ICT competencies play a subordinate role in organizations

by Alexander van Deursen en Jan van Dijk

ICT competencies often seem to play a subordinate role in organizations. There is insufficient monitoring of the level of these competencies among empoyees. Few measures are also taken for improvement or consolidation. It is often assumed that the existing levels of ICT competencies are sufficient. Limited account is also taken of ICT competencies in the recruitment and selection of personnel. When we consider the proportion of employees experiencing ICT competence deficits, these findings are at the very least remarkable.

ICT is an integral part of the work for the vast majority of Dutch employees. Yet only a small majority of the managers we interviewed assume that the ICT competence level of their staff is sufficient. The reason for this is that the staff can manage with their existing competencies. Should there be any limitations, they can be repaired with training. A large minority of managers (41%) believe that their staff does not have sufficient ICT competences. In the healthcare sector, this is even a majority. The picture that arises from the interviews is that a substantial part of the staff cannot cope with sufficient care. The elderly and the less educated are seen as the main problem groups. The results of the survey research support this picture. More than three quarters of the respondents are able to identify a group of employees who experience problems with IT applications. In most cases, this concerns older employees. In addition, starters and lower educated people are mentioned. Elderly people seem to be able to use support across the board. People with a lower education experience many problems with business applications, spreadsheets and word processors, as well as with other applications. The specific business applications often prove to be a problem for starters. They often come into contact with this for the first time in the organization. The problem of a shortage of ICT competencies is not seen as urgent, partly because other competencies are considered more important.


About three-quarters of the respondents can (perhaps or certainly) have help when they fall short in the use of ICT. A quarter does not have any help, which is even more true for the less well educated in need of help. Those who have help are mainly supported by colleagues and the helpdesk. The latter source is used relatively often by the elderly and the highly educated. A third stated that they solve problems themselves by calling the help function of the application. This applies relatively more to the higher educated. A small proportion of respondents also seek help outside of work, especially in smaller companies where formal help is lacking. If we look at the effect of the help that is called in, we see that for about 40% of the respondents, the help has led to the fact that the same problem does not need to be used again in the future. This applies more to the help of colleagues than the helpdesk. For the large group for whom the help that was called in has led to a solution, but the same source is consulted again next time, it would be useful to examine how the obtained help can lead to a more structural solution in the future.

Role of education

Self-study is mentioned as the most important way of obtaining ICT competences. This is followed by learning from colleagues. About a quarter of the respondents cite continuing education, which is relatively popular with male and older employees. The prior education is mentioned by only about 30% of the respondents, which shows that it plays a relatively small role in the acquisition of ICT competences that are required in the professional practice. This applies even more to the less educated employees. Only a third of the starters among the group of respondents think that the ICT competences they have learned in education are a good match with what they need in their job. The results give cause to critically evaluate the coordination between education and business when it comes to ICT competences.


When it comes to learning to work with ICT, formal tools such as training are less important overall than informal sources. About a third have followed a training course in the past three years that devotes attention to ICT. According to the managers interviewed, training is used the most in the public sector and the least in healthcare. Usually, no proactive policy is pursued when formal means are used. The main reasons for participation are that this was mandatory, that it leads to fewer problems when working with ICT or because it is good for the career. Older employees relatively often mention that it was mandatory for them to participate, which should not actually be the motivation for following a training. Especially for them, the motivation should be to reduce problems while working with ICT. In the group of employees (two thirds) who have not followed any training, the less educated relatively often give the reason that they do not receive permission. This is striking because this group also needs more attention when it comes to ICT competences. Employees who have not followed training cite lack of time as the main reason. Some also indicate that they do not think ICT is so important. This applies relatively more often to people in the healthcare sector. This seems like a missed opportunity, as a large proportion of the respondents who followed an ICT training now need less help. Among the higher educated, there is a non-negligible proportion who think that the training has had no effect. It is advisable for an organization to tailor the training to what the employee needs, especially for highly educated employees. Mandatory training is not the best solution.

Own initiative

About two thirds of the respondents take their own initiatives to improve ICT competences. They do this mainly by asking for an IT training or by experimenting with tutorials or their smartphone. Once again, people with a lower level of education who can benefit greatly from taking their own initiative have the worst scores. Respondents who do not take initiatives again cite a lack of time. They also think it is unnecessary. The latter applies relatively often to people in the healthcare sector. Finally, a quarter of the people who do not take the initiative say they do not do this because it is not promoted by the organization. Promoting the improvement of ICT competencies should be the first step for an organization to tackle the existing ICT problems. A large proportion of employees in all six sectors would benefit from improving their ICT competences.

Effects of measures

In contrast to the low awareness and somewhat passive attitude of managers regarding the ICT competences of personnel, their positive observation about the effects of measures in this field stands. No fewer than 73% of the respondents indicate that the measures, such as training, courses and hiring external experts have had an effect. The effect most often mentioned is that employees have become more efficient, although there are no real measurements for the effectiveness of training and the like.

Recruitment and selection

Half of the employees indicate that it is clear to their organization which ICT competencies are required to perform the various functions. This is especially evident as it is included in job profiles. Organizations where it is not clear lack a description of these competencies. In the creative sector and in healthcare, ICT competencies are relatively unimportant, resulting in a lack of an overview of the required competences. We also see this in smaller companies.

In the application itself, ICT competencies also seem to receive little attention. Despite the fact that a narrow majority of managers indicate that their organization takes ICT competences into account when recruiting staff, only a third of employees say that ICT competencies were discussed with them. A large majority of managers who do not take ICT competences into account when recruiting personnel do not consider this necessary; they expect potential candidates to master the basics. When ICT competences are taken into account, this is done by asking about the control of these competences. Assessment rarely or never happens. It is striking that the older someone is or the less educated, the greater the chance that the level of ICT competences has not been taken into account in the application. Both are precisely groups in which ICT competencies have the greatest chance of deficiencies that should be repaired before starting the position. However, ICT competencies do not seem to be a priority when looking for new employees.

Just under 30% of the current staff is monitored for the level of ICT competencies. When we look at how this is done, it turns out that it is mainly asked about, for example in an annual appraisal. As we already know, people often cannot properly assess their own level. Monitoring testing could better identify necessary repairs, but is uncommon.

Two-thirds of the interviewed managers do not find it difficult to find staff with the correct ICT competences. Half of them indicate that this is because the prior education is adequate and sufficient competences are learned in education. In addition, it is relatively easier to get competent personnel in the current crisis. A third find these personnel difficult to find, especially in the HTSM and healthcare sector. The main reason is that the work in question is very specialized.

ICT professional

40% of the ICT workers in the sample have followed specific prior training. This applies most to the oldest group and higher educated ICT workers. A large group of ICT workers seem to work without specific prior training. Although two-thirds of managers can get enough "regular" staff with a sufficient level of ICT competence, 43% indicate that it is difficult to find ICT professionals with the right competences. Suitable people are scarce and some applicants do not have the desired combination of competences. The breadth and quality of professional ICT competences are also sometimes missed. The industrial sectors lack more high-level ICT professionals than the government and healthcare.

A framework of competences could provide a solution to provide organizations and its employees with more clarity about the content of an ICT function. The desirability of such a framework is confirmed by 26% of IT workers. A negative answer gives 16% and 58% says maybe. ICT professionals who find such a framework desirable or perhaps desirable see the greatest advantage as being easier to find suitable candidates for a position. The most frequently mentioned objection to ICT workers who do not consider a framework of competences desirable is that they do not consider this necessary. A large group is also afraid of privacy violations. In any case, the potential benefits of a widely supported framework do not seem to be recognized yet. In order to make such a framework successful, more support must first be created. Only 52% of managers know the competence standards of ICT professionals. They usually take these standards literally from the internal job descriptions formulated for them by technicians. They are then often used in recruitment, either for vacancies or for staff assessments. Nineteen percent do not use any standards for recruitment at all.

Half of the managers use standards in the development of their own IT professionals. However, they are rarely applied to their own organization or incorporated into a specific training plan or to obtain certificates. The other half of the managers do not use standards for their IT professionals. Hardly anyone appears to be familiar with the e-Competence Framework. Instead, these professionals are sent to training where they can see for themselves where they can improve. The competences are also discussed in the performance interviews. Sometimes an internally experienced IT professional screens the other professionals to identify competencies that need to be improved.

About 15% of the respondents who do not work as an IT worker say they have ever aspired to an IT position. This applies more to men than women, and also more to the highly educated. One third of the small group that was interested in fulfilling an ICT position never took any steps. 38 percent checked which training would be required and 26% asked colleagues how they could become an IT specialist. The proportion of people who applied or started training is much smaller. The general picture that arises is that in the current working population there is little enthusiasm for retraining and working as an ICT worker. The main reasons are that ICT is considered unattractive or that ICT is too technical.