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Users Training:

A Crucial but Ignored Issue in Remote Collaborative Environments

The article was written to answer the call for papers launched by the Internet Society for the INET'99 event. The abstract was accepted, the paper rejected. Nevertheless, we wanted to make it available on the Web. If you are interested in publishing it, please write us (<[email protected]> and <[email protected]>).

Author Listing

Daniel Pimienta (<[email protected]>)
FUNREDES (Fundación Redes y Desarrollo)
Dominican Republic

Catherine Dhaussy (<[email protected]>)
FUNREDES (Fundación Redes y Desarrollo)
Dominican Republic

Table of Contents


A good deal of work is now performed in a remote way by groups of people collaborating from different organizations. These people generally have a fair knowledge of the Internet as individual users; however the projects they participate in may suffer from a killer disease: the communication among the team is not as efficient as required by the remote collaborative environment.

This paper establishes a more precise diagnostic of the common flaws of such projects, using a concept of "required Internet user level". The defined Internet user levels (unqualified, beginner, advanced, professional, fluent, expert) are characterized as growing sets of precise know-how (belonging to one of the following categories: functions, techniques, methods, and culture). The need for preliminary appropriate training and practice is established. The situation when this need is not recognized by individuals or groups is identified as a potential failure for the project. Furthermore, when the self perception of a user stands too far away from his/her actual level, the requirement for training is not understood and the group collaborative process may be blocked, or even fail.

Two schematical positions can be identified in collaborative projects using the Internet. The stand of the paper sets as a prerequisite that any group working remotely through the net must reach the required level on IT (Information Technology) skills, with special emphasis on methods and culture. The second one ignores the method considerations and relies exclusively on appropriate groupware, tending to consider the IT environment as a constraint rather than an asset.

In conclusion, we warn against the mirage of the software panacea and the risk to keep on ignoring the methods required to perform professionally with the Internet and the culture on which the Internet is standing. Replacing users training by technological developments is a dangerous illusion and a factor for failure in remote collaborative project.

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"We have too much real work to loose our time reading mails!"
"It is impossible to deal with the amount of message actually passing through the project listserv!"
"It is not because you have more experience with Internet (sic) that you know better than we!"
Those are typical reactions of unskill users complaining about the "overhead" created by the use of the Internet to communicate among partners in a remote collaborative environment. And the logical conclusion is generally:
"Let's use such or such groupware and all the communication problems we are experiencing will be solved at once."

The hidden meanings of such reactions are very interesting:

So, what can be done? If you are partner of a project where these kinds of things happen, our recommendation would be to be patient, and, following this paper recommendation, to ask the manager for a good training directed to everyone in the project, before it is too late.

It must be specified that we deal here specifically with projects conducted as collaborative activities between remote partners. Any type of collaborative activity between distant partners (who cannot afford to meet each time communication or information would require, in a close environment) sets particular requirements in terms of communication and information which have to be fulfilled by IT. Generally, those requirements are almost independent of the nature the activity (research in biology, medicine or architecture, business venture for import/export, production or distribution of goods and services, etc.).

We would like to begin by defining the very concept of "user level", and to propose an in-depth classification of the whole range of levels. Then, we shall continue with some considerations on training and the study of the opposite positions, which can result from a discrepancy between the users levels and their real needs, and/or from different stands about tools and culture. Lastly, we will briefly examine the situation which may occur in those cases, and conclude with some recommendations.

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User Level: A Classification Scheme

More than the level itself, the interesting point is to know the requirements which allow a team of people/institutions to be able to work together in different and remote environments (e.g. with a controlled and very limited number of face to face meetings).

In our opinion, the requirements can be expressed very simply as: each partner must have at least one "fluent IT user" in the team, perfectly articulated, via IT, with the team leader of each other partner (and preferably being the team leader). None of the other performing members of the team should lie below the level of "advanced user" of the same scale.
Now, what is a "fluent IT user", and an "advanced" one? In order to explain our terminlogy, we offer a chart of the IT users levels, for the sake of clarification. We do perceive these definitions of levels as points within a continuum and understand it is somehow arbitrary to set up some boundaries, but its value aims mainly at serving as a pedagogic model. Let us agree that there are some thresholds of knowledge to differentiate the main levels of users and let us try to agree more or less on the characteristics of each one of the thresholds.

We also would like to point out that, according to the nature of the working activity, environment and context of each user, a mentioned characteristic could take more or less importance. Hence, a user may belong to one of the category without necessarily matching all the characteristics (as long as the user compensates the absence of some of them in the determined level by other characteristics from a higher level).

The IT Users Chart

The characteristics are split in four categories:

UNQUALIFIED Not familiar with PC applications
Not familiar with e-mail and WWW software.
BEGINNER Familiar with PC basic applications1.
Familiar with one e-mail and one WWW software, in one computer environment.
ADVANCED The same as above plus:
  • Familiar with additional Internet services and software such as: listservs, newsgroups, chat, FTP.
  • Subscribed to a limited number of useful listservs2.
  • Capable of updating simple text in a home page, with an appropriate software.
  • The same as above plus:
  • Capable to change to a different software environment for e-mail or WWW, without too much time and difficulty.
  • Capable to do basic set-up and configuration of the software supporting the previous services (including dial-up connection).
  • Capable to deal with encoded attachments in the mail and macrovirus.
  • The same as above plus:
  • Capable to export / import information between each different application environments.
  • Capable to maintain e-mail and URL directories.
  • Capable to archive mails and retrieve archived mails.
  • Have basic methodological skills for communication as well as information retrieval3.
  • The same as above plus:
  • Have some basic knowledge about the culture of the Internet4.
  • Have some basic perspective of main Information Society issues5.
  • PROFESSIONAL The same as above plus:
  • Familiar with additional Internet services and software such as: Gopher, Telnet, Wais, fax via e-mail, telephone via the Internet.
  • Actively subscribed to an appropriate number of professional listservs.
  • Having a basic knowledge of HTML, able to understand a simple code (without programming)6.
  • The same as above plus:
  • Capable to use the basic features of the shell access.
  • Capable to change to a different software environment for any of the used services without too much time and difficulty.
  • Capable to do advanced set-up and configuration of all used services (including dial-up or LAN connections).
  • Capable to deal with a variety of encoding or compacting schemes for files embedded in the mail.
  • Familiar with filtering mechanisms for e-mail.
  • The same as above plus:
  • Up to date on the economical aspects of the Internet (market prices of PC, modem, ISP, IS7).
  • Capable to deal efficiently with a flow of incoming meaningful messages of the order of dozens p/day.
  • Capable to answer timely and systematically to all professional related e-mails.
  • Capable to perform search by keywords through mail archives.
  • Have appropriate methodological skills for communication as well as information retrieval8.
  • The same as above plus:
  • Familiar with the culture of the Internet.
  • Familiar with the Information Society issues.
  • FLUENT The same as above plus:
  • Capable to install and configure each of the software package following their proper requirements.
  • Subscribed and active in a large number of useful listservs while avoiding information overload inconveniences.
  • The same as above plus:
  • Capable to add plug-ins to the Internet browser following proper requirements and to configure correctly the behavior of the browser depending of the type of the retrieved information.
  • Capable to change fast and easily to any different software environment.
  • Aware and capable to deal with message coming from non TCP-IP networks (e.g.: Bitnet, UUCP, Fidonet).
  • Capable to deal with any type of standard encoding for files embedded in mails.
  • The same as above plus:
  • Capable to read or write large multi-media documents on the screen without printing.
  • Capable to deal with a flow of incoming messages of the order of dozens per day and outgoing messages as large as 20 or 30.
  • Capable to answer timely and systematically to all professional related e-mails even while traveling.
  • Capable to develop the appropriate professional and human skills (proactivity) to belong to virtual communities.
  • Capable to efficiently participate to an Internet based collaborative environment.
  • Capable to perform successfully an exhaustive thematical research on the Internet.
  • The same as above plus:
  • Capable to follow the reflection on Information Society Issues.
  • Have basic knowledge about domain name issues.
  • Have basic knowledge about Internet figures (number of hosts, growth rate, number of web pages).
  • EXPERT The same as above plus:
  • Capable to design and implement a web site with the support of a graphist, a computist and a Java programmer.
  • Capable to learn new IT skills, as required, in a very short time.
  • Capable to set up an Internet based collaborative environment.
  • Capable to maintain the knowledge at the pace of the change.
  • The same as above plus:
  • Capable to resolve technical, communication or information retrieval situations in a very short time.
  • Capable to set up an Internet based collaborative environment.
  • Have a basic telecommunication background.
  • Capable to maintain the knowledge at the pace of the change.
  • The same as above plus:
  • Capable to own, animate and moderate an electronic conference.
  • Capable to maintain a technological watch in the field.
  • Capable to assess, support or train fluent users.
  • Capable to set up an Internet based collaborative environment.
  • Capable to maintain the knowledge at the pace of the change.
  • The same as above plus:
  • Capable to fully contribute to the reflection on Information Society Issues.
  • Capable to maintain the knowledge at the pace of the change.
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    Considerations on training

    So far, everything seems quite easy: in a given project, the partners have the opportunity to rank themselves, and why would they doubt the need for them to be trained to a specific way to work they do not all master? Actually, some of them accept it quite well but others do not and a deadlock situation may develops as the result of a discrepancy between the reality and the self-perception.

    The Learning Process

    Some people have become fluent users without any specific training as the result of years of intense use. Most of the people from this category has been academic networkers since the 80's. Their experience and long contact with a community willing to share its values have been determinant in the process.

    New users and beginners (from the late 90's) who have not experienced a special or prolonged contact with the Internet community often need an appropriate mixture of training and experience to progressively reach the level of fluent users. Obviously, some young "self-made experts" exist: people with the appropriate motivation, curiosity and communication skills... and free time are able to train themselves and reach this level without external training.

    Now, if it is easy to read one's mail with such or such mailer on one's favorite type of computer, much more time is to be spent to become a fluent user. It is not easy to state exactly how much training is required to reach this stage. An academic answer could easily be two years at the dose of 6 hours per week of training plus 2 hours per day of experimenting, which means close to 400 hours of education. As an indication, typical intensive programs to "train trainers" encompass an average number of training hours of the order of magnitude of 350 hours.

    Whatever the way may be, eventually

    IT Users Self Judgment vs. Actual

    Does the self judgment of a user on his/her level always correspond to his/her actual level? This is a fundamental question and the answer may give the explanation of blocking situations currently found in many organizations in relation with the professional use of IT.

    Let us draw a graph with in X the real level of a user and in Y its self perception (let us call it the self perception vs. reality level curve).

    self perception curve

    Click on the picture to see it bigger (713x728 pixels)

    The typical curve would be sinusoidal-like around the y=x axis starting form (U,U) to (E,E). The amplitude of the sinusoidal depends on personality parameters, but normally, the exposition to each training will make the curve step below the y=x line and the experience will progressively make it grow and eventually step above the y=x line.

    A singular and not recommended situation occurs when there is a large gap between the self perception and the reality. Unfortunate but common situations are to be found when the real level is "beginner" but the self perception is "advanced" (B,A) or when the real level is "advanced" but the self perception is "fluent" (A,F). In both cases, the person does not feel the need for training and the progress made by the experience makes the person curve move as a straight line from (B,P) to some point below (P,E), with no incentive at all for more progress and a risk of dead-end situation leaving the level "fluent" out of reach.

    It is obviously more difficult to have a person make progress if he/she considers he/she has reached the maximum level than if the person acknowledges the progress to be made.

    Moreover, the fact that the software to use the Internet are relatively straightforward provokes too often that confusion and this dead-end situation. Now, nobody should believe because he/she knows how to use a word processor that he/she is skilled as a professional writer or a poet! Nobody should get the illusion because he/she has successfully used a spreadsheet he/she has turned into an accountant or a financial expert! However, many people do believe their ability to manage e-mail software and browser makes them specialists in communication and information. It is as if the existence of a software would change the nature of a task, removing from it the professional aspects.

    Obviously the root of the problem lies in the underestimation of the complexity: if you do not want to get lost in New York, beside knowing how to drive your car, you need a driver's license, plus a map of the city and some methodological skills to get around. The actual complexity of the communication and information of the Internet is probably already higher than New York's and it keeps increasing exponentially9. Furthermore, by its almost biological nature, the Internet does not provide such things like exhaustive map or directories. The software may be straightforward but not so the communication and information environment.

    The factors which make the users overestimate their levels are different according to the people, and they are often mixed, so it is hard to clearly identify each of the possible reasons. Here are some possible elements of explanation:

    The groupware syndrome

    This situation may be somehow linked to the other elements of explanation, but it seems to work as a way to reveal and strenghthen the other ones. When people working in a large but close and rather friendly Intranet (researchers from big universities, e.g.) are exposed to the IT professionals fighting with communication problems among a team, their reactions may tend to be: "Hey guys, why do we bother so much? Let's use such or such groupware package, and all the communication problems will be solved." In our opinion, this type of confusion between tools and methods is extremely common and perverse. A good worker does use good tools but reciprocity is hardly true: a good hammer does not turn a person into a carpenter.

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    Two Contending Positions

    The existence within a project of people having a different approach to the communication and information solution within a collaborative environment arises the risk of a situation of two contending approaches which can hardly coexist.

    Business as Usual vs. New Paradigm

    People who do not accept their need for training generally consider that the Internet is not a new paradigm: it is just a set of new commmunication and information tools which must adapt to their working habits and not the other way around. To sustain their positions they tend to argue that the selection of some software package will solve the communication and information of the project without any time investment on their side (other than learn to use the software).

    On the other hand, IT minded people tend to perceive the Internet as a new paradigm and then consider that training is not only required on the use of sofware but still more on the subjacent culture of networks and certainly in a set of methodological considerations. They are extremely sensitive on the standard issues and often feel that proprietary solutions which are not fully compatible with Internet architectures are not to be accepted.

    The two positions are very difficult to reconcile within a working project, and researchers should start to focus and analyze success stories and failures on each side, in order to create workable recommendations in situations where the two approaches need to coexist.

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    Recommendations and conclusion

    The people who rely on "appropriate" software are generally the same as the ones who bring solutions to problems before knowing the very nature of the issue. Since a given groupware seems to function in their environment, it must be appropriated to any kind of cooperative work. We do not think it is true, and we want to set as a prerequisite that any group working remotely through the net must reach the required level on IT skills, taking into account methods and culture.

    It has to be said that a fair amount of people who have trained themselves within very specific restricted or closed frameworks, such as the French Minitel, have become excellent Internet users. Why so? Because they have been members of virtual communities where they have learnt the rules of communication. On the contrary, heavy PC users who need to communicate are seldom seen as good Internet users, because they too often think their knowledge in computers makes them ready for any kind of situation where the machine takes place, including remote cooperative work.

    From our experience, it is necessary to give an introductory seminar at the beginning of any project based on remote collaboration. The very importance of this first training resides in making people understand that they have begun being elements and actors of a new paradigm, that the relation between people and technologies is changing. It is then possible to convey the order of magnitude of the problem people are facing, make them aware of their strengths and their needs, which may create motivation to learn more, and feel and perform better within the working team.

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    1. Operating system (from the user point of view), word processor, spreadsheet and any specific applications related to the domain of activity (e.g. budget software, for accountants, or stock administration, for shopkeepers).

    2. With the ability to subscribe and unsubscribe without causing trouble in the virtual community.

    3. E.g.: to check one's e-mail on a regular basis (a daily basis, at least, on weekdays), to express within context and without ambiguity, to be able to find a Web site on a given subject, to find the URL of a given site, to perform a research (Web, news, etc.) on a simple given subject, to be able to keep a basic technological watch on a subject of interest, to be aware of the basic principles which rule all the "efficient" virtual communities, to judge at a glance what priority such and such message deserves, to know perfectly how to compose a message (header, body, signature), etc.

    4. At this level, the user understands the essence of netiquette, the role and usefulness of FAQ and the fundamental differences between the Internet and other traditional media in terms of interactivity and participation.

    5. E.g.: copyright, intellectual property, security, norms and standards, non-profit Internet culture, cyber-business, information as a national asset, transparency and democracy, languages and cultures vs. The Internet, censorship vs. Cyberporn, telecom deregulation, spamming, hoax , chain letters, flames.

    6. Use of CGI-Bin or Java out of scope.

    7. Information services.

    8. Having a clear conceptual identification of the different Internet information spaces and search angles. Capable to know where to find information on any subject, where to ask which question, capable to use efficiently search engines and directories, as well as clearing houses, for personal use, etc.

    9. Note that within the Internet environment the problem is still made more acute by the fact that the level of services of the Internet grows also very fast. If users do not maintain some constant progress on their abilities they progressively tend to step back in the level scale.

    10. The Internet is not a mere add-on to the communication and information set of tools: it is a new paradigm. This means that we need to drastically change our perception.

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