was talking about when I instructed them to
double click on Network Neighborhood!  An alternate suggestion would be to obtain competency assessment software from such companies as Quiz in Atlanta, GA.  Quiz offers assessment software for most major office applications.  I have urged our human resources department to obtain copies of the software that can be "checked out" by departments for screening purposes.

I also asked our President and Provost to issue institutional guidelines that would specify that any course at the University involving computer usage, communications, mathematics, graphic design, accounting, economics, etc. should be treated by unit managers as "work related" even if the course was not directly related to the employee's present assignment.  This would qualify these courses for work release and tuition subsidy providing opportunities for professional development and advancement.   You can imagine my amazement when they announced the new policy this year.