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Developmental user groups for ongoing computer training

Chris Hughes
University of New South Wales
A perennial problem for training and development departments is the support of non-professional computer operators beyond initial training. This paper describes a user group solution implemented at the UNSW for operators of popular word processing packages. The design of the groups, the experience of running them, and some lessons learnt are discussed.

It is clear that the implementation of office technology is not a sure fire recipe for increasing productivity. In fact, the productivity of white collar work appears not to have improved since the sixties, despite massive investment in computers and computer aided communications. (Bower, 1986, p.267) A major study of 2000 companies in the United States that had implemented new office systems showed that at least 40% of the systems failed to deliver the intended results. (Bikson and Gutek, 1984) Only 10% of these failures were attributed to technical failure. Human and organisational causes dominated. Whereas technical failures and software deficiencies were once seen as the major causes of office system shortfall, the issues now seem to be organisational and managerial. (Levinson, 1985)

One of the many human resource issues that office computerisation raises is training. (Kling and Iacono, 1989, p.346) It is also one of the issues that is most easily misunderstood. The following is a typical assessment:

"... providing the necessary training and education is a much more complicated and difficult task than it may appear to be at first glance. This is because several types and levels of training and education are usually necessary in order to realise the full benefits of the new system. First there is the relatively straightforward matter of what buttons to push. ...But beyond that, users need to understand the relationship between the technology and the organisation, which will better enable them to utilize the full potential of the technology." (Long, 1989, p.329)

While we may agree that the training task is more difficult than usually thought, the difficulty does not only lie with the broader educational goals. The 'straightforward matter of what buttons to push' is, on closer examination, not so straightforward.

It has become almost a commonplace that most real world users of computer software packages, such as word processors, use them at only a fraction of their full capacity. Sometimes this is expressed by bemoaning the excessive number of features the developers now include in the packages, noting as we do that we shall only ever use a few of them. The other side of the coin is the stereotype of the user who 'uses the computer like a typewriter'. Indeed, getting stuck in a rut is a common fate for many users, though they usually only dimly recognise the fact.

The under-utilisation of the features of software packages may involve a considerable loss of productivity. I say 'may' only because most packages are intended for a range of applications, and no one situation demands the use of all features. Yet often it is the most basic features of word processors that remain untouched: tabs, style sheets, templates, and mail merge. Many users develop elaborate strategies to accomplish the tasks that these features are designed to automate. They spend hours formatting with the space bar, and then more hours re-formatting when they discover the necessity to change a margin. They re-type letters to different addresses, when a mail merge or template would accomplish much of the work in a tenth of the time. This is the level that many users, many of us I am sure, operate at more often than should be admitted. Clearly this situation implies productivity foregone.

The situation also poses a problem for those exercising the training and development function within an organisation. Whilst initial training in the use of packages is often organised and usually seen as necessary by the organisation, ongoing training via courses is expensive, of dubious value, and hence difficult to justify. Yet while formal training enables initial skill development for staff new to packages or computing, it rarely provides the conditions for autonomous and continuing development thereafter. The need for ongoing development and support of operators persists and needs to be addressed if the full benefits of the systems purchased are to be realised.

Computer user groups

A way of addressing these ongoing training and support needs is via development oriented computer user groups. But some changes to the familiar concept are necessary to make them effective.

Computer user groups have been around almost as long as microcomputers. The earliest groups started in the United States in the mid seventies. They arose to fill the gap between the need for information and support and the provision by manufacturers and formal education channels. In many ways their existence is an indication of the poor quality of support given to users by manufacturers, and by soft ware distributors. In 1986 there were approximately three thousand such groups in the United States, ranging in size from 10 to 10 000. The Toronto PET user group had 15,000 members in 1986. (Kugelmass, 1986, p.32)

User groups are generally private affairs. They are usually started by enthusiasts who meet to share information and resources, and to solve problems. As they grow larger they develop formal organisational structures, and a wider range of services. They often publish newsletters, distribute software and maintain bulletin boards.

User group meetings too have a typical structure. They usually open with announcements, then allow a period of questions and answers, followed by a coffee break when members meet to discuss, and often solve, the problems raised so far. After the break there may be demonstrations of techniques, new software or hardware, or a guest lecture. The formal meeting is often followed by meetings of special interest groups. (Powledge, 1984, p.97)

Most user groups form around a brand of computer, or around an operating system. Thus there are, or have been, Apple, IBM, PET, Kaypro and Tandy user groups. Likewise MSDOS, Unix and Macintosh groups have been run successfully. More recently some groups have formed around specific software packages. In NSW, for example, there is a state wide Word Perfect User's Group. In many cases the groups provide a hedge against the vagaries of the computer industry, providing support unavailable from the manufacturer, and after the manufacturer has ceased to exist.

The high proportion of enthusiasts among members can lead to problems. Many new members are "... overwhelmed by the technical banter and do not return after the first meeting." (Kugelmass, 1986, p.30) To overcome these problems some groups ask novices to arrive early so their concerns can be addressed separately, in other groups novices gather after the formal meeting as a special interest group. (Powledge, 1984, p.97)

Little has been written about the place user groups can take in an organisation's training and development strategy. While it is certain that corporate user groups have existed for some time, they are usually informal gatherings, even if officially sanctioned. Indeed the line between formal corporate user groups and informal, on the job support and mutual help is usually very thin. Corporate user groups also tend to share the characteristic of their private counterparts in being oriented towards hardware, albeit that available and in use in the workplace. (Brandt, 1987, p.28)

The context of the UNSW user groups

The University of New South Wales is comprised of a large number of relatively autonomous units, Schools, Departments, Research Units and the like, spread over four major campuses. A relatively small central administration provides support and coordination functions.

The Higher Education Sector has come under increasing pressure in recent years. Funding has been cut in real terms, and is now at levels per full time student similar to those experienced, and deplored, in the early 1960s, despite increases in student numbers. (FAUSA, 1989) Income is increasingly being generated by accepting full fee paying overseas students, and by entrepreneurial activities, both of which involve additional pressures on staff.

As would be expected there is a central computing department which operates a range of mainframe and minicomputers for academic and administrative purposes. It also provides user support services to all users, as well as a small PC support group mainly focused on technical issues. It is not directly involved in the training of PC users.

While the central PC support group offers advice and assistance to staff selecting and purchasing microcomputer systems, there is no standard policy concerning hardware or software packages. A broad, though narrowing range of micro computer hardware and software is thus in use across the university.

Training and development for all staff is coordinated by the Professional Development Centre, an academic unit set up with human resource development as well as traditional academic responsibilities. Ultimate responsibility for training and development lies with staff and managers, with assistance available from the Centre and a number of other specialist units.

The Centre organises training courses for staff in a range of commonly used word processing packages such as Word Perfect and MSWord, as well as in MSDOS and other computer related topics. It also maintains a self access facility, in which CBT and video training is available for a number of packages, and a library of training materials for loan to staff and work groups. It supports the user groups which are the subject of this paper.

The University employs approximately 2,500 general staff. Many are in clerical, secretarial and administrative roles. Many are expected to use microcomputers as part of their work, mainly for word processing. Few are fully qualified word processing operators. They are also among the lower paid workers of the University.

A proportion work in 'isolated' locations, often in one person offices. While they may work on the main campus, or on another in the Sydney metropolitan area, they are organisationally quite remote from the central administration. Their isolation can be intensified by being the sole general staff member in a unit otherwise made up of academic staff. This means that they work under very different working conditions, and their performance is much more closely monitored, albeit informally. The work pressures can be very great. Their work areas are often understaffed and there are few mechanisms in place to control or limit the work flow. It is not unusual to find a situation where many people allocate work to them directly, without any overall coordination or control.

Others work in the central administrative section where organisational or physical isolation is not a problem. Yet even here complaints of under-staffing and high workloads are often voiced, and the alienation commonly felt by those lower down the hierarchy in a large organisation is not unknown.

Another facet of the isolation experienced by these staff, is their effective isolation from other users of the computer packages they work with.

The history of the user groups strategy

The inclusion of user groups within the university's computer training and support strategy stems from a recommendation from the Staff Development Unit (a forerunner of the current Professional Development Centre), in 1985. This recommendation followed, among other things, a training needs survey which had identified at least 25 separate word processing packages in current use.

Groups commenced operation in the middle of the same year. Ten groups were started, covering the following software packages: Word (two groups, one MSDOS and one Macintosh based), Type-Rite, Unix, Spellbinder, Multimate, Apple, Wang, Word Perfect and Wordstar. An additional group, potentially comprising some sixty members, using a variety of other packages was convened in an attempt to meet their needs.

The agendas of the initial one hour meetings of all groups was the same:

Each meeting was 'chaired' by a member of the Staff Development Unit who acted as a facilitator, while staff from various units demonstrated techniques. Much of the administrative and technical support for the groups was provided by the Head of the University's Word Processing Section. Staff members attended in working hours, and were welcome to stay for informal discussion during the lunch hour.

In all approximately 100 out of an estimated 275 staff members in the target group were involved in these initial meetings. After each meeting an invitation was issued for the next, with written responses to queries raised attached.

In 1985 and 1986 the groups ran twice a year, in April-May and September-December. By the end of 1986, nine groups were operating: eight of the original eleven groups - the Type-Rite, Spellbinder and Wang groups had stopped - and a new one - the Apple group had split into Zardax and Sandys' groups. At the end of 1987, eight groups were running, the Sandys' group having ceased to operate. The participation rate at this stage was still approximately one hundred out of an eligible 290 staff members.

In 1988 the number of groups running had shrunk to five: Word (MSDOS); Word (Macintosh); Word Perfect (separate groups for version 4.1 and 4.2); and Multimate. Over one hundred staff members attended the first round of meetings in 1988. These figures suggest an increasing standardisation of software and hardware packages in use at the University.

All groups lapsed at the end of 1988 because a reorganisation of the training and development functions of the University left them, temporarily, without administrative support. Two groups, MSWord (MSDOS) and Word Perfect recommenced activity early in 1990, supported by the new Professional Development Centre. They meet for an hour regularly each month. A third, for users of Word on Macintoshes, is planned to start later this year.

Lessons from the experience

The stark facts related above cloak a world of experience, from which a number of lessons may be drawn.

Range of concerns

The focus of the groups on specific software packages has, if anything, firmed up over the period of their existence. It will have been noted that the original Apple group eventually split into two, covering separate software packages. This package focus is essential when the group members are not enthusiasts, and consequently find little of interest in the problems facing the user of another package, even though it runs under the same operating system.

In their time the groups have addressed topics such as: incorrectly loaded print wheels; console and file merges; spell checking; page numbering; conversion from/to other formats; controlling line and character spacing; printing on envelopes and labels; using columns; efficient word processing and office procedures; creating directories; managing a hard disk; ergonomics of work stations; and importing dBase files. Apart from these topics, which are drawn from the material circulated after the meetings, innumerable queries across a broad range have been addressed: everything from what proportional spacing is, to the features contained in new version of a package.

In short the range of concerns raised reinforces the rationale for the initial development of the groups themselves. Operators face a myriad of problems, few of which are addressed in formal training. If they are addressed, the skills are often lost and the information forgotten, by the time they are required in the workplace. As Brandt notes (in the context of library microcomputer user groups):

Why do librarians need user groups? For the same reason 'hobbyists' or anyone else does: microcomputers are complex tools, difficult to understand and use. (Brandt, 1987, p.29)

The role of the facilitator

One of the key differences between the user groups described here and conventional groups, is that the University's groups are not, in the main, composed of enthusiasts, as just noted. Further, some steps have been taken to ensure that those with high level technical skills, or those with non professional involvements with word processing, have been excluded from the groups. This has been done primarily to avoid overwhelming members of the key target group - non professional operators of the packages - with the 'technical banter' mentioned by Kugelmass (1986, p.30) as both a boon and a problem with conventional groups. Rather than being enthusiasts, the staff involved in the groups are often more accurately described as phobics! As such they are sensitive not only to 'technical banter' from others, but also to the potential loss of dignity that raising what may be trivial concerns with a group of peers sometimes involves.

For these reasons the presence of an experienced facilitator from the Professional Development Centre is crucial to the success of the groups, at least in their formative meetings. The facilitator's role centres on group management.

General criteria for good learning centred groups have been set out by Fawcett Hill. He sees the following as essential characteristics:

  1. A warm, accepting, non threatening group atmosphere.

  2. Learning is approached as a cooperative enterprise.

  3. Learning is accepted as the raison d'etre of the group.

  4. Everyone participates and interacts.

  5. Leadership functions are distributed.

  6. Group sessions and the learning task are enjoyable.

  7. The material is adequately and efficiently covered.

  8. Evaluation is accepted as an integral part of the group operation.

  9. Members attend regularly and come prepared. (Fawcett Hill, 1977, p.40)
All of these are relevant to user groups set up as part of a staff development strategy. In consequence, the facilitator is responsible for setting up the group, ensuring the atmosphere is productive, ensuring comments, queries and suggestions are made sensitively and constructively, and for ensuring that the group functions as a supportive, learning centred gathering as much as possible. At times they must control the tendencies of 'experts' to lecture at length, at others they have to work hard to facilitate the participation of the less assertive members.

Development of autonomy

One danger is that the presence of the facilitator could lead to the group becoming dependent on this 'outsider' for its functioning. The danger is increased if the facilitator also performs or controls the administrative support provided for the group. This threat became a reality in the University's experience when the central support and facilitation was (temporarily) withdrawn, and the groups ceased to function, even though this was not a necessary consequence at all.

In principle it is desirable for each group to evolve towards an autonomy which would permit it to continue to function without administrative or facilitative support. Given the make-up of the groups however, and the organisational context in which they operate, this desirable end is most likely to remain a goal to be worked towards, and a principle to guide the activity of the group and the facilitator. Nevertheless it is important to seriously adopt this guiding principle and goal so that the group develops as high a level of autonomous function and independence as is realistically possible in its circumstances. The distribution of leadership functions advocated by Fawcett Hill above is one positive step which can be taken to encourage autonomy.

In practice what this means is taking steps to ensure that the responsibility for presenting demonstrations and for finding and communicating information concerning issues and problems raised is shared among the members of the group as much as possible. In this way the group will be experienced by its members as a mutual support mechanism, as opposed to a centrally run training activity. This perception will be reinforced, and the development of autonomy encouraged if the responsibility for facilitating the meetings, and for associated administrative work is shared among members, to the extent that this is feasible and reasonable given the risks, and the skills and workloads of those involved.

Control of diversionary concerns

One of the other differences with conventional user groups concerns the restrictions placed on the agenda of the group. In a conventional group made up largely of enthusiasts, the agenda is open, in that the group is almost certain to welcome most activities related to its purpose. Dealer demonstrations and sales drives, expert lectures, and excursions into esoteric features all have a place in the life of these groups. In groups set up for development and support purposes however, the make-up of the group, the relative absence of enthusiasts, and its work orientation, all combine to restrict the acceptable agenda. The above items, which have a legitimate role in a conventional user group, have the potential in a support group to jeopardise the continuing goodwill of the members, and the support of the overall organisation.

The difference between the two types of user groups is not always clear to the members of the developmental user groups, so that suggestions and spontaneous attempts to use the group for sales and technically oriented presentations need to be carefully monitored and considered. The overriding concern must remain with the work related needs of the group members themselves. Where the facilitator considers it necessary to argue against an activity, or to cut off an activity, s/he should do so by arguing the point tactfully and by referring to aspirations of the group and the elements of its context that lie behind the decision. No matter if the facilitator fails to win the group over to his/her point of view. The attempt and the discussion will have been valuable, and the subsequent activities more keenly considered by all. In this way the process of the group assists the group and its members towards refining their goals and developing their autonomy and independence.

Development of a support network

The names and phone numbers of all members of the groups are regularly made available to all members. It has been found that this encourages members to contact and support each other between meetings of the group. Thus minor problems are often sorted out as they arise, with only a report of the issue being made at the group meeting. The development of these contacts is encouraged, both as a support for the group and its developing autonomy, and as a support for staff who are otherwise relatively isolated.

Benefits for the overall staff development strategy

The presence of the user groups in the overall training strategy of the University has a number of benefits:


The University has found the user groups I have described to be an effective way of continuing to support its word processing operators beyond their initial package training. Provided the groups are well run, and their support function kept in clear focus, they allow the staff concerned to handle the issues computerisation raises in an easy and supportive atmosphere.

The provision of this timely practical support to operators has the potential to reduce stress levels among staff, while increasing productivity. These benefits alone make the inclusion of user groups within the overall training and development strategy of any organisation well worth considering.


I wish the acknowledge the work of Ms Margot Pearson formerly of the Staff Development Unit, and the work and continuing support of Ms Maureen Beaton, Head of the Word Processing section of the University in designing, setting up and running the user groups I have described. They faced and solved all the teething problems that arose. The success of the user groups is fundamentally due to their insight and efforts.


Bikson T. K. and Gutek, B. (1984). Implementation of Office Automation. Rand Corporation, California. The results quoted are reported in Long, 1989, p.327.

Bowen, W. (1986). The Puny Payoff from Office Computers. Fortune, May 26. Reprinted in Forester, Tom (ed) (1989), Computers in the Human Context, 267-271. Blackwell.

Brandt, D. S. (1987). Joining Forces: Library Users Groups. Wilson Library Bulletin, June, pp.28-30.

Federated Australian University Staff Association (FAUSA) (1990). Funding and Funding Models, FAUSA policies and attitudes. The data used is drawn from a range of sources.

Fawcett Hill, W. (1977). Learning Thru Discussion: Guide for Leaders and Members of Discussion Groups. 2nd ed. Sage Publications.

Forester, Tom (ed) 1989. Computers in the Human Context. Blackwell.

Kling, R. and Iacono, S. (1989). Desktop Computerisation and the Organisation of Work. In Forester, T. (ed), Computers in the Human Context, 335-356. Blackwell.

Kugelmass, J. (1986). Computer Groupies. Natural History, January, pp.30-37.

Levinson, E. (1985). Implementation Path Analysis: A Method for Studying Implementation of Information Technology. Office Technology and People, 2, 287-304.

Long, R. J. (1989). Human Issues in New Office Technology. In Forester, T. (ed), Computers in the Human Context, 327-334. Blackwell.

Powledge, Fred (1984). The Power of User's Groups. Popular Computing, December, 95-102.

Author: Chris Hughes, Professional Development Centre, University of New South Wales, PO Box 1, Kensington NSW 2033

Please cite as: Hughes, C. (1990). Developmental user groups for ongoing computer training. In J. G. Hedberg, J. Steele and M. Mooney (Eds), Converging Technologies: Selected papers from EdTech'90, 116-124. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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