Dysfunctional versus utilitarian computer use.
As an avid promoter of computer awareness and literacy,(1) I frequently feel as if I am functioning in a schizoid world fluctuating between user-friendliness and computer fright. Computer educators must often balance a reluctance to use computers against the expectation that they have become simple to operate. Computer dealers, advertisements, and the computer in-crowd insist that computers are indeed user-friendly. Yet when we try to use an unfamiliar piece of software or sometimes even format a disk, we find ourselves screaming disgustedly because the computer does not understand our intentions. It just sits there staring back at us or gives us some cryptic message no "real" person could understand, such as "error int 24."
Are we, indeed, becoming a computer literate society? The evidence does not point in that direction. Even though there is greater access to computer hardware and software, and some training has occurred, we seem to be light years away from computer literacy. A survey compiled by Datamation supports this claim, indicating that organizational computer training has been inadequate in meeting the demands of users (Tom, 1991; Datamation, 1989). Rosenberg (1991), a member of the board of directors of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, writes, "Computer literacy instruction does not amount to meaningful job training [and] does not enhance general thinking. . ."
Week after week I get the same type of requests from users having difficulty with routine computer operations. One of the most common problems involves loading a program onto the hard drive. A computer literate person should be able to load software. For several of the application programs on the market, the user has to make the directory and change into it before installing the program. It still surprises me how few individuals know how to do this. Even formatting a disk can create problems. Many times users cannot understand why they are having difficulty with their diskettes. Upon examination, they have formated a 360K to 1.2M or a 720K to a 1.44M. A recent "computer department call" uncovered WordPerfect data files being saved in the root directory. Purging these files on a periodic basis took tremendous amounts of the user's time. The two minutes it took to teach the staff how to make a directory and save data files to it had a high payoff. But enough of examples, many of us could fill tomes.
These examples represent only the tip of the iceberg for what I choose to term dysfunctional computer use. Computer use is dysfunctional whenever computer learning results in interference with the designated use of computers and their applications for the overall good of the organization. A lack of understanding of what is needed by the users and management makes the dysfunctional situation more difficult to correct. Users need to be able to perform routine computer operations such as selecting print drivers, loading software programs, and altering the autoexec.bat file.(2) However, when routine tasks such as altering the number of files in the autoexec.bat file to run WordPerfect cannot be accomplished by the users, they must wait until an expert can work in a computer department call. This is usually not just a matter of waiting for hours; sometimes days and even weeks can pass before the expert can get to the problem which might take only a few minutes to correct. The amount of time, money, and convenience sacrificed is costly. No organization can afford this kind of waste!
An important point is that these are examples of individuals who want to be knowledgeable about computers and who understand that computer skills are essential in our technological world. Furthermore, many of these users, as products of the "electronic generation," are supposed to be computer literate and need little training or assistance. In fact, those of us in education pat ourselves on the back as we assure one another that we are indeed graduating computer literate individuals. So, what is missing? Where is the dysfunctionality originating? The next section addresses this problem.
Definition of the Problem
The problem is twofold. One dimension is the inadequacy of the terms "computer literate" and "computer literacy" for disclosing the proper focus for computer learning. The second one stems from a breakdown in understanding the essence of computer learning. The outcomes of dysfunctional computer use have been severe: no significant increases in productivity in many of the areas of organizational computing, and an under-utilization of computer resources. This means a lower than expected return on investment (ROI) for the organization's computer system. An Information Studies research team for Syracuse University found that if a system is not used properly to its fullest, the automation is wasted (Richter, 1993). Information Systems professionals hear over and over and over ". . . my system just doesn't do what I thought it would do." Or, a worst but not uncommon scenario is that it sits in a corner collecting dust, unplugged, and unused. This occurs even though an organization may have several individuals eagerly interested in learning more about the application of the computer to the decision making process. In addition, the level of frustration eventually experienced by dysfunctional users leads to an unwillingness to learn more about computers, which further hinders their employment.
As Martin Heidegger stated, "Language is the house of being (Heidegger, 1977)." This may be an overstatement when attempting to analyze computer dysfunctionality. Nevertheless, one dimension of the problem is that current terminology is inadequate for disclosing the level of computer knowledge needed to use computer technology efficiently and effectively. The language has been forced instead of being allowed to unfold. The inability of those "in the know" to articulate the path that should be pursued to reach a utility level of computer information makes dysfunctional learning very difficult to overcome.
As has already been stated, the two terms most commonly used for computer learning are "computer literate" and "computer literacy." In some circles these terms are considered synonymous. In others, they represent very different concepts. Some experts want to add a third term to the fray - "computing literacy." At a recent computer conference there was quite a lively debate on the differences between these terms. Perhaps academicians have become too caught up in defining the terms and have forgotten what the terms are supposed to symbolize - computer knowledge possessed by computer users in an organization that is employed to improve the organization's competitive position. That the terms no longer attend to the needs of the users is evidenced by the recent trend of professionals engaging in what might be viewed as computer literacy bashing (Hannum, 1992; Rosenberg, 1991).
Perhaps a more complete term would be computer utilitarian. This is a user equipped with skills and knowledge who can manipulate computer technology for the overall good of the organization. Behavior of organization members should contribute to capitalizing on its strengths to promote market competitiveness, and most business leaders would contend that computer technology has become integral to this process. Robert Peacock, chairman of the Ramapo Financial Corporation, (Nadler, 1993) asserts that "Not to be computer literate is not to compete in the twenty-first century." Although I would disagree with his choice of words, the concept cannot be doubted.
Computer utilitarians not only know their specific software application but also how to perform routine operations on their computers and to engage in successful computer-oriented problem-solving. They do not have unproductive, downtime waiting for a highly paid "expert" to load software, select print drivers, or alter the autoexec.bat file. The objective of computer learning should be to make each user a utilitarian. If this could be achieved, there would be a significant increase in a company's ROI and in productivity for its computer system. Djouadi (1991) has found that the source of most computer problems is user error, and once a mistake is made the users are unable to use problem-solving computer skills to correct it. It would seem reasonable that organizations should be striving for computer utility - not computer literacy.
The Essence of Computer Learning
With the exception of acquiring computer knowledge, learning is acknowledged to be an evolutionary process. Academicians and managers know what it takes to become literate in other areas, such as language, mathematics, or engineering: years of schooling and study. Yet they frequently act as if the learning curve is nonexistent for computer learning and that individuals with computer knowledge have acquired it miraculously. Many will not concede that computer learning is also a matter of building and experimenting and becoming more and more knowledgeable. Instead, those in decision-making positions think that computer learning is revolutionary, can be accomplished quickly, and does not have to be maintained. This is the other dimension of the dysfunctionality of computer learning, that it is not sudden, mysterious, or timeless as so many assume.
This misunderstanding of the essence of computer learning coupled with the inadequacy of language has resulted in deep-rooted aberrations of computer learning. When management and even the academicians attempt to correct the difficulties associated with computer learning, they have been unsuccessful because they have not had the proper framework. They have been trying to make users literate when they should be focusing on making them utilitarians. To manage computer dysfunctionality, myths have been invented to objectify the unknown and little understood aspects of computers. These myths have greatly hindered the development of utilitarian computer users and perpetuated dysfunctionality.
Computer Learning Myths
This section explores some of these myths in order to understand and to dispel them so that resources can be focused on promoting utilitarian computer learning. Presently, there is tremendous waste in all types of organizations as they attempt to find the quick fix that will bring them painlessly into the technology-oriented 1990s and beyond. This article does not have time to address all of them, but a few of the most damaging ones will be presented.
* If you are willing to learn about computers, all you need to do is get a tutorial and dive right in.
This myth has created many diverse problems. One is that not everyone has the temperament to just dig in and leam to use computers. It takes a self-assured person who does not mind making mistakes and looking foolish. As a prominent English professor once stated, ". . . stupid time is a necessary component of becoming computer literate."
There is no reason to reinvent the wheel each time someone wants to become a utilitarian computer user. A few want to probe the nuances of a program to discover the shortcuts and problems and share this knowledge with others. But it is certainly a waste of time and money for all people to figure out everything on their own. A component of all learning is taking what someone else has discovered and building upon it. So also with computer knowledge. Think where civilization would be if every person had to discover such concepts as gravity and electricity.
Many individuals do not have the time to learn computer skills without the benefit of an educator. Although learning to use and understand computers is not all that difficult, it is time consuming. Even many who are willing to become computer informed have difficulty finding the time to do so. This is especially true if the computer skills are work related, and all too frequently little or no time is allocated for education. Management expects the new users to acquire the necessary knowledge on their own time. In addition, they frequently are not given hardware or software needed to perform the particular task. Colleges and universities are some of the worst offenders.
* Computers have become so user-friendly, one needs little or no training to use them.
This is the impression people get from watching commercials on TV or reading. So when they turn on the computer and it stares back with some strange icons, the user can feel inadequate. The advertisements seem to indicate that computers can sense one's thoughts, perform the desired functions, and almost magically produce the right answer whether it be number crunching or grammar checking. How often have you seen beautiful documents appear before a surprised boss or watch as complex drawings are created in seconds. Don't we all wish it were that easy. Learning to use computers, no matter how friendly they are alleged to be, still requires a substantial commitment of time from the user.
* Computers really have a mind of their own, which makes them scary and somewhat unapproachable.
Computer phobia continues to be present in the work place; but as Paul Nadler (1992) states "[t]here is no place for computerphobes . . . [in] the 21 st century." However, some people are still so skittish about computers they do not even want to be physically near one. Part of the problem is that computers do exactly what we tell them to do, but that may not be what we want them to do. They cannot assess our intentions, at least not yet. And, most computer users have at one time or another lost an important file. We also have heard numerous horror stories about computer viruses, corrupted files, and one million dollar phone bills that managers may insist you pay because "computers don't make mistakes." All of this augments fright of computers. A national review of the Robert Redford film SNEAKERS proclaimed, ". . . if you aren't scared of computers before you see this film, you certainly will be afterwards."
* All one needs to do is learn some computer skills, and decision-making will miraculously improve.
We certainly are bombarded with information telling us how computer hardware and software will improve our decision-making if we can just get the proper configuration. Many users do want the computers to make the decisions for them. They want to be able to do some number crunching or grammar checking and be told what actions to take. For the most part, this is a misuse of computer technology. We need to remember that computer models cannot contain all of the variables of a problem. This not only applies to mathematical programs but also to such things as grammar checking.
Nevertheless, decision-making should improve because the computer and appropriate software should have generated the right information at the right time. This does not take the place of the decision-maker. Computers just provide additional information for making the decision. This misunderstanding, however, causes some managers to become disenchanted with computers, to decrease their use, and consequently to have a low return on investment. There is no doubt, computers aid the decision-making process, but they usually can not replace it.
* One-day or one-weekend workshops teach computer users with little or no experience all they need to know to get started.
All types or organizations spend a substantial amount of funds annually to send their employees to one-day or one-weekend workshops to make them an instant computer utilitarian. After this short introductory course, the employees return to work but are unable to reproduce the skills that they have allegedly learned. Frequently, this just reinforces their original reluctance about working with computers. Now they have had a course and still cannot "work the things." The short workshops perpetuate the notion that computer learning is revolutionary, not evolutionary.
This shortsighted approach does not apply to organizations; thousands of individuals attend short workshops each year with the hope of an instantaneous acquisition of "computer knowledge." As an example, a friend with a Ph.D. in theology and many publications in her field was determined to acquire some computer skills and learn WordPerfect. After purchasing a computer, she proceeded to attend a one-day WordPerfect workshop. However, upon returning home with her newly acquired knowledge, she did not have a clue as to what to do with her computer. She had bought into the prevailing assumption that computer learning is a revolutionary process. In this case, she still WANTS to become a utilitarian computer user, but her computer sits unplugged in a corner.
* Familiarity with a narrow application provides the users with ample computer experience.
Many people who are considered computer enlightened are not. Many know their programs, and then only a very specific application of the program. They have no real knowledge of the computer's routine operations. They cannot load software onto a hard drive or format a low density diskette on a high density disk drive. The result is that they cannot use their computers if something out of the ordinary happens. For example, a stockbroker friend is able to download information from a mainframe. However, he cannot use a stand-alone PC, a word processor, or a spreadsheet. He cannot use the financial functions to help him determine investment decisions, capital budgeting projects, or projection statements. Although he has used a terminal for many years, he is not a utilitarian computer user. Yet, individuals who know little more than how to turn the computer on and perform a few functions receive a barrage of calls from others requesting assistance.
Promoting Computer Utility
The emphasis for developing a utilitarian computer user should be placed on the education (not training) of the user and on the methods (not technology) utilized. Presently, journals are full of articles discussing appropriate training which implies that there is a set of skills to be learned that prepares the users to tackle the computer at multiple levels. By placing the focus on learning a series of skills (i.e. training), users have been created that can only function as long as that set of skills is applicable. If anything out of the ordinary occurs, the user must halt contributing to the organization until someone arrives to remedy the problem. However, educated users who are aware of the basic functioning of computers and software will have several viable options available for solving computer-related problems.
The other emphasis should be on the method of educating computer users. The method cannot be one of learning a narrow set of skills for some specific technology, for the skills by themselves are very limiting and the technology will soon change. However, the problem-solving approach to computer use will provide users with computer-oriented resources which will allow them to find the solution within themselves, i.e., to be a utilitarian computer user. To do this, the teaching program must incorporate the essence of learning and provide for a gradual, evolutionary learning process - not a one-evening workshop. Problem-solving skills for coping with computer problems can be improved with practice. So numerous problem-solving exercises should be the focus of the computer education program.
Some models have been developed for computer literacy, but they have been very broad (Tom, 1991). Although this article is not prepared to offer a model for computer utility, it does include some recommendations that should help managers establish computer utility programs.
1) Delineate computer learning objectives that are congruent with the organizational objectives. This will provide a focus for computer utility education.
2) Appoint experienced users to the instructional computing department who can provide users with a system for learning to utilize various pieces of software and hardware.
3) Employ an instructional method that is based on hands-on problem-solving exercises. An experienced user-instructor will have no difficulty writing these exercises.
4) Provide the users with adequate hardware and software to perform their jobs.
5) Appoint experienced users as technical and resource support persons. Their function should be viewed as a teaching one, not just a trouble-shooting one.
6) Plan for new or updated hardware or software purchases by providing education prior to requiring computer or software use in the work place.
7) Take advantage of vendor training realizing that it should not provide the primary education (Governing, 1993).
8) Establish a users' group and provide a meeting time during regular work hours. This can be one of the most productive activities a company can pursue.
9) Maintain the 800 support numbers for all hardware and software including those for printers, scanners, etc. on each computer. This is an under-utilized, efficient user resource.
10) Keep adequate manuals and reference texts in an easy-to-access location. There are many excellent references such as the Software for Dummies, (e.g., DOS and WordPerfect) series and the Que books.
11) Provide basic operating systems education for all users. Have available at each computer a set of the most often used commands on index cards - one card for each command. Include their proper syntax and a brief description of what each does. This should include any GUI (Graphic User Interface), such as Windows, if users are responsible for using such software.
12) Establish routine meetings between managers, instructors, and resource persons to assess what computer capabilities are needed to promote organizational objectives.
13) Provide an avenue for users to learn an assortment of programs employed by the organization. For example, some type of compensation could be given to correspond to the number of programs mastered.
14) Develop an adventuresome demeanor in the users by encouraging them to experiment with solving computer problems.
Organizations have been active participants in promoting computer dysfunctionality. Their search for a quick fix for computer ignorance has resulted in the entrenchment of dysfunctional computer learning and use. However, organizations and academicians must converge on the task at hand - defining and developing utilitarian computer users. There is a need to redefine current terminology to articulate appropriately what organizations require and desire, but this should not become an exercise in-and-of-itself. Moreover, it has been shown that firms can ill-afford to ignore the evolutionary nature of computer learning, and that the inane notion of revolutionary or miraculous acquisition of knowledge must be abandoned if computer dysfunctionality is to be eradicated.
We have seen that certain invented myths claim to be adequate mechanisms for coping with the demands of computer learning and use. Closer examinations have revealed that these myths have exacerbated computer dysfunctionality. The focus of computer learning must be directed toward developing utilitarian computer users through education so that computer technology can be used for the organization's overall good. At present, this is not occurring.
The author hopes this article represents a beginning in directing computer education toward usefulness for the organization and away from wasteful, dysfunctional use of computer resources. The approach educators and managers use for computer learning must be rethought. It is essential that companies and educational institutions at all levels find a way to exchange information on this issue and construct a workable model for developing utilitarian computer users. Technology is advancing much too rapidly for dysfunctional computer learning to maintain such a firm organizational foothold. Computer utility must replace computer literacy.
1 There will be a discussion later in the article challenging the use of terms "computer literate" and "computer literacy." However, common usage of the terms will be employed until the article allows for their discussion.
2 At a recent computer conference, an audience member commented that users did not need to know routine operations of a computer to use it. After all, he stated, "We drive cars quite well and do not know how an internal combustion engine works." However, the comparison is not valid. We still need to know to put fuel in the car, air in the tires, and water in the radiator. If we had to summons an expert every time we needed these routine tasks performed we would not drive very much.
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Mrs. Angel is currently enrolled in the doctoral program at Virginia Tech and is Assistant Professor of Business at Ferrum College. She has published in the areas of computer monitoring, technology and teaching, computer literacy, and information assessment.