Could the Information Technology [IT] skills shortage be largely a skills wastage? I submit that there is a vast national reserve of IT skill that is never used to anything like its full potential. The reason is that the only way the market will allow it to be used is, for many tasks, far too inflexible.
A proven more flexible way of applying IT skills exists. However, that alternative way is rarely used. This is because it invariably meets an undeserved degree of blind market resistance. And this must be to a large extent because it has never been properly marketed.
I think we should explore fully every possible way of realising the full potential of our indigenous base of IT expertise. If we do this now, then by 1992 when the barriers to free trade within the EEC disappear, we should have a lucrative market ready and waiting for the IT expertise which we are particularly well equipped to provide.
We hear an awful lot nowadays about the UK's IT skills shortage. Many factors must contribute to this. However one of the most dominant is surely the restricted methods of working through which those with the necessary skills can apply them to the vast amount of work waiting to be done. Traditionally, there are only two ways open to people with IT expertise to apply their skills. The first is as full time employees. The second is as on-site contractors working through an agency.
It is readily acknowledged that, the only practical way a young person fresh from school or college can gain essential initial experience is through a full time job in a reasonably sized company. A newcomer needs the supervision, training and guidance which only that kind of environment can provide. Furthermore, the older people who manage, guide and train these younger ones usually have to be co-located with them in a central office. And there are of course those of all ages and experience who simply prefer to work in this kind of environment.
Once an employee has gained enough experience, however, permanent employment may not be the best way of applying that person's skills to the nation's IT needs. Permanent employment can, at this stage, leave the employer with a vital but underused overhead and the employee professionally unfulfilled. A long serving permanently employed specialist may come to feel that he is now being paid far below his market worth. On the other hand, his employer can neither make use of his full potential nor afford to pay him what he is worth.
An employee who is single, and has no location-critical family ties or obligations, can relocate relatively easily and get a higher position with a different employer. But most, since starting with their original employer, will have married, bought a house and got children settled in at school in an area where that employer is probably the only one who can use their respective skills. So they must either accept the situation, or up-root their family from its established home and social environment and move to a different part of the country, or perhaps even the world.
Furthermore, if they are to keep their family intact, they will both have, coincidentally, to find jobs of the right kind in the same new locality. Having moved, it is likely that their move will have been away from easy reach of their extended families, making family backup and child minding expensive and less emotionally-secure.
Permanent employment thus restricts a person's skills to use by only one company when that company may not need the full use of those skills all the time. Indeed, can any one employer ever tap the full potential of any professionally-mature individual?
On-site contractors, working through agencies, fulfil a vital need where the nature of a company's work creates sporadic demands for large amounts of extra effort, or where particularly specialised expertise is required on a one-off or intermittent basis. However, this way of working can make harsh personal demands on the contractor, which are nothing to do with his technical skills. He may have to commute vast distances along unfamiliar routes, or spend weeks at a time away from home. This can be quite exhilarating when one is young, single and childless, but once with a family and home, the money cannot make up for the inevitable stress.
A significant drawback is that once on-site, the contractor (like the permanent employee) is effectively cut off from the outside world. He can never therefore be available to give on-going telephone support to his previous client for whom a quick question and answer could save hours of fruitless effort.
Many a contractor has turned down a job for which he is ideally suited because it is beyond commuting distance. And why shouldn't he? He (and his family) have a right to a home and social life in the area in which they live. It is not right that dad should have to be a stranger who calls in at weekends — and sleeps most of the time to recover from excessive travel on top of a week of very demanding mental effort.
The emergence of personal computers of ever increasing power, coupled with improved data transmission speeds over switched lines, means that just about any aspect of software development and maintenance, which once demanded the constant use of large and expensive systems, can now, for the most part, be done on PCs, either in isolation or while logged on to a distant mainframe.
This has opened up another way of working which offers a far more flexible and efficient means of applying the knowledge and skills of the IT expert to the currently unsatisfied national thirst for that knowledge and those skills. This method is off-site working — topically known as telecommuting.
The term 'telecommuter' has different interpretations, but in this article it refers to an independent IT professional who is either self employed or operates through a small company, and who is based either at his home or close by.
The telecommuter has his own office equipped with all the usual necessities like a desk, telephone, answering machine, modem, computers, printers, filing cabinets plus a wealth of technical knowledge and expertise. His facilities are invariably better than those provided by a client to an on-site contractor or by an employer to an employee, and they are eternally familiar to him. His office is quieter and therefore much more conducive to concentrated productive work. He arrives there in the morning after a minimal journey (or even no journey at all), not having had to expend half his daily reserve of mental concentration on a stressful car journey, or having his mind numbed by the noise and crush of the morning commuter train.
The knowledge and skills of an IT expert anywhere in the country can thus serve any client anywhere else in the country (or even the world) for any duration of time. His skills benefit those who most need them, when they are most needed, for only as long as they are needed. An off-site consultant can get a distant client 'on the air' again by giving a few guiding words over the telephone, or by logging on to the client's system directly from his own office to make a simple strategic adjustment to their software. Ten minutes later he can be helping another company or continuing with a long-term software development job.
Telecommuting thus frees the familiar tasks of systems analysis, design, specification, programming, testing and commissioning from geographic and corporate constraints. It gives the IT user access to a vastly expanded army of relevant human resources without the costly long term commitment of employing them as permanent staff or the problems of accommodating, equipping and managing temporary on-site contractors.
I have been in the computer industry for over 25 years, having spent the past 14 years doing a variety of systems design, programming and software documentation projects based at my own fully equipped office. However, my recurring problem has always been that once into a project, I have no time to keep my ears to the ground for new work and thereby get rapidly out of touch with my market. Consequently I have to spend at least half my time looking for work leaving only half to actually do work.
About two years ago, I wrote an open letter on this subject to the computer industry press. My letter was published in several journals and over 50 people responded, the majority of whom were small software companies and independent IT professionals.
All concurred strongly with the comments in my letter regarding the vast proportion of time that had to be spent finding work rather than doing it and the consequential need for some form of central marketing enterprise to find the work and despatch the expertise and skills of such IT experts to the corporate departmental and small company IT user market. Such a response to just one short letter suggests that there must be an abundance of off-site IT expertise available.
Independent IT experts are usually self-motivated self-disciplined individuals to whom the cloistered regimentation of corporate life holds little attraction and offers them no practical route to professional fulfilment. This very nature, however, equips them for a growing sector of demand for IT expertise. As computers penetrate deeper into the finer fabric of business and industry, systems become smaller and more numerous, as do the budgets for implementing them. What is needed here is this breed of expert who can take any small information-based problem from the nebulous ideas of a non computer literate client to practical solution without the constrictive job demarcation and management overheads of the traditional large-scale IT project.
The government's publicity drive to get businesses to adopt information technology as a means of boosting efficiency and world competitiveness has resulted in a large number of personal computers and local area networks being installed in both small to medium sized companies and individual departments of large corporations. However, in the wake of this come the many tales of woe of how firms have seemingly wasted large sums of money on boxes of electronics which they do not know how to use. Frequently, management does not understand the technology, but then they would not have to if they took advantage of the readily available professional help.
The problem is that all but a few of the dealers from whom these systems are bought are what are known in the industry as 'box shifters' — dealers who simply sell the contents of cardboard boxes and do not have the expertise to provide the technical support required to enable their customers to make full and proper use of the technology they have bought. This results in the customer's investment in IT being under-used, and often, not used at all. This is not the dealer's fault. A dealer cannot maintain a base of expertise in applying computers to every possible business requirement. This is not his function. His function is to supply and maintain the computer hardware and standard off-the-shelf software.
What the user needs is software and application expertise in the area required by his particular business. Such users are frequently desperate for help, but cannot afford or justify full-time computer staff or on-site contractors. For the most part they only need help to get started or when they have a problem. The solution is to have a consultant based off-site on retainer or for short periods as required. But neither the user nor the dealer knows where to find one. This is because such experts do not have the means to market themselves effectively.
The only method open to most IT experts for marketing their skills is by personally making direct contact with prospective customers. But a lone telecommuter does not have the resources to cover enough ground in this way to guarantee work full time. Nor can he afford to maintain a level of advertising that would lend an appropriate degree of credibility to his services.
Current market attitudes don't help. Potential users of IT skills are reluctant to hire independent experts, firstly because they cannot see the value of their skills, and secondly because not being able to tell a good IT expert from a bad one, they are fearful of wasting large amounts of money on a bad one.
Management attitudes in the large corporate IT skills market pose a similar problem. Sadly, the majority of managers within large corporations will only use off-site resources as a last resort, and even then, very reluctantly. Underlying the excuses given lurks the fear that since the company cannot keep a constant eye on anybody working off-site, then that person will not be as committed to the work in hand and will take unlimited time out to do other (personal) things.
This shows a grave lack of understanding of the psychological forces that motivate the independent expert. The most important goal for such an individual is to achieve and maintain a good name — his whole livelihood depends on it. Knowing that the only measure of his worth is the results he produces, the last thing he is going to do is risk his reputation by default. He wants to be recommended.
In order to combat prospective client resistance and open up these sectors of the IT skills market to the telecommuter, it is therefore necessary to do two things:
Change the attitudes in the marketplace so that the off-site worker becomes a credible and respected means of putting the nation's enormous base of IT skills to full and proper use.
Create some form of enterprise which has the resources and modus operandi through which the off-site worker's skills can be marketed effectively and economically.
If we expect to have a significant role in the future world of Information Technology, then we cannot afford to impose upon ourselves handicaps which other nations do not impose upon themselves.
Two years ago, I sent a mailshot to 243 IT placement and contracting agencies to see if they would handle off-site professionals in the corporate departmental and small to medium business market. Only three of them showed any interest, but said that their traditional methods of doing business could not service that market economically. It appears that established employment and contract agencies do not work in a way which could 1) keep sufficiently up-to-date information on skill availability instantly accessible to clients, or 2) provide IT experts with a market credibility and a way of working flexible enough to make the best use of their time and skills.
Their traditional field is the large corporate marketplace into which they market and sell IT skills in the form of on-site contractors and permanent staff. This marketplace needs a large constant turnover per client. They therefore need only a few clients to maintain their business at a desirable size. They can therefore justify their method of marketing which is to maintain close contact with key people in client organisations, keeping a high visibility and presence by such means as regular telephone calls and lavish client entertaining.
To maintain a comparable turnover and profitability in the small business or corporate departmental markets where the turnover per client would be far smaller, the above method of marketing would be prohibitively expensive. Sadly, my agency mailshot suggests that practically all the agencies feel ill equipped to diversify into a market which requires quite a different approach to the marketing and selling of IT skills.
The conclusion is, therefore, that there is a large and much underused reserve of IT skill co-existing with a large and unsatisfied client demand. The need is there. What is needed is there. But they cannot find each other. Clearly what is missing is a means of bringing them together.
Independents have at times attempted to provide such a means by forming themselves into loose associations and clubs and by setting up professional grapevines. However, these rarely succeed and they invariably evaporate away as each member becomes preoccupied with his next big project.
To provide an effective and economic means for a geographically distributed group of independent IT professionals to market their skills requires a rather special kind of enterprise. Having been unable to find such an enterprise already in existence of which I, as an IT professional, could become a member, I decided (two years ago now) to try to get some entrepreneurs and sources of finance and management skills interested in establishing one. I suggested the name of Telecommuting Associates Ltd.
Telecommuting Associates Ltd, it is hoped, will develop as a centrally managed yet physically dispersed provider of information technology expertise. It will be cemented together by comprehensive state-of-the-art voice and data communications facilities. There will be a strong formal relationship between member and the central enterprise. This will secure each member's commitment to the enterprise while preserving each member's sense of independence.
The central enterprise will provide its members with:
a central marketing and sales office
a common corporate identity which shall afford them a high degree of professional credibility in the marketplace
an active direct marketing function which shall communicate their existence — and the services they provide — through a mix of media including telesales, mailing, telex, fax, electronic mail and a mobile sales team
a passive client enquiry facility which shall use a dial-in database to provide both established and prospective clients with an instant, direct and economic means of accessing details of the skills and day-by-day availability of members to technical level decision makers in client companies so that hard technical facts are not lost or distorted through non or semi-technical intermediaries.
a private electronic bulletin board with gateways into the Telex and Public Circuit/Packet Switched Data Networks in order to afford them access to public value added network services and direct links to large client systems for uploading and testing new software.
helpful financial services such as invoice factoring and credit control to ensure that they receive prompt payment for their work.
Each member will have a specified and published minimum level of:
Consequently clients can be confident of the quality of service they will receive.
Because through hi-tech communications we can link-in expertise from anywhere in the country without the constraints of time and travel, we are the most likely to be able to provide the expertise a client requires quickly and for any duration.
Because we each work from our own fixed bases [home or local office] we remain individually accessible, even after a project has been completed, for on-going client support.
Because we are not pre-fatigued by commuting or emotionally deprived by long continuous spells away from home, our days are longer and more productive, giving the client better value for money.
The benefits of becoming a member of Telecommuting Associates Ltd are:
Centralised enquiries from prospective clients
No commuting. You travel only to properly scheduled meetings to gather information and liaise with clients
You are an independent business and are free to buy whatever equipment and facilities suit your specialities and meet the minimum published requirements.
You have full management and control over your own day-to-day work.
Being home or locally based allows you to have a proper family and social life.
Your market is the whole of the U.K., and from 1992, the whole of the EEC.
Market-rate remuneration, plus a shared interest and involvement in the central marketing enterprise.
Are you a current or potential user of IT expertise? If so, what support, development aid and future business would you like to give our new enterprise? Would £500 a year be a reasonable membership fee?
Are you an IT expert who would like to work as a properly equipped independent IT telecommuter? If so, what skills and experience can you provide?
Are you a potential investor, marketeer, manager or administrator for our new enterprise. If so, what can you contribute?
With comprehensive wide area communications being such a vital part of our corporate structure, what facilities and support would the common carriers and value-added network service providers be able to supply us with. For example, when can we expect to be able to have ISDN Basic Access at home or in a small local office at an affordable price?
I look forward to hearing from you.
RJM 30 December 1990