We may be in a downturn, but the attitudes that put training bottom of the list of IT priorities are fundamentally wrong-headed, says Jon Collins.
"Our people are our greatest asset" is one of the most frequently employed oxymoronic phrases in business. Of course, it's true - everyone knows how hard it can be to get anything done if people are not working to their potential. But equally frequent are examples of businesses trying to get away without investing sufficiently in the skills and capabilities of their staff.
Cue training, which is often seen as the first thing to go when budgets get squeezed. In IT terms, training can appear in a variety of guises, from technical skills for IT staff, through software training to enable users to get the most from their tools, along with more general education in topics such as security, project management and compliance policy. To play devil's advocate for a second, is any of it actually necessary?
It's worth stripping things back a little and considering what exactly we mean by training in the first place. Where there are procedures, policies and best practices to be shared it makes sense that relevant people know what they are.
Skills cut costs and avoid risks
Fundamentally - and there is room for a football analogy here - 'training' becomes quite simply telling people the laws of the game, otherwise they might take shortcuts that raise costs and effort or create avoidable risks elsewhere in the business.
This principle also holds true when it comes to technology training. From a number of research studies and discussions through the years, we have seen how the load on the helpdesk is unnecessarily high, largely due to GUI errors - that is, gross user incompetence.
The minimum-necessary principle applies, in that it is worth investing in the smallest possible amount of training with users up front - for example, in terms of password resets and backup procedures - to avoid time-wasting support calls later.
The value of training can further be illustrated when it comes to areas such as security and compliance. If all users acted sensibly of course, many risks would be reduced. It's not that people are stupid; more that the problems are complex.
A few years ago, I ran a series of security awareness seminars for a government department. "Hands up if you back up your laptop," I said. Lots of hands shot up. "Now, keep your hand up if you keep your backup disk in the laptop case where it will get stolen," I said. Only a few hands went down.
Assessing the value of IT training
One problem is that the value of training can be perceived as difficult to assess, particularly when it is considered in awkward-to-define terms such as productivity. But when we've researched areas such as security education about using mobile devices, we've found that the number of breaches drops by an order of magnitude for organisations that train staff to use the systems.
Of course, you might hope that a lost phone, laptop or USB stick is fortunate not to have any confidential information on it or that it is simply wiped and sold on in the pub - but is this something on which you are prepared to bet your business?
The recession may not quite be over, though the fact a good friend just managed to find a job after what he terms "155 days in the wilderness" is perhaps a harbinger of better times ahead. We know from recent research that training is once again trailing at the bottom of investment priorities when it comes to IT.
Perhaps, as organisations start to re-evaluate their budgets to grow their businesses, they will look once again to investing in training as a basis of running an efficient, cost-effective organisation that really does put its people first and one that is altogether more productive.
Jon Collins is principal analyst at research firm Freeform Dynamics.