Then there's the bewildered employee who cringes over the thought of even turning on the computer. "What will I do if I break it?" she implores.
Don't laugh. Technophobics like these two are present in workplaces everywhere -- you probably know one or two, or may be one yourself. By some estimates, between eight billion and 10 billion work hours are wasted annually by inexperienced or fearful employees fretting over computer tasks.
Curing technophobia is not that hard. Here's how you can go about it:
Take the Fear Out
The first step is to remove as much of the fear of technology as possible. Assure technophobic employees that:
The machine won't break. Or catch fire. Or blow up. Don't laugh. Technophobes sometimes believe that improper computer use can result in calamities such as these.
Computer skills are secondary to trade or business skills. It's important that technophobics understand computers are simply a means to an end. An employee responsible for accounting tasks, for instance, will have a far easier time with computers once she realizes that she already understands 90 percent of her computer tasks -- which simply parallel manual accounting tasks.
Gobbledygook can be ignored. Many computer manuals are filled with arcane terminology that sounds like meaningless gibberish to the average user. Encourage novice users to use glossaries, indexes and, most important, the advice of other people when they've got to learn something.
Computers save time and money over the long term. Let employees know that you expect computers to be used -- and used productively. Once technology becomes the norm, technophobia is harder to maintain.
Offer Opportunities for Learning
Technophobes need opportunities to learn computer skills in simple, hands-on fashion. To provide good opportunities try using the following strategies:
Training programs. These are offered by colleges and universities, continuing education centers and software retailers. Many of the courses are short-term, practical and inexpensive.
Demonstrations. Much of today's software comes with demo disks or practice programs. They literally guide novice users through every step of the software, often with humorous, entertaining and interactive exercises.
Indexes. While manuals may not answer all questions, most indexes are expertly constructed, and guide users to glossaries, troubleshooting guides and tutorial exercises.
Your library of applications. If you write a simple application, save it, store it and electronically catalog it. The same goes for any user documentation or user guides. Make a list of reference materials available to novice users, and you may end up saving them countless hours of training and troubleshooting time.
Command strips. These plastic strips, or keyboard templates often available from retailers, fit over the keyboard and offer one- or two-word descriptions of key functions in the software you're using. If you can't obtain strips from your retailer, make your own.
Support lines. Offered by just about every software firm, these telephone lines offer free or low-cost advice to troubled users. In some cases, support lines can accommodate troubleshooting via modem.
Menus and icons. Icons are graphical representations that illustrate the steps your employees should take to perform tasks. Menus are user-friendly selection options which direct computer users to the right software module or task within a piece of software.
Consultants. Computer consultants abound today from multi-national firms to one-person, home-based consultants. Consulting freelancers are great for on-the-spot training, fast troubleshooting and inexpensive telephone support.
Problem library. Track every question or problem that employees have faced -- and how it was solved. The resulting troubleshooting library becomes a superb reference tool.
Partnerships. You might create technological partnerships between experienced and novice users; employees in other firms; nearby companies that use the same software; or other members of your trade or professional association.
Keep the Pressure Off
Technophobes feel enough fear and pressure already. They don't need any more. So give them opportunities for the following:
Use free space and time. You might offer an hour or two a week for employees to explore their computers without impending deadlines.
Use on-line services. On-line services, such as CompuServe, Delphi and America Online, offer software reference libraries and discussion groups.
Make mistakes. Reassure employees that mistakes are part of the learning process.
Suggest new applications and programs. Even computer novices can suggest ways that the computer can help solve business problems. By involving them in problem-solving tasks, you'll build their interest in technology.
Learn Alongside Others
People like the anxious co-worker and the bewildered employee are not alone in the world. So mix them with other timid people -- and a few experienced users. Get them involved with:
User groups. These informal groups can train together, troubleshoot together, and share anxieties -- and solutions -- with each other. If you can't offer an internal user group, ask around, your community probably offers many.
Coaches. They are not computer experts, but other users who have mastered their computer applications and are willing to share their time and expertise with others.
Resource people. Keep a file of computer users inside and outside of your organization who are available for an occasional, specialized question.
Clubs. Encourage technophobes to join computer clubs in the community. If you want to provide an incentive to join, offer to pay their membership fees.
When you're able to confer a sense of prestige on employees who master computer skills, users will be motivated toward their own mastery. Here are some suggestions to help you do that:
Set up an internal certification program. Specify the skills users need. Once they complete internal training courses, award them certificates -- and the "right" to work independently on computers.
Offer recognition. A public pat on the back, a night out, or a thank you on the employee bulletin board are all appropriate forms of recognition for a user who is putting technophobia habits behind him.
Institute performance objectives. As you conduct employee performance appraisals, evaluate employees' computer-related accomplishments. Then, set new technological objectives for the coming year and monitor and coach their progress as the year moves along.
Richard G. Ensman, Jr. is a syndicated freelance writer based in Rochester, NY.