Obtaining Computer Skills

August 31, 1998

This article starts by looking at how you can uncover the computer skillswhich you probably already have in the firm and suggests a format for a‘Computer Skills Audit’. It distinguishes the skills you need to obtain fromyour specialist legal supplier from other computer skills which can be obtainedlocally (and usually more cheaply) and then describes the various trainingoptions open to you. Information on a number of specific training companies andself-training resources is included.

What Skills Do People Have?

I have spent some time with various firms recently, asking their individualpartners, fee-earners, secretaries and support staff what skills they have. Ihave been surprised and impressed how many people, these days, have usedcomputers in their private and home lives and can bring these skills to theoffice – if you know about them. Here are some real examples (with the detailschanged slightly to avoid embarrassment!):

  • Peter: His wife is a teacher and uses a computer. He bought a ‘teach yourself typing book’ once and taught himself to type. His father is helping him decide what computer he should buy.
  • John: He has a PC at home and has also done a course at the Tech; he would like a PC at work and to move the firm on.
  • Edward: He has a computer at home, with Microsoft Works, Microsoft Publisher, a digital camera and photo-manipulating software; he uses Microsoft Office at home and also Word Perfect 6 for Windows.
  • Marion: She goes to an ‘Internet Cafe’ to access the Internet. Her husband uses computers at his work, she has a brother and sister both in computers – as she says ‘there are computers all around’. She and her husband are planning to get a computer at home.
  • Joan: She has a computer at home running Windows 95 – ‘built’ by her son! She uses Microsoft Word and the Microsoft spreadsheet, Excel. She is also used to a network and a shared printer from her previous job.

None of these people were previously known to have these skills, and none hadbeen particularly identified as ‘computer resources’ for the firm. In fact,however, they are all willing to get involved with computer developments intheir firm and indeed to help others improve their skills.

Carry Out a Skills Audit

It would seem sensible to carry out a ‘skills audit’ for the firm, simplyby asking each person to make a note of their existing skills and interests inthe general computer area. You could provide a general introduction along thefollowing lines:

`The firm is planning to develop its computer systems further over the nextyear and, clearly, new skills will be required from staff. Training will beprovided as appropriate but, in order to give us some idea of what computerskills already exist in the firm, we would be very grateful if you could fill inthe short questionnaire below and return the form to…’

Here is a set of questions you could ask:

  • Do you have computer skills apart from those which you may have acquired in the course of your work in the firm?
  • Do you have a computer at home? If so, could you please describe what model it is and what software you use?
  • Do you have a particular interest in computers which you would like to develop as part of your work?
  • Do you have any comments about the computers already in use at work and what the firm should be doing in future?

I think you could well be surprised by the results you will obtain from thisexercise.

Different Types of Computer Skills

For particular software systems in use in the firm, like accounts, clientdatabase and case management, the only person or organisation that can providethe necessary training is the supplier of the software. This is generallyexpensive (£500 to £600 a day) but is necessary and should not be‘skimped’.

However, there are at least four areas where you do not need specialisedlegal trainers and where local training resources could be much more costeffective, and probably more friendly and easier to assimilate.

General Windows Skills
Although Windows is supposed to be an intuitive system to use, there arebasic facts about how it works which have to be understood. For example, whatare the icons on the screen, what is the ‘Start’ menu, how do you set upmultiple Windows, how do you know what other programs are running, how do youswitch between programs, how do you cut and paste text between programs, how doyou name files and then find files again later, how do you save something orknow whether it has been saved, how do you shut down the systems, and so on.

At least half a day’s training is required on general Windows skills.

Word Processing Skills
Everyone needs training in how to use the firm’s word processing software– usually Microsoft Word or Word Perfect. You need to be taught how to createtext, change fonts and type sizes, underline, embolden, move text around, savedocuments, use tabs, search for particular words, justify text right, left andcentre, change margins, change the ‘view’ of the document (eg so you can seewhat it will look like when printed), manage multiple Windows for more than onedocument at a time, and so on.

Typing Skills
In my opinion, if you are under 70 and if you are going to use a computer atall then it is worth learning basic typing skills. Once you can use all yourfingers, then every piece of typing you do is good practice; until you can useall your fingers, every piece of typing you do is teaching you bad habits. Voicerecognition may be a viable alternative one day but, for most people, it is notyet.

Managing the Network
This is typically a course of three days costing £900 or more and isnecessary for the network manager to manage the network in a developingenvironment (eg adding new users, changing access authorisations, distributingmaterial to the users who need it, and so on), as distinct from having it set upat the beginning by the supplier and never making any changes.

Training Resources Available

Be careful, when planning your training, that you know which of the abovetypes of training you are seeking, or being provided with, and for whom. Thesesorts of training do not ‘mix’ very well. For example, if you try to learnhow to use current word processing software before you have acquired any Windowsskills, you will get very confused.

Training in computer skills is a booming market at the moment, and there aremany different types of resource available to you. Here are the most obviousones:

National, London-based or Regional Training Companies

Here are just two examples.

Learning Tree International, Mole Business Park, Leatherhead, Surrey KT227AD, 01372 364610 (or 0800 282 353), e-mail uksales@learningtree.comweb www.learningtree.com/uk. Thisis a major company putting on courses not only in London but in other regionalcentres as well. Their courses include Windows and PC support courses (but not,I think, word processing as such), networking with NT or Novell, and computerprogramming and software development. I would consider this company more a„computer-oriented company rather than a user-oriented company but, for thenetwork manager for example, there would be plenty of solid material here to getto grips with.

Premier Computer Training, Premier House, 150 Southampton Row, London WC1B5AL, tel 0171 837 2690, email, premier@premierit.co.uk,web www.premierit.co.uk.This companyprovide courses in word processing, spreadsheets, databases, desktop publishing,and Novell and NT networking. Typically, costs are £150 to £200 per person perday, but various special arrangements can be made to provide courses ‘just foryou’ with larger numbers of people, and where the unit cost therefore is less.I have had good reports of this company. (The networking managers’ courses arerather more expensive – £825 for three days – but this is still less thansome other course providers).

Local Colleges

All such colleges have basic computer courses, probably covering wordprocessing, Windows and general computer skills and possibly PC maintenance andnetworking. Call them up and ask them to send you their short course programme,they will be pleased to do so.

The good thing about these courses is that they are likely to be properlyplanned and managed – but you do have to commit the necessary time and energyto follow the course and there is always the danger that everyone else in thecourse is under 15 (you may wish to enquire about the age group beforehand!).

I understand that, in some cases, local schools also offer introductorycourses to their parents and governors which could be an option worthinvestigating.

Local Computer Training Companies
If you do not know of these already, try Yellow Pages or ring the local JobCentre. These trainers will come in to you to provide the training, or they mayhave proper training facilities on their own premises. They are likely to bemuch smaller organisations than the ones mentioned above under National andLondon-based Training Companies. You can ask them how they work, and preferablyask for a reference from another firm (it does not have to be a legal firm) forwhich they have provided training. You can then arrange for a day’s initialtraining to see how you get on. You do not have a lot to lose.

Freelance Trainers
Often, people who are not looking for full time work will offer themselvesas freelance trainers. They will not have premises of their own, but will comeinto your premises, sometimes at very reasonable rates. Again, ask for areference of some sort, but then arrange a trial day.

Friends and Relatives of Members of the Firm
You may find people known to your partners or staff who are good withcomputers and who would be pleased to provide training on an ad hoc basis. Thisis likely to be more informal, but also cheaper. There is the advantage that youcan, presumably, trust them, because of the personal contact, although there isthe danger that, if you do not like the training they provide, you could offendthe person who made the introduction.

Training Programs on Computer
There are a number of self-teaching courses provided as computer software.In particular, there are typing courses, such as the Mavis Beacon course, whichcan be very effective if you give the project a regular slot of time and havethe strength of mind to keep it up. There are also word processing courses onCD, although my own view is that some, at least, of the word processing trainingshould be provided by a human being, particularly for less confident learners.

The software can be obtained from a number of sources, such as the SoftwareWarehouse (01675 466467). They are often a bit vague about these materials (Ihave not been able to find them grouped together in a nice little ‘trainingresources’ section) but here is what the Software Warehouse told me over thephone:

Typing Tutor £8.50
Mavis Beacon Typing Course £19.95
Introduction to Windows 95 £17.00
Advance Windows 95 £17.00
Burgess Introduction to Word 97 £17.00
Microsoft’s course on Word 97; £35.00 CD and a book

Basically, at prices like these you can afford to buy a selection ofresources and then experiment a little. You could offer them round to members ofstaff and collect comments.

If anyone has particular experiences of self-teaching resources, good or bad,I would be very pleased to hear about them.

Avoid Conflicts

One thing to be careful of, in all these methods, is not to let the trainer,who may be ‘a whiz’ with computers but who probably does not understandlegal work in detail, change the way that you have structured your files, orindeed set up your network. This is particularly dangerous if the trainer iscoming into your premises and working with your system. Changing the way it isset up should be the province of your ‘main’ supplier and their trainers,not visitors to the firm.

It is also a good idea to tell your main supplier what you are doing, just incase there are any particular reasons why there could be problems.