Today's Computer Training: Good Enough for the Information Age?

Government staff are finding it relatively easy to get PC training, but learning how to manage complex technology projects and use state-of-the-art application development tools is another matter.

by / June 30, 1995 0
July 1995



Level of Gvt: State, local



Function: MIS Training



Problem/Situation: State and local governments need to beef up computer training for users and MIS staff.



Solution: Government is using novel and effective ways to make computer training easy and affordable. However, MIS directors are trying to cope with a new generation of information systems that require special skills and training.



Jurisdictions: Dade County, Fla.; California; Indiana; Monroe County, N.Y.; Texas.



Vendors: Center for Project Management G2 Research, Standish Group.



Contacts: Joann Washington, Texas Department of Information Resources 512/834-4809; Deborah Ray-Syms, California State EDP Education Program (SEEP), 916/323-2110







By Tod Newcombe



News Editor



In 1972, California's Department of General Services started the State EDP Education Program (SEEP) to provide technological training for government employees. Back then, training was geared toward mainframe computing. SEEP still provides training to program and operate the big iron machines, but today the typical class is more likely to involve a Windows-based software program for personal computers.



The shift in training is no surprise. State and local government has undergone a dramatic expansion of information processing at the desktop. In 1988, nearly 80 percent of government information was processed on mainframes. Today, mainframes handle only about 50 percent, and by 1998 it will be closer to 40 percent, according to G2 Research Inc.



The fastest growing computer platform in state and local government is, of course, the PC. Following the rising curve in PC computing is a surge in demand for training on MS-DOS, Windows and Macintosh software. The Texas Department of Information Resources saw attendance at PC training classes more than double between 1992 and 1994. In California, 98 percent of SEEP's training is now PC-based.



But while government works to meet the growing demand for PC training, it is doing little to educate and train MIS staff in developing software programs for managing the increasingly complex information systems state and local governments now require.







INDIANA



In Indiana, for example, the state has a goal to improve information sharing between agencies. Meeting that goal requires a new information architecture, one that is heavily based on integrated databases, pointed out Fred Alvarez, MIS director for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. "But it just doesn't happen by adding new computers and networks," he said. "We're missing the rest of the story."



Alvarez and other MIS directors say it's hard to find both resources and top level support for specific technical and managerial training, such as I-CASE (integrated computer-aided software engineering) and project management. These skills are needed to build and manage the new breed of government information systems, such as integrated social service eligibility systems, criminal justice systems and statewide financial systems.



In particular, training in project management has been singled out as a weak point in state and local government. One reason, according to Raj J. Kapur, vice president of the Center for Project Management, is the lack of buy-in at the executive level. "Government executives don't understand project management, especially for complex information systems," he said. "Often they look to tools to meet management needs or solve problems. That's just putting the cart before the horse."



Some states are responding to the problem by beefing up their management training programs. Others say that as the demand for high-tech training, such as I-CASE, increases, resources will be shifted to meet the need. Whether these responses prove adequate in the long run remain unclear.







GOVERNMENT AS TRAINING BROKER



When the number of PCs in government began to boom during the late 1980s, MIS training departments discovered they couldn't keep up with all the software programs workers were loading on their desktop computers. Rather than try and become experts in everything - an impossible task - MIS set up programs that matched training needs with available services.



The idea was to act as a broker between government agencies in need of training, and private training centers and vendors. This approach quickly proved beneficial for individual agencies. MIS not only handled all the logistics of finding and contracting qualified trainers, they pooled the training needs of the entire government and leveraged sizeable discounts on a wide range of classes.







TEXAS



The Texas Department of Information Resources became a training broker when the state Legislature passed the Information Resources Management Act, charging DIR with providing and coordinating all technology training programs for the entire state government. Since 1991, DIR has provided a full schedule of PC classes conducted by third-party trainers using DIR's facilities. The classes are open to federal, state, city, county, school district and law enforcement personnel.



In 1994, more than 6,600 individuals received training through DIR. According to Joann Washington, DIR's manager of training and education, the department charges a nominal administration fee for each of the classes brokered. Some of the benefits of DIR's training program include onsite training - which reduces travel costs - and coordination of resources, which ensures that agencies don't run duplicative training programs. DIR said its classes generally cost 30 to 60 percent less than comparable training in the private sector. Last year, DIR saved public sector organizations more than $736,000 in training costs through its brokering program.







SEEP



California's SEEP is another large computer education program, offering over 100 courses in technology training. Each year, more than 5,000 federal, state and local employees take computer classes that have been arranged by SEEP. In addition to helping government agencies by leveraging course discounts, SEEP also reduces course paperwork for registration and billing with an electronic funds transfer system.



Because it's not mandatory that public sector employees use SEEP for training, the Department of General Services must recruit agencies to use its services. "We're in competition with the private vendors," remarked Valerie Bothun, an administrative assistant, "because employees don't have to use us." One way SEEP competes is by putting a lot of effort into ensuring the quality of the courses it offers. It also works at marketing the courses to employees.



In addition to the wide variety of PC courses, SEEP has introduced several management level programs in recent years. Government managers can attend the year-long Data Processing Managers Training Academy, the Management Development Program - which is a three-month program - or the annual Executive Institute.



This September, SEEP is embarking on an entirely new project - a live satellite broadcast training program for government managers and team leaders. The program will link regional sites around the state so that managers and executives can "attend" live sessions that will explore the issue of change in management processes. To make the sessions truly interactive, they will employ broadcast techniques including talk show format, debate, reenactments, three-dimensional computer animation, case studies and role playing.







MONROE COUNTY



For government entities that have neither access nor funds for the stylish and substantive course programs offered in some states, PC training is a more down-to-earth affair. Yet even moderate-sized governments can apply some of the successful techniques used by larger governments. In Monroe County, N.Y., the Department of Information Services has recently partnered with two private companies to provide PC training for county staff.



"A couple of years ago, inhouse training would have been the norm," said Judy Walsh, director of information services for the county. But the department's role has changed in recent years, from providing every possible information service to managing the county's investment in information technology. "We figured out pretty quickly that inhouse training was not cost effective," commented Walsh.



Like California and Texas, Monroe County's Department of Information Services takes care of the bidding and negotiates favorable rates for the training, but does not mandate that county employees use the vendors. "We don't guarantee the vendors anything," she said.



Besides cost, Walsh believes outsourced training has a big advantage over inhouse training. "The minute you put county employees in a class with people from other business sectors, they learn things they would never learn from attending classes with their own kind," she said.







PROJECT MANAGEMENT



Before PCs became the rage in Monroe County and elsewhere, MIS staff spent their time writing programs for mainframe computers and administering to the needs of the highly-centralized systems. Today, their role is under transformation. "The shift is to business process reengineering, vendor management and project management," said Walsh. "There's a whole different set of skills that IS staff need than what was traditionally attributed to information services."



The public and private sector is in the midst of building a host of new applications in an environment of downsizing, reengineering and distributed client/server computing. According to a recent study by the Standish Group, the work is not going too well. More than 30 percent of all application development projects in the United States will get canceled before they ever get completed, while another 53 percent will overrun their initial cost estimates by 189 percent.



Inadequate training for project management is considered one of the key reasons why so many large-scale computer systems end up in trouble. According to the Center for Project Management, application development projects involving reengineering are often driven by unrealistic deadlines, unclear goals, and run by a handful of energetic employees formed into ad hoc reengineering teams. These teams typically want to produce concrete results as soon as possible. With this approach success is sporadic, and failure is common.



What's missing, according to Raj Kapur, is a comprehensive understanding of the project's process. "If you don't know how to tell time, a watch is no good," he explained. The center trains managers to define and implement a regimented process that includes stages for chartering the project, detailing plans and estimates, executing the working plans according to schedule and implementing the project.



In government, project management usually falls on the shoulders of someone in MIS whose skills are often more technical than managerial. According to Walsh, project management training is often hard to come by. "Most learn by watching someone else do it," she said. Walsh's department usually hires an outside consultant for certain projects and matches them up with a staff person, hoping the situation leads to a skills transfer. "We call this painting the boat while under sail," she remarked.



A look at what other governments offer for project management training makes it easy to understand Walsh's problem. While SEEP in California offers several management courses, its catalog lists only one specific class for project management. At the same time, SEEP offers nine classes for WordPerfect and seven for LOTUS 1-2-3.







CAREERS FOR THE INFO HIGHWAY



MIS departments face other training problems brought on by a civil service structure that is slow to change. For example, Walsh said the new computing environment in government requires people with special skills, yet the civil service examination for MIS staff in Monroe County is both generic and restrictive. She said the test tends to favor people who have mainframe skills, whereas she now needs people with skills in AS/400s or PC networking.



People who have special skills sometimes don't score well on generic tests, according to Walsh. Either they lack knowledge on more traditional computing skills or they just don't test well. And if the person happens to have the skills for a job that's in high demand, the last thing they care to take is a generic computer test. "A network person can get a job anywhere these days," said Walsh. "It's difficult for me to get that person to join my department."



To remedy the situation MIS directors must turn to specialized training to retrain their existing staff. Unfortunately, specialized training is often too expensive for many agencies and departments. That is the problem Fred Alvarez is having in Indiana. He wants to use I-CASE to reengineer his department's information systems so they can more easily share information.



But he can't recruit new employees who specialize in CASE because the state's civil service doesn't have a position yet that fits that category. "Changing the situation requires going to the civil service and convincing them that the need exists to bring up a whole new set of positions and career paths, along with a new compensation structure," he said. But changing an infrastructure that's been the same for 20 years is unlikely to happen soon.



So, Alvarez is spending nearly $100,000 to train a few of his staff on how to use CASE tools. But he's at the mercy of the trainer in terms of when and where the training takes place. And once his employees are trained, there's no guarantee they will stay. "Other state agencies or private businesses can easily cannibalize from me," said Alvarez.



With no easy answer, Alvarez is hoping to enlist the state's computer learning center to set up a CASE training program that would be available year round at affordable rates. For that to happen, Alvarez needs as many agencies as possible to participate. He's begun talking to other state agencies, as well as regional city and county departments, to convince them to share some of their resources for CASE training.



Alvarez knows it won't be easy. "I'm afraid that some agency heads will shy away from making the investment and will continue to invest in less expensive, but more fragmentary training." According to Alvarez, training in PC-based relational databases is popular these days, but it doesn't provide government the skills for running integrated information systems on an enterprise scale.



By investing resources primarily in PC training, government is just going for the Alka-Seltzer solution, remarked Alvarez. "It's the fast, rapid solution that doesn't accomplish anything. PC training without any training that fosters true integration just gives you fast relief. After that, you're dead."