Year: 1973

At every major company engaging in commerce, you will find a computer education department. This department is responsible for initiating every worker in the corporation to the new systems that are being built. There are newsletters and conferences for the computer education department. There are regular employees dedicated to the running and management of the computer education department. There are companies that produce videotapes for the computer education department. Many of the people going through the courses offered by the computer education department are having their first introduction to the world of automated computation.

Year: 2003

Compared to the computer education department of an earlier day and age, the computer education department has all but disappeared.

What Happened?

There is no question that the world of computation has changed dramatically in a few decades. What changes have occurred that have mitigated the disappearance of the computer education department?

People today are much more computer literate than they were two or three decades ago. We have personal computers, university computer classes and so forth. We didn't have these basic facilities in years past. In today's world, it is unlikely that the first time that an individual encounters a computer is on the job.

Today, we have relatively standardized systems, whereas in years past everything was customized. Because of the number of organizations that have the same basic software, it is easy and economical to have public education capabilities. This is a great improvement over the first systems, which were developed by COBOL and Fortran developers. If a user wanted to understand and use yesterday's customized development, the end user had to take an in-house course; there simply was no other way.

Yesterday's systems were operational systems. The operational systems were built from requirements that were laid in stone and were (unfortunately!) extraordinarily difficult to change. Furthermore, these operational systems were used to run the business at the clerical day-to-day level. For the most part, today's systems are decision support systems (DSSs). With DSSs, the way the system runs may not be the same for any two days in a row. DSSs are designed to be run in a highly flexible manner; if you don't like the way a DSS is running, you can change it. Because early systems were etched in stone, a formal education could be undertaken. However, the education today on the DSS environment will probably not be valid tomorrow. Therefore, it does not make sense to build an education curriculum on an environment that is guaranteed to change.

Furthermore, the style of computation has changed. In the early days, the systems that were built were operational. Operational systems required a central and technical development organization. For a variety of very valid reasons, the end user was not welcome to make changes or additions to these operational systems. However, with DSS and data warehousing, the end user was put into a position of control. Data warehouses were built for the purpose of putting the end user in control, and systems were very fluid. The fluidity of DSS systems and the control of those systems greatly mitigated the need for education.

Over time, every IT department has been subject to the ravages of economics, and IT budgets have been squeezed. The computer education department has always been a victim of this squeeze because – right or wrong – it is viewed as being "optional." If management has to make a choice between being responsive to the development of new systems needed for new requirements and the computer education department, most often the new development wins.

Additionally, the control of systems has slipped out of the hands of IT and into the hands of the end user. Once upon a time, IT did everything. However, over time, that control (and the budget that goes with it) has gone to the end user. Now the end user department does much of what once was in the domain of the IT organization. In this way, the end user has taken over the education that goes hand in hand with new systems. In this case, the computer education department has simply migrated to the end-user education department.

The group of people building operational systems has changed as well. Once upon a time, operational systems were built by in-house staff or contractors. These early systems were all customized. However, today a truly customized operational system is rare. Instead, the enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors (SAP, PeopleSoft) build the operational applications. If we are not building applications in house anymore, there is no need for in-house education. If we need education for operational systems, we send our people to classes provided by SAP or PeopleSoft.

These are some of the reasons why the computer education department has gone the way of the dinosaur. There are probably many other reasons as well. In fact, it is fair to say that there are many entwined reasons why the computer education has gone away.

Does that mean that there is no need for such an organization? The answer is that there probably is a greater need for a computer education department today than ever before; however, the computer education that is needed today is quite a bit different than the computer education needed in the past.

What is needed is an education about the architecture of systems today. In the past, the focus was on products, not architecture. It was easy to focus on how to make SQL calls or what a data link interface looked like. Today, what is needed is education about basic things, such as the definition of data, the origin of data, how data changes as it moves throughout the system, how data may be accessed and so forth.

What is needed is an education about the possibilities for using data. This begins with the structure of the data and ends with the tools used to operate on the data. The good news is that the vendors of the tools usually supply the education. The bad news is that in-house education is needed with regard to internal systems.

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