Training firms help executives surmount 'computerphobia'

The computer age may have arrived, but not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon to greet it. In fact, if you are one of those who think the simplicity of a computer terminal resembles that of the cockpit of an F-16, or that your neighbor's personal computer, blinking on its desktop perch, is vaguely and uncomfortably lifelike, you are not alone.

Of the 120 million adults who are potential computer users, only 7 million are ''trained in any sense,'' and many others have not sought training because they think computers are too complicated, observes Alex Stein, an industry analyst for Dataquest, a consulting division of the A.C. Nielsen Company.

Training, though, has become the latest boom in the computer industry, as it sets the horse galloping to overtake the cart that came before it. Personal computers hit the retail market more quickly than people could be trained to use them.

Dataquest figures show that the money spent on basic computer courses - how to switch a personal computer on and use it - has doubled since 1980 to $800 million a year. (This still accounts for only about 10 percent of the total spent on computer training, but it is the fastest growing segment.)

In an industry full of technical jargon and concepts still considered to be almost science fiction to the uninitiated, the new computer trainers seek to present themselves as ''sensitive'' and ''nonthreatening.''

Richard Byrne, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenburg School of Communications, designed his training company, called Springboard!, after seeing through his own ''computerphobia.''

''I was from a liberal arts background and had this belief there were 'computer people' and 'people people,' '' Dr. Byrne explains. He bought a personal computer and ''it sat in my den and I felt guilty that I'd spent the money for something I couldn't use.''

Many people, he and others have recognized, face the same dilemma, if they do not receive adequate training from their sales representatives. And while there are ways to program computers to teach people to use them, there are people who are so intimidated that they won't even touch a computer keyboard or go into a computer store.

Byrne, whose company has trained 600 executives in southern California since last year, sums up the concerns this way:

* Computers generally represent a change in the way things are done, and business people who have gained success through traditional ways might be concerned that they won't be as good at the new computerized way of doing things.

* These same executives are concerned with their office image and may not want to ''look foolish'' with a computer.

* Further, they may think their younger, more computer-oriented counterparts will overtake them.

* With technology advancing quickly, many hesitate to buy a computer that might be cheaper, or outdated, in a few months.

''It's probably generally true [that executives are hesitant to use computers ]. . . . They feel it may be beneath them, that typing is a menial job or something. I certainly had no burning desire to learn. I mentally put it off, thinking that's what computer experts deal with and I'm management so I don't need that,'' explains Eric Johnson, who manages 400 employees in the Los Angeles region of Johnson & Higgins, an insurance brokerage firm that has had some form of computerization for the past 12 years.

But Mr. Johnson, who finished a day of Springboard! training last week, adds that ''the one-day session really made it all come together. It was sort of like a light bulb came on. . . . And that didn't happen until I got hands-on experience.''

Some companies committed to buying microcomputers for their employees balk at the lack of training available for workers, who will often spend months poring over manuals trying to teach themselves, says Lisa Gilmour, executive assistant at National Training Systems Inc. (NTS). The Santa Monica company has been contracted by United Technologies Corporation to tailor a training program for 1 ,100 executives.

''Computers are there to increase productivity, but when personnel aren't familiar with them, it's often the opposite,'' says Ms. Gilmour. Personal computer users are ''computer literate'' after three days of NTS training, she explains.

NTS, she says, is negotiating with computer dealers to package its services with computer sales. Like automobile dealers, she says, computer dealers don't necessarily teach how to use their product. ''It may be difficult for a dealer to make a sale if the customer asks how all his people are going to get trained, '' she explains.

Training companies also market their services to those who have yet to buy a computer (individuals as well as corporations). ''It's often that a person is turned off at the dealer's if they aren't familiar with 'computerese' like bits and bytes and mass storage. It can be frustrating and scary,'' says Russ Furse, who operates Accelerated Computer Training.

Most of the basic training being offered is conducted over a period of one to three days at a cost of about $100 a day. Trainers assume nothing (some executives who take the courses don't even know how to type) and conduct classes in simple language, encourage trainees to ''fiddle'' with the keyboard on their own, and start instruction from the point at which the computer is turned on.

Dr. Byrne says his course stresses that the typical computer user needs to know only whatm to compute, not howm to compute. Using the automobile analogy, he notes that a car owner typically needs to know only how to drive, not how a car runs.

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