End-user training is a perennial problem. One approach that is becoming increasingly popular is the idea of issuing users with a computer "driving licence".
The idea, says Roger Hake of the British Computer Society (BCS), was devised in Finland in the early 1990s, and picked up by the Confederation of Computer Societies. It won European Commission funding to develop an appropriate syllabus and instigate training programmes for what has now become the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL).
In the UK the BCS administers the scheme, and accredits educational establishments, training companies and test centres which provide the training and testing for firms and individuals. The Government too, with its declared interest in improving the standard of computer literacy in the UK, is keen on the ECDL.
So should IT directors be enthusiastic? "It's very much in the interests of IT directors to have a basic level of IT literacy and awareness in their end-user population," says Jim Norton of the Institute of Directors.
A member of staff holding an ECDL should, he points out, make more efficient and more productive use of the IT available.
What is more, because the ECDL is an international qualification, companies can have confidence that any member of staff with a computer driving licence has achieved a common standard of proficiency, so they have a good, reliable benchmark to go by when assessing how well trained their users are.
"When recruiting it's difficult to determine what a person's standard of IT skills is," says Hake. "The ECDL is a badge of confidence that the user has been well trained."
The ECDL syllabus consists of seven modules which cover IT literacy from the basics up to quite demanding levels of proficiency, and evolves to meet IT developments that users will encounter in their work.
"The syllabus is updated about every 18 months," says Hake. One of the most recent updates, of course, has been to incorporate the Internet and e-business applications into the range of modules.
One of the attractive aspects of taking the ECDL is that candidates can work at their own pace, at home or in the office, keeping their log-books and moving through the modules. Users who are already more advanced than others can move faster than those who have started from a more basic level.
According to Hake the ECDL is proving popular with both companies and their staff. "We've got a critical mass [of licence holders]," he says, "about 200,000 in the UK and more than a million worldwide, and interest is growing daily."
The ECDL Foundation is currently exploring ways of introducing the driving licence into the US, and has already seen it get going in the Far East, in Hong Kong.
The largest UK organisation to embrace ECDL so far, Hake says, is the Ministry of Defence, which will put about 400,000 staff through the programme.
Companies going for the ECDL are finding a high degree of user enthusiasm for it. "They feel it's worthwhile and that employers are showing faith in them," says Norton. "British companies tend to underestimate the effect that providing training has on employees."
Staff pass the test at Bank of England and Pfizer
Both the Bank of England and pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer have adopted ECDL for their employees. "It's very beneficial both to the company and to the learning person," says Lisa Running, flexible learning centre manager at Pfizer.
"From the company's point of view we get computer-literate staff, and from the learner's point of view they get a sense of self-worth that the company is investing in them, and they get an internationally accepted [qualification]," she said. Pfizer currently has about 300 staff going through the programme.
The Bank of England is encouraging all staff to participate in the ECDL. The message comes from the top - deputy governor Mervyn King already has his computer driving licence.
"Across the bank, the ECDL will enable people to achieve a wide range of essential skills in IT, on which they can build in the future," says King.
"I am convinced that it is an ideal way for my colleagues to improve and consolidate their knowledge, to build confidence and to improve both productivity and decision-making."
Having a senior champion is an excellent way of marketing the concept internally, as well as making senior managers realise the value of it, says Helen Banner, whose training company runs the bank's ECDL programme.
Both the bank and Pfizer kicked the ECDL programme off with a pilot run. "We picked a few people, such as receptionists and some administrative staff, and some new employees," says Running.
Pfizer had already identified not only that there was a gap in the level of IT literacy the company required, but what that gap was. The company runs the scheme on an entirely voluntary basis, but finds that staff are keen to take up the training Pfizer is offering them for free.
"It's up to the individual, there are no dos and don'ts, but we don't discourage anyone from taking it," says Running.
"It's been well worthwhile because of the amount of people who have done it and are now very computer literate - they are streets ahead."
Keeping the training programme flexible is also important, says Banner, because some people respond better to different learning environments.
The bank offers both computer-based training in ECDL and more formal classroom training.
The bank's pilot scheme ran for six months, after which it was assessed, and then rolled out to the whole organisation.
"A pilot scheme is a good way to get a feel for the programme and promote it internally," Banner advises. "You need to have a representative group of people in the scheme, with a mix of skills levels."
Implementing ECDL can be attached to a major IT change programme or upgrade, but it need not be. Hitching it "can be a good opportunity to upgrade IT skills, but the ECDL programme needs its own identity as well," she points out. Having an ECDL won't turn users into superusers overnight, but it will give them confidence and competence, and a greater awareness of why employers mandate security policies. t For more details on the scheme, visit www.ecdl.com