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Computer incompetents in the cross-hairs. (In the Trenches).

Human Resources managers are distressingly aware that more than half the middle and senior managers (40- and 50-year-olds) in their organizations are technologically Incompetent. That may be a conservative estimate. Many managers appear computer competent if someone else sets up the screen. They fill in the blanks. Having spent millions on technology, most corporate CEOs, many of whom can't use a computer either, are drawing a bead on middle managers who are passively resisting the computer revolution. Physician executives are no exception.

Retained recruiters and HR people tell us they often uncover the truth during an interview. A manager's resume looks great, but when asked about PowerPoint, the candidate responds, "I'm familiar with it," or "I've just signed up for a course." He or she is tap dancing. Ditto with responses to questions about other widely used software, such as Excel and Word. The real issue is whether the candidate can create, format, edit, and print a document using the software.

At least half of our 40-something career planning clients want to know if they really need technology. They ask. "Is there some way to get around it?" Although most have computers at home and their kids are whizzes, they're reluctant (read, computerphobic) themselves.

Given the current shortage of physician managers with good track records and people skills, can middle managers skirt technology issues until retirement if they dance slowly enough? We doubt it--unless they become entrepreneurs. They can't forever ignore the demands of top management to "get with the program"--the computer program, that is. And even the self-employed will need to know the technology until they can afford to hire people to do it for them.

The push from top management is multipronged. Setting a bad example for younger employees isn't the issue; the real problem, as top management sees it, is wasted resources. It's about unrealized payoffs from those technology millions, the best deployment of scarce talent, and growing annoyance from top to bottom at passive resistance.

Avoiding email is a good example of wasted technology dollars. Although it's cheaper and faster than snail mail and virtually all executives have an email address, it's rarely used. While the 20-somethings email the world, older managers still reach for the telephone. the fax, or believe it or not, dictation equipment. It's "I'll call you," unless the pressure is on from top management--via email--to use that medium. Even then, if a decision is urgent, subordinates soon learn to use voice mail with the boss.

And even voice mail is underused. Younger workers twit their bosses by leaving long messages. They realize the boss knows only how to access voice mail, listen, and either save or delete. The boss must listen to the whole message because he or she doesn't know how to interrupt it or fast forward it. (Job hunters know this too and the savvy ones always ask for the hirer's voice mail.)

Senior managers justify their avoidance and underuse by saying, "As long as secretaries and assistants have good technology skills, what difference does it make?" (Many privately admit that their secretaries and subordinates are also status symbols.) The fact is. secretaries are scarce and expensive. Except in the glamour industries, new college graduates with good technology skills no longer have to work as a secretary or gofer to "get a foot in the door." They can demand jobs with more prestige and money.

Young subordinates have little patience with bosses who lack technology skills. It's an unnecessary hassle. A new hire in a medical staff office told me. "Why should my boss make so much money when he can't even use Word? He still dictates his letters!"

In exit interviews. HR people frequently hear that too much of a new hire's time was spent creating documents for a technically challenged boss who refused to master basic programs. This is not good news in an organization searching for ways to cut costs. It doesn't take a strategic planner to see that many so-called support people could be productively redeployed if computer competence was universal.

However, no one can agree on how to get managers to master technology. Training managers agree that, short of threats of bodily harm, they can't force participation. Attendance at company-sponsored computer training programs follows a familiar pattern: Younger workers show up faithfully because the training enhances their transferable skills. Their bosses cancel because they say they've been called into meetings or are leaving town. What about those who tell recruiters they are "taking a course?" Most aren't. They might--if they desperately want a job with a specific organization and know they have to pass a test on the software to get the offer.

Tactics to bar technically challenged managers

What will organizations do? I've talked with headhunters who told me their Fortune 500 clients demand they test all candidates. A woman who specializes in $250,000+ health care jobs said. "My clients are using me as a gatekeeper. They will only interview candidates with mastery of specific software. They realize it shrinks the candidate pool dramatically, but they are determined not to let another computer illiterate in the door. Every computer Illiterate means an upfront investment in support staff."

Inhouse recruiters say the same thing. Their marching orders are not to hire anyone whose technology skills are suspect. An HR manager told us she had to turn down two great candidates when, on close questioning, she learned that neither had ever used WordPerfect or Word. Did she tell them why they didn't get an offer? Yes. One candidate remarked that, "There are a ton of jobs out there that don't require computers. I'm looking for one of those."

Organizations are using other tactics to bar technically challenged managers. The growth in the number of jobs posted on company Websites versus those in newspapers and trade magazines is explosive. In a very short time, the majority of middle management jobs will be online and not in the print media, although they may be in print media Websites. Website postings almost guarantee that computer incompetents won't apply because they don't know how to use the Web.

This tactic levels the recruiting playing field. Fortune 500s will have less of an advantage with their large want ads in a newspaper when the smallest organization can afford a Website. To younger candidates, a job posting on the Web says the company is technically state-of-the-art, which they are looking for. (This is not always true; some Websites are pretty primitive.)

Everyone we've talked to is convinced that organizations will get increasingly tough about technology. Our guess is we'll see universal annual testing on basic programs within the next few years, absolutely at the first economic downturn. If everyone is tested yearly and raises and bonuses are tied to proving competency as well as to performance, managers currently in denial will either learn or leave. Who's competent and who's not will also influence layoffs.

To physician executives, it's unthinkable that the organization would get rid of them because they can't or won't master the technology. Is underuse of email really grounds for dismissal? Don't years of medical management experience count for anything, especially when younger workers, including physicians. want only to be individual contributors, responsible for no one but themselves? That's the question only the marketplace will answer. Turning down a needed and productive manager because he or she is a techie illiterate will be a hotly debated decision in many board rooms. In the mean time, those who still believe they can ride out the computer revolution may want to rethink that strategy.

Marilyn Moats Kennedy is Managing Partner, Career Strategies, Inc., Wilmette, Illinois, and a long-dine member of the ACPE faculty She can be reached at 1150 Wilmette Avenue, Wilmette, Illinois 60091, 847/251-1661, via fax at 847/251-5191. and via email at
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Article Details
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Author:Kennedy, Marilyn Moats
Publication:Physician Executive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Previous Article:Part 2: pay physicians more to practice in underserved areas. (Attracting Qualified Physicians to Underserved Areas).
Next Article:Innovative leadership: generating ideas. (Career Management).

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