IT skills and support for your staff
Information technology (IT) skills are vital to the success of modern businesses. This doesn't mean that you and your staff have to be IT experts in order to succeed.
The level of IT skills your business needs depends on many things, including its size, structure and the way you deliver your products or services to your customers. However, all businesses can benefit from improving their IT and digital capabilities, including their staff competencies and skills.
This guide describes why IT skills are critical to the success of your business. It highlights the advantages of IT training for your business, helps you identify the different types of IT skills that you may be missing and tells you how to find the right training solutions for your staff.
Advantages of IT training for your business
Information technology (IT) training can help your staff be more confident and comfortable using IT. This can lead to numerous benefits to your business, including:
- increased productivity
- greater efficiency
- improved bottom line
- quicker adoption of new technologies
Due to the costs involved, user training and systems support are often seen as additional overheads. However, you need to invest money in both of these areas to ensure the success of IT systems.
Benefits of IT training and development for staff
There are many potential benefits of investing in the IT skills of your workforce. For example, staff training and development:
- helps your business run better - it makes your staff better equipped to use computer systems, handle customer enquiries or make a sale
- helps staff acquire new skills - this can increase their contribution to your business, as well as their self-esteem and personal development
- enables staff to undertake new and different tasks - this can lead to job enhancements, promotion and increased motivation and job satisfaction
- helps staff gain confidence in their use of IT - this can increase their productivity and efficiency
- makes transition to new IT systems and technologies easier - for both your staff and customers
- makes your staff feel appreciated - they will see you investing time and money in their professional development, so retention and morale can increase
Risks of not investing in IT training
If you don't give your staff adequate IT training, they may not be able to use your IT systems efficiently. This can potentially lead to:
- business operations being disrupted
- efficiency and productivity falling
- staff becoming frustrated and unhappy
- deadlines being missed
- the business losing confidence in the new system
The more effort you put into training and supporting your staff, the greater the rewards will be in the end. See more on the types of IT training available.
You may also want to read about the general advantages of staff training.
Different types of IT skills
There are many different types of information technology (IT) skills. Generally, they can be classified as:
- Application-oriented skills - these are skills needed to work effectively with application software packages, such as Microsoft Office suite. Applications also include more complex software, such as accounts, computer-aided design, graphic design etc.
- Development skills - these are skills used to create or modify computer systems. This includes programming and database design. These types of skills require a good knowledge of how computer systems work. IT staff working in development have often completed a course in higher education to equip them for this role.
- Operations skills - these skills are needed to keep your IT systems and infrastructure working effectively and securely. These also require in-depth knowledge and experience of computer systems.
In most businesses, the majority of employees only require application-oriented IT skills.
Application-oriented skills depend on the type of package that you use. Typical business applications include:
- word processing
- presentation graphics - ie producing slides for a presentation
- databases - usually simple lists of data such as customer names and addresses
- email - including the use of calendars for booking and attending meetings
In order to use applications effectively, your staff need to understand some basic concepts such as:
- files and the commands for working with them, such as 'copy' and 'paste'
- the security rules that apply to computer use within the organisation, including the use of passwords
The best way to determine if your staff have the skills they need to perform their job efficiently is to carry out an IT training and learning needs analysis.
For best practice on analysing and identifying training requirements in your business, see how to identify staff training needs.
IT training and learning needs analysis
Before arranging IT training for your staff, you should carry out a training and learning needs analysis (TLNA). This will ensure that your training is cost-effective and better received.
Training needs analysis for IT skills
Training needs analysis can be very sophisticated, but a simple approach is suitable for most small businesses. The goal of a training needs analysis is to:
- decide if training is really needed
- find any causes of poor performance
- decide on the content and scope of training
- define the required training outcomes
Training needs analysis stages
Typically, you can carry out an IT training needs analysis in stages:
1. Identify the problem - decide which business issues you need to address. For example, you may need to improve the productivity in producing reports for clients. This may involve different staff carrying out different roles. See how to identify staff training needs.
2. Plan the TLNA - this work will involve some or all of your staff. It's important to have a clear plan for the training needs analysis and keep all those involved informed. Tell staff how long the exercise will last, who you will interview and the outcomes that you expect from the TLNA.
3. Collect information - interview your staff so that you understand their current IT skill levels. In a small business this can be a fairly informal process. If you need basic office skills, you can use the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) programme to provide a structure for these interviews.
4. Analyse information - review the interview results to determine where you should concentrate training effort. Consider which training methods may fit your business.
5. Develop a training action plan - define what training is needed by whom, and how soon. See how to develop a staff training plan.
6. Communicate the results to your staff - once you identify your training needs, consider the ways in which you can deliver the required training. See more on the types of IT training available.
Types of IT training available
Staff training can take many forms and utilise many different methods. The right training can help you make the most of your investment in information technology (IT) systems.
To determine what type and level of training your staff may need, you should carry out an IT training and learning needs analysis.
Methods of IT training
Depending on what IT skills your business needs, there are many sources and methods of training available, including:
- Internal training - You can ask an experienced person within your business to train their co-workers or host a training session that focuses on a particular skill or task. This can be an inexpensive way to upskill your staff. Keep in mind that effective delivery of training is a skill in itself and you may need to source course material separately.
- Public courses - You can book a training course with professional training providers or companies. The course will take place away from the workplace, often at the provider's own venue, and the price of the training may also include course material.
- In-house training - You can hire training organisations, IT consultants or system suppliers to deliver bespoke training to your staff at your own premises. Larger organisations may find this type of training cost-effective if they have multiple employees with the same training needs. This is unlikely to be the case for small businesses with just a few staff.
- Computer-based training - Some training providers will offer computer-based training, most often delivered over the internet. These types of courses often provide business with a more cost-effective and flexible approach to staff training.
- Self-paced learning - Some people may find learning on their own easier than taking a training course. You may wish to source some self-study books or manuals, if you find that your employees best learn on their own.
- One-to-one - In some circumstances, one-to-one delivery of training may best meet the learning needs of individuals. For example, many IT qualifications are based on experience gained in the workplace and are often highly practical in nature. The training required will often be given on a one-to-one basis that provides hands-on experience.
Some training - such as webinars, interactive tutorials, learning videos, etc - may be available online free of charge. There are pros and cons to any type of training. Make sure that you consider all the options to find training methods to fit your business.
Choosing your training provider
Any business can set itself up as a training provider. When choosing training solutions, make sure that the provider is legitimate, accredited, with good references and that the training meets a recognised standard. See more on IT skills standards and qualifications.
IT skills standards and qualifications
When training your staff in information technologies (IT), you should consider training that meets the required standards. .
Two main standards relate to recognised qualifications in computer skills:
By following established standards, you can ensure that your staff gain the most relevant skills and qualifications.
ECDL is the world's leading computer skills certification. The ECDL is made up of a range of modules. Each provides a practical programme of up-to-date skills and knowledge areas, which are validated by a test. Read about the ECDL modules.
The ECDL also offers a qualification called the ECDL-CTP (ECDL Certified Training Professional). This qualification shows that a person has demonstrated their competence to deliver ECDL training. You should check that any training providers you use have this qualification.
The ECDL Foundation is independent of the major application vendors and their qualifications are vendor neutral (ie they are not tied to a particular supplier's software). This means that the skills learnt are transferable to different application suites.
Certain qualifications are highly specialised and relate to specific computer applications or packages. Examples of these include courses on bookkeeping skills based on particular accounting suites, or computer-aided design skills based on industry standard packages.
Training for IT support staff
There are many qualifications aimed at equipping staff with skills in specific areas, such as desktop support, networking and systems engineering. These qualifications will often be established and administrated by hardware or software manufacturers such as Cisco, Novell or Microsoft.
Some examples of the qualifications on offer include:
- MCSE - Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer
- MCDST - Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician
- MCSA - Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator
- MCSD - Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer
- CCNA - Cisco Certified Network Associate
- CCNP - Cisco Certified Network Professional
- CNE - Certified Novell Engineer
- CAN - Certified Novell Administrator
Independent qualifications not tied to specific companies include:
- CompTIA A+ Certification - general PC maintenance and support skills
- CompTIA Network+ Certification - general PC networking and support skills
For most businesses, IT systems are a significant investment. To make the most of it, it is important to ensure that your staff have the right skills to use and leverage these systems to your business' benefit.
If your business is in a particular industry, you could consider seeking sector-specific advice on skills development. See more on sector-specific skills and training in Northern Ireland.
Review the effectiveness of your IT training
Information technology (IT) training should aim to meet business objectives. You should decide who needs training, and in what skills, by means of an IT training and learning needs analysis.
Once your staff complete their training, make sure that they have the opportunity to use and reinforce their new skills. Without this immediate practice, much of the benefits of the training can be lost.
How to evaluate the effectiveness of training?
You can evaluate the effectiveness of the training by reviewing the capabilities of your employees in the relevant set of skills, before and after training.
A good way to do this is to:
- speak to staff and ask them how well they are able to carry out the tasks that they were trained on
- seek feedback on trainers who delivered the training
- monitor changes in staff performance and efficiency after the training
- monitor the need for external support in this particular IT area
Understanding the impact of the training can help you select better training suppliers and courses in the future.
Outsourcing IT and technical support
The complex nature of computers and applications means that problems with hardware or software are inevitable. Some form of technical support is essential for ensuring the continuity of information technology (IT) systems used by your business.
Reactive vs. proactive technical support
Technical support can be categorised in two ways:
- reactive support is concerned with responding to problems as they occur and identifying and supplying solutions
- proactive support attempts to ensure that systems are properly maintained and monitored to find potential problems and fix them before they become major issues
Both types of technical support are available as either in-house or externally sourced solutions.
Advantages of in-house support over outsourcing IT
The main advantage of providing in-house IT support is that you can deal with problems quickly and provide proactive support more easily. However, employing dedicated IT staff can be expensive.
Contracting out or outsourcing IT support to third parties is more common. It tends to be more cost-effective because you seek and get support as required. The support service is:
- usually accessed via a telephone helpdesk
- often supplemented by email communications
If you can't resolve a problem over email or phone, it will be escalated. If an on-site visit is required it usually costs extra.
If you are considering outsourcing your IT support to a third-party provider, it is best to choose someone based on a personal recommendation as the quality of service can vary.
Bear in mind that you might compromise your customers' rights and void any potential warranties if you have equipment serviced by an unauthorised third party.
Support for your business software and hardware
Most software manufacturers provide remote support for a limited period. Typically this will be from 30 days to one year, with the option to purchase additional support as required.
Outsourced support isn't usually an option with hardware, as problems often require some form of physical intervention. However, warranties may require faulty equipment to be returned to the supplier rather than being repaired on-site by an engineer. This could mean that you are without key equipment for the duration of the repair, if a replacement hasn't been provided.
Before you buy any IT equipment, you should look into the length of the warranty, and service levels during the warranty and after it. See how to choose an IT supplier for your business.
Checklist: Choosing an IT training provider
With many options available, choosing an information technology (IT) training provider can be difficult. Before committing to a particular course or entering into a technical support contract, it can help to ask the following questions:
- How long has the supplier been established?
- What training materials and documentation are provided to attendees of the training company's courses?
- Does the training company offer any materials for evaluation purposes so that you can try before you buy?
- Does the training company conduct a training needs analysis and offer consultancy? If so, at what rates?
- Are training costs based on the number of students or is there a set charge for a particular course?
- Is the training company prepared to provide training on-site? What facilities will be needed, eg room layout, equipment, etc?
- What are the specific costs associated with the provision of technical support, eg an annual cost or renewable subscription, a charge per PC being supported, charges based on the number of users, etc?
- What procedures are in place to escalate support calls to ensure that they progress towards a solution?
- Is the technical support supplier prepared to make on-site visits to address and rectify technical issues with your systems? If so, what are the charges associated with such services?
- What qualifications do the supplier's technicians hold? Are they fully qualified or certified by the manufacturers to support and maintain your IT hardware and software?
- Can the support company provide references for you to contact?
Get help with ICT
If you need assistance with ICT issues or assessing your business' skills requirements, you can get practical advice and help from Invest Northern Ireland's (Invest NI) eBusiness advisers.
Contact the Invest NI Helpline on 0800 181 4422 to get in touch with eBusiness advisers or, alternatively, see how you can benefit from ICT support.