The role of computer literacy in skills pinch

For the past 20 years or more, the UK has had skills shortages. In every sector there are complaints about everything from basic literacy and numeracy, to specific sector skills.

For the past 20 years or more, the UK has had skills shortages. In every sector there are complaints about everything from basic literacy and numeracy, to specific sector skills, writes Richard Pettinger, lecturer in management at University College London.

By common consent, this also applies to computer science and IT, and all of the skills, qualities and capabilities that go with this discipline. The generation of children that has grown up using computers since they could walk is perceived as being computer-illiterate.

Computer literacy needs

This, therefore, begs the question: what exactly is computer literacy? Clearly, it is not just the ability to use a computer - most people can now do that. If that were the case, we would all be computer literate. There would be no complaint and no skills shortage either. So the debate moves on to what we might call "effective computer capability".

And there the matter is normally left to rest, because tackling questions such as this is hard work, and collectively we are not good at it.

The idea that leaders, managers and computer experts need to sit down together and establish what they want is obvious in principle, but difficult to do in practice. People are much more comfortable sticking to their own environment, knowledge, terms and context.

From a computer science point of view, effectiveness relates to the perfection and capability of the technology itself. From a project management point of view, this is to do with the completion and delivery of the technology to the client's specification and satisfaction. From an individual and collective capability point of view, this is to do with delivering one's own part of the overall project and output as efficiently as possible.

Lack of accountability

When things do go wrong, each of these groups can sit in isolation, secure in the knowledge that they did their bit right and that it was not their fault. And the overall result is invariably that projects overrun, are superseded by events and do not deliver what was required.

Computer literacy must encompass an understanding of business needs. Technology is commissioned, installed and replaced for all sorts of reasons (vanity, fashion, currency, even isolated capability).

There must be a much greater knowledge and understanding of what technology is to deliver in terms of enduring profitability and effectiveness.

Closely related is managerial and leadership expertise, especially in the field of project management. The discipline of project management ought to become a recognised profession, if for no other reason than the sheer cost of projects, the elements of risk, and the critical nature of cost and benefit evaluation.

None of this will be easy, quick or cheap to deliver. But if we can agree to settle down and do it, we are all going to have a much clearer understanding of what we are going to be asking of present and future generations in terms of genuine computer and technology literacy.

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