Training the IT Work Force From the Ground Up

Faster, flatter, friendlier." That's how Mobile, Ala., Mayor Michael Dow sees the city's government in the 21st century. The city took a big step toward that vision last December, when it unveiled its Technology Learning Center, a $100,000 facility in which Dow hopes to incubate fresh ideas about how government works best.

"We are committed to being service-oriented and customer-driven, to reducing our operating expenses and to making the most of our tax dollars," he said in a letter soliciting funds for the center. "This training center is a cornerstone of our strategy to shape Mobile's government by building a capacity in our work force to solve problems rather than merely react."

Mobile's Technology Learning Center offers the city's 2,200 employees the chance to learn basic and advanced computer and programming skills and, in so doing, to become qualified for better-paying positions. In turn, the mayor believes the center will help the city turn out a technology-savvy work force from the bottom up.

"Most of your public entities are behind the curve on technology because of its cost and because trained personnel usually go to the private sector," Dow said in an interview. "It's hard to get the people who have the necessary skills. The training center offers us the ability to touch all of the employees, instead of just sending a few of them off to high-priced schools."

Moreover, city officials hope the center will help spark new ideas about city service improvements from the entire work force, not just technology elites. "The employees are more productive because they're not getting hung up on small computer problems," said Chris Lee, the executive director of administrative services for the city. "As employees become less intimidated by technology, they will be the ones coming up with ideas on how we can use it next."

Added Susan Farni, the director of the city's municipal information systems, "There have been no negatives with this center."

Based on an assessment of the city's employee training needs three years ago, a pent-up demand for training services existed throughout the city's government: Out of the city's 2,000-plus workers, 1,690 requests for training were recorded, mostly for basic training in word processing and spreadsheet skills. "Our core curriculum uses the software programs the city currently has," Lee said. Beginning, intermediate and advanced classes are available on Word for Windows, PowerPoint, Excel, Oracle and the Internet.

Classes in application development programs and techniques also are taught, while the center hosts brainstorming sessions for programmers and users to define new service solutions. Indeed, city programmers seem to have their hands full. They are redesigning Mobile's purchasing system, creating a citywide system for handling citizen requests for information and services, and fine-tuning the city police department's incident-report software. A citywide imaging project also is under way, as is a records management program for the fire department and a program to enable departments to formulate budgets on-line.

The center consists of four rooms: a traditional classroom with a dozen workstations; a classroom in the round for the development of applications and specialized training on new programs; a multimedia laboratory with small booths for self-paced, computer-driven learning; and a conference room, which is hooked up to a satellite dish. Throughout the center, the computers are of at least 486 vintage, and instructors can use inter-active whiteboard technology (Smart Board from Smart Technologies Inc.) for ease of presentation and for capturing lecture notes to disk.

Getting Up and Running

To launch the center, Mobile renovated a group of rooms in a city hall annex at a cost of $70,000. About half the funds and much of the equipment came from technology vendors, including BellSouth Cellular, Compaq Computer Corp., Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., GTE Mobilnet, Lucent Technologies, Digital Equipment Corp., Motorola Inc. and Woolpert Consultants. The city spent another $35,000 on computers and other equipment.

"We had a great response from the private sector," Dow said. "They look at it as an opportunity to put their equipment in here and let the entire city be exposed to it." For their contributions, corporate donors can use the center as a beta site for testing new equipment or technology. For example, Compaq is using the training center to try out multimedia computers.

While the investment has been reasonable, city officials believe the center will pay for itself in improved productivity as well as in time and training. "We couldn't afford the loss of time from our work force that traditional off-site training demanded," Lee said. Now the center's staff is conducting another needs survey to plan future training programs.

So far the city has used a pull, rather than a push, strategy to lead employees through the system. City employees sign up for classes on a volunteer basis; employees also can earn development points toward a raise by participating in computer training and other forms of education.

The center also has been a morale booster. "Training is a good way to enhance self-esteem," Lee said. "We want to be an employee-centered organization. If we want that to be more than platitudes, we need to have programs like these."

"People say you can't run government like a business," Dow noted, but he insisted, "We can be just as efficient and well-organized."

Vicki White is a free-lance writer based in Inverness, Fla. She can be reached at sffvjw@citrus.infi.net.

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