Ctrl Alt Delete: Lost productivity due to IT problems and inadequate computer skills in the workplace

Van Deursen, A.J.A.M. & Van Dijk, J.A.G.M. (2012). CTRL ALT DELETE. Productiviteitsverlies door ICT-problemen en ontoereikende digitale vaardigheden. Enschede: Universiteit Twente.

Management summary and recommendations

The average Dutch employee loses 7.6% of productive time due to poor IT resources or inadequate personal computer skills. To date, this problem seems to have escaped the attention of both employees and managers. Potential solutions include appropriate training, a more prominent role for the helpdesk, and better support from informal networks such as colleagues, whereupon the productivity losses can be reduced. For the vast majority of Dutch employees, using the computer is now an essential work skill: it is all ‘part of the job’. However, the importance of computers – and of IT in the broader sense – goes far beyond the impact on our daily work routine. IT facilitates and simplifies many activities, and renders some unnecessary altogether. IT allows companies to compete effectively, promoting transparency and innovation in products, services and processes. The importance of computers and IT is underscored by the findings of several studies, all of which conclude that IT has been the main factor in the significant increase in productivity achieved by the Dutch national economy in recent decades. Nevertheless, there has been relatively little research examining the other side of the equation: the productivity loss for which the use of computers are responsible. At one time or another, most of us have been kept waiting on the phone while the person at the other end apologises profusely because his computer is taking so long to start. We may have lost an entire morning because the (mail) server was down. We know the frustration of not being able to log into the company systems from a remote location. This study is concerned with this productivity loss, and with the ways in which it can be resolved.

The various study results presented in this report are summarised in the table opposite [#overleaf]. On average, the respondents in our sample group lose almost half an hour (27 minutes and 37 seconds) of productive time due to IT-related problems, representing an overall productivity loss of 7.6%. In other words, for every hour spent at the computer, 4 minutes and 34 seconds are entirely unproductive. The problem is most acute among lower-grade professions and staff with a lower level of education, whose productivity loss can be as high as ten per cent. For various reasons, it is difficult to quantify the precise economic value of this lost productivity although a simple calculation reveals that it is a substantial amount.

Problem is not widely acknowledged

According to our findings, this extremely significant productivity loss goes largely ignored, as do the underlying causes. Employees consistently rate their own computer skills to be at a far higher level than can be justified by any other study. Notably, the vast majority of employees have had no IT training whatsoever in the last three years. Many claim that such training is unnecessary because their skills are already at the required level.

Perhaps even more surprising is that organisations have done very little to improve their employees’ computer skills.

Respondents state that they developed more than 75% of their computer knowledge and skills independently, rather than relying on training or resources provided by their employer. This is particularly true of respondents in the senior management subgroup, who generally seek help in developing their computer skills beyond the organisation itself. As a result, development of computer skills relies on the informal support offered by an employee’s colleagues: a form of unstructured, on-the-job training. This study reveals that this type of assistance is of far greater importance than any other. Of course, questions can be raised concerning the quality and effectiveness of this non-professional (although not necessarily unprofessional) approach. Moreover, it must be remembered that time spent helping colleagues (whether to solve acute IT problems or to develop their general computer skills) is time which cannot be spent on other things, and is therefore another cause of lost productivity

Solutions are available
The findings of this study reveal that there are indeed plentiful opportunities to address the problem of lost productivity. The first potential solution is to provide better training, and to do so more frequently. Of all respondents, only 22% report having attended a formal training course during the past three years. Training is likely to have a major impact on productivity: the study reveals that those who have attended a course gain 33 minutes of productive time each day. Although this figure may appear to be high, we must remember that developments in IT are extremely rapid. New hardware devices and new programs are introduced on a regular basis, while new versions of existing software may include additional time-saving features and functionality. Good, targeted training can therefore be particularly effective in keeping employees’ skills up to date.

A second potential solution is to enhance the effectiveness of the helpdesk function. At various points in this study it becomes apparent that the support offered by the organisation’s IT helpdesk is not always in keeping with the organisation’s actual requirements. The first indication is, of course, that employees generally seek each other’s help to solve problems before they even think of contacting the helpdesk. A number of respondents in this study are themselves helpdesk staff. They state that many of the hardware and software problems brought to their attention are due to lack of experience and inadequate computer skills on the part of the user. However, they do not see it as their responsibility to improve user skills. The average helpdesk employee sees his role as primarily that of a technical adviser.

A third potential solution is to build upon the existing informal networks in which colleagues help each other to solve IT-related problems and develop the necessary computer skills. In other words, those informal networks should be formalised, at least in part.

The solutions suggested in this report are primarily intended to solve the problem of lost productivity by improving individual computer skills. Doing so will automatically resolve a number of the problems associated with the use of hardware and software. There are alternative approaches which may serve the same purpose, such as devoting attention to the stability and user-friendliness of applications. Organisations should undertake a careful selection and purchasing process to ensure that any new IT applications are the most appropriate choice in the circumstances. These are aspects to which organisations and their IT providers must indeed devote attention, but which fall outside the scope of the current report and recommendations.

10 Recommendations

No matter what solutions are implemented, it will be impossible to reduce the identified loss of productivity to zero, if only because the rapid technological developments will call for ongoing investment – in both time and money – to assimilate new devices and applications. However, we are able to present ten firm recommendations which we believe will go some way towards resolving the problem of lost productivity.

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