The latest in ICT systems can be of no use when your staff don’t know how to use them effectively. With the right investment in training staff, even the slightest bit, can result in surprising gains and improved productivity.
This was the experience of the IT team at Lincoln-based Landcare Research.
Landcare Research is a Crown research institute (CRI), one of seven in New Zealand. CRIs were formed in 1992 as independent companies that are owned by, and accountable to, the New Zealand Government. The organisation’s core purpose is to drive innovation in the management of terrestrial biodiversity and land resources.
“We have got around nine sites, about 353 full timers. That can stretch to another 100 easily over summer when we do a lot of field research, or when we have external PhDs, summer students, and we have a lot of research associates who are sort of retired scientists who carry on doing their research. We provide facilities to help them. That includes IT as well,” says Greg Jones, manager of the company’s information services and knowledge management (IS&KM) team.
“We also manage seven nationally significant databases for NZ. These are key for NZ. It includes information from land care, soils and national vegetation cover. It is about not only maintaining those physical specimens but also digitising them and putting them online.
The IS&KM team is split into the operational infrastructure management team, the business information and process improvement team (that covers software development and business analyst capability), and the knowledge services and library team.
“We are also responsible for the records management for the organisation and to ensure that we are PRA (Public Records Act) 2005 compliant. We also provide collaborative workspaces through SharePoint for teams to manage documents and information,” says Jones.
With tight budgets, the ICT team at Landcare is aware of the need to draw the most from every dollar they spend.
“At the moment, all our infrastructure is in-house. We manage our own databases internally. Lincoln is our head office, our main data centre is here. We failover to our Palmerston North site. That has been our main strategy up until now.
“We are moving into more real-time data gathering. There is going to be a lot more gathering, and a lot more images being taken as part of our information gathering. The volume and high-quality of all this data is going to be challenging to manage and back-up.
“There is also the necessity to develop the digital skills of the scientists in helping them classify their material, store it, capture metadata against it so that it is discoverable, and use tools around these new tools. That’s a big area for us.
“We provide VPN access into our systems. We use the Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network (KAREN). That is a very high speed network, it allow us to pump volumes of data around and up into NeSI (New Zealand eScience Infrastructure), which is a high performance cloud computing service for organisations working in areas of science.
Key for us is having productive staff. It is essential that they are effective with ICT tools. For us, it is one of the areas slips through the cracks in some ways.
“Anything that is invested in infrastructure is taking away from science research. Saying that, we have done pretty well with organising our information. It just means that things take time to change in a science organisation, and you are not going to see vast amounts of money poured into some of these things,” says Jones.
Levelling the field
Having a diverse set of users with demands for connectivity, mobility and ability to work remotely, means contending with different skill sets as well. While the IT team does not generally have the capability to provide basic training, it felt the need to provide its staff some amount of ICT guidance around two years back.
“Being a knowledge organisation, we are very rich in information resources. Key for us is having productive staff – and that includes everyday work they are doing using ICT. In every aspect, from the far end – mobile phones, video conferencing, data management, images, document creation, etc. It is essential that they are effective with ICT tools. For us, it is one of the areas slips through the cracks in some ways.
“HR tends to focus on company and organisation-wide leadership, training and personal skills. The ICT team does not have the budget to provide training company wide. We manage to cover some of that during the initial training when we are rolling out certain projects or systems,” says Jones, recounting a situation that is all too familiar in most organisations.
The organisation called in the folks from Ripped Orange, a Christchurch-based provider, to help them train some of its staff on basic Microsoft and Office skills.
“We used Ripped Orange to help us with point solutions really early on. This included training around Excel and Word and Lync, to lift people’s expertise in those areas,” says Jones.
According to him, Ripped Orange used its tools and consultative expertise to understand the way staff, such as PAs, used popular Microsoft solutions and offered one-on-one training sessions to help them gain more from the products.
“With this we found such an improvement in productivity. Some people were able to save multiple days of work in each calendar month. However, when we got into this, we also realised the sheer scale of it.
“A science organisation is very much about just in time training. Unless the scientists are interested, or they see a need for it, they won’t come along. Too many times there are training programs that go right through the organisation. Even if you get people to attend it, if they are not using it they lose the knowledge straight away,” says Jones.
Over the last year, the firm has been working to roll out a comprehensive digital strategy that enables its users to take advantage of various digital tools – both in-house and external – to add to their overall productivity.
“We have a digital strategy that was revamped from our previous IT strategy in the last year, and is aligned with the business needs. The vision for it is to enable transformation of Landcare Research into a digitally rich science organisation.
“There are a couple of themes that form its key areas. One of them is around data and knowledge management. It is about organising our data and knowledge within the organisation. The other covers the inclusion of new ways of working digitally. This covers the realms of integration of collaborative work spaces, new cross-organisational communication tools. All of this involves increasing the digital skills of our staff, around the place,” says Jones.
Over the last year, the firm has been working with Ripped Orange to develop a way or method for raising the IT skill sets of its staff across the organisation. However, it is proving to be more difficult than previously thought.
All that data management and backups becomes a potential issue when kept in-house. We will outgrow our computer room and we don’t want to invest more in-house in that stuff.
“We are trying to work out a way to provide training to up-skill staff across the organisation. Not as a big bang approach, but an incremental way of sort of gradually moving these skills up as we go forward. We want to get the organisation to lift those skills so that they will see the productivity gain that will come if people knew how to do these things properly.
“We are struggling with that side of it. We are trying to build a case with Ripped Orange and build that into the funding side,” says Jones.
The promise that lies ahead
This does not mean the firm has given up on training.
“At the moment we are trying to capture antidotal benefits from small scale training that we are doing and trying to decide how we could roll this out across the company in a beneficial manner,” says Jones.
This includes producing and making available short, one- to two-minute training videos, as well as catering to people who especially request it with in-house IT staff. This is the preferred method with the IT team, especially for its in-house unique solutions that the team has either developed or is actively maintaining.
“We have been working on organisation-wide digital literacy for well over a year. We wanted to convince ourselves that this would work before presenting anything up to the organisation. Couple of months ago we made it a bit wider and took it to the HR team to try and get them involved in it. At some stage we want to take it back to the information governance group to get their backing and try to turn it into some funding,” says Jones.
The team is also planning an upgrade from its current Windows XP desktop platform to Windows 7 across 500 PCs, and is planning training around the transition.
“As part of rollout, we will have some training around Windows 7. We are working on the business case. We are trying to work on solutions around how we are going to address the wider digital projects out there.
“We have created data policies and data management plans. As part of that project we are working out what sort of training to provide and how we train the scientists. On the other side, we have got records management. We are working on policies and we are doing some one-on-one training around key areas,” says Jones.
The firm is also looking into cloud solutions for its data and records management going forward.
“I think you get different services with the cloud. You get reliability, speed and flexibility – that is part of what we will be assessing. NZ Government has a cloud first policy. But you need time to assess that, as we move forward. Having a 25 per cent hardware refresh keeps us handy. It is not that we are getting to a desperate point, but the data growth that we are predicting will be an issue. All that data management and backups becomes a potential issue when kept in-house. We will outgrow our computer room and we don’t want to invest more in-house in that stuff.” says Jones.
Following relevant assessment, Jones sees Landcare Research adopting a potentially phased cloud strategy in the next few years.