Information technology skills boost innovation
Are our schools and universities teaching the right skills
to enable a new generation of IT practitioners to drive forward innovation? The question has to be asked, since everyone accepts that IT has a critical part to play in an innovation-based economy. It’s not just about companies selling IT products and services, but about how industries wield information technology to innovate in engineering, aerospace, transport, medical and healthcare, energy, retail. Information technologies can be used to improve business processes, reduce costs, increase automation and deliver new services.
Frankly, particularly at school level, the answer is no. Information technology is introduced and taught only as a general skill. A typical school IT syllabus will cover using the World Wide Web, browsing and searching, email and perhaps social networking and personal productivity tools such as spreadsheets and word processing. While these basic skills are almost a universal requirement alongside literacy and numeracy, they fall far short of the needs of an innovation economy. What we are lacking are two types of practitioners: the “intelligent IT customer” and the “technology pioneer”.
The intelligent customer needs to be well versed in IT so that he or she can swiftly adopt new technologies to drive innovation broadly across all sectors of the economy. By contrast the technology pioneers have a critical role to play in companies supplying IT products and services. They need strong skills to be able to advance the state of the art and create new technology and systems innovations.
In both cases a deeper introduction to computer science is required – with an application focus for the “intelligent customer” and a technology focus for the “pioneer”. Computer science provides the necessary theoretical and practical understanding of technology, software, systems and human factors required to create a wide base of IT-savvy workers who will double as an army of innovators.
The “intelligent customer” concept is poorly understood. People in such roles need much more than basic user skills or IT project management skills. They have to be able to track and even predict technology developments and be able to design, build and deploy systems that adopt and exploit such developments in different fields of application.
At the level of school education this is a plea for an introduction to computer science to be offered alongside the more basic IT skills offered today. In the UK, Microsoft Research in partnership with others, including the British Computer Society, have launched a “Computing at School” initiative to bring this about.
At the level of university education it is a plea for universities to offer computer science courses that support both the “intelligent customer” and the “technology pioneer” tracks, and to recognize that courses must remain at the cutting edge of the discipline, in itself a challenge given the pace at which technology develops. Moreover since the “intelligent customer” is likely to have a career in another industry, their teaching must necessarily have a multi-disciplinary dimension.
Finally, in terms of research funding, this is a plea to recognize that research can be driven by both the quest for new technology and also through identifying new applications. Indeed, often a virtuous circle of feedback links the two.
This article was first published in Microsoft Europe's Futures Magazine. Click here to access the full version in PDF.