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Web Skills Vital to Many Jobs

If your job involves getting information or communicating with other people, you can almost bet that you'll need to use the Internet.

What's more, the chance that you'll have this kind of job is becoming greater. This is because, globally, we are moving into what social scientists call a "knowledge-based economy."

"Work today is as much about relationships as it is about making stuff. It is as much about how to find knowledge as it is about making stuff," says Barry Wellman. He is a university professor and a sociologist who studies how different groups of people work together through computers.

"It's hard to say exactly who is using the Internet at work, but there are a lot of us," says Brad Cahoon. He is head of the department of Web instructional development at the University of Georgia.

According to Nielsen NetRatings, there were an estimated 165.2 million Internet users in the U.S. in November 2001. Many of these people were accessing the Net from work.

"By far, the most common Internet task at work is sending and receiving e-mail, followed by searching the Web," says Cahoon.

"The Web is used largely for research -- for example, price and product comparison -- but also for distributing information within organizations. The expansion of business-to-business Web services will give workers and companies more Internet tools. Whether it's used for distributing an annual report or finding a car part, the Internet makes work more efficient by providing faster, better and cheaper access to information."

Patrick Kenny is a technology services manager at a company that develops video and interactive Internet content for the television and movie industries. He agrees that the Internet way is faster, better and cheaper.

He uses the example of someone who has a printer that needs fixing. "With the Internet, you go to the printer manufacturer's site and check for compatibility issues. Your problem may be a known issue, like requiring a new driver file. So you go to the download section and get the file -- free of charge and virtually instantaneous," he says.

"Install the new driver, problem solved. Elapsed time: about 15 minutes."

Without the Internet, Kenny says the whole process of calling the manufacturer and having a new driver sent could take a week or more.

It isn't just people in the information technology industry who use the Internet. Margaret Dodge is a validation specialist at a biotechnology company. In addition to communicating with co-workers, she uses the Internet to search for conferences and training sessions and to research scientific and regulatory publications.

She regularly visits some sites, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so she can keep up with the latest regulatory requirements and information in her field. "Requirements have been changing -- becoming more strict -- in the past five years and the Internet allows me to keep up with these changes and do my job properly."

The Internet isn't likely to replace other means of communication. It supplements them. Dodge says this is true in her job. "It has been a long time since I went to the library to search for an article without having first researched it on the Internet," she says.

"However, articles are often not available online without a subscription. My company has a library which gets the latest periodicals related to vaccine research and production, as well as health and safety issues."

Some companies are afraid that employees will waste time on the Internet by surfing other sites or chatting with friends instead of doing their jobs. Many have specific policies about use and might monitor employees on the Net. A few organizations have banned employee access to the Internet almost completely.

While Kenny says his company relies on the honor system, Dodge says her employer has put in place a few restrictions. She emphasizes that the company is supportive of the Internet and encourages employees to use it as a research tool. But she says that access to X-rated sites and some "off-site e-mails" (such as Hotmail) is blocked by firewalls.

"There are different levels of firewalls for different management levels -- directors have no firewalls, for example. Internet use is monitored, or can be. However, I don't know of any stories of people being fired or reprimanded for inappropriate Internet use."

"There is no doubt that some workers do sometimes waste time on the Internet," says Cahoon. "But in my opinion, this reveals a productivity problem that would exist without the Internet." In other words, bored or unmotivated employees will just find a different way to waste time.

Cahoon also points out that sometimes something that seems unproductive may actually make a better employee:

"If employees are using Web access to build knowledge and skills, even in areas that have only a peripheral relation to their primary work duties, this may actually increase their productivity and value to the company."

Whether or not some companies are trying to avoid the Internet, its use is undeniable. "Fire, the wheel, electricity, radio, TV, computers and now the Internet," says Kenny.

"In the end, the Internet is just a tool -- flashy, new and exciting, but just a tool. Once a new and useful technology spreads far enough and becomes common enough, society can't help but be changed by that technology."

There are a few trends that show the Internet becoming a part of the work landscape. Internal e-mails and intranets -- Web-based information systems accessible only within an organization -- are becoming a common way for a company to let its employees know what is going on.

The move towards telecommuting or teleworking is another trend related to Net use. "Very often," says Wellman, "this is done in an informal way, where someone will work from home a few days a week, then go to the office, show their face one or two days.

"Many people also run businesses from home, not necessarily letting people know it's just them in front of a computer."

Other trends include videoconferencing and e-commerce.

People with good Net skills are clearly at an advantage. "When it comes to two people with the same job," says Kenny, "better Internet skills can make the difference, as the techno-savvy employee is more efficient when it comes to finding the needed information to complete the task."

Cahoon says you should start with basic computer skills. These skills include all the little things it takes to be able to use the hardware and software of your computer, such as using a keyboard and mouse well and knowing how to point and click or scroll a window.

Beyond that, Cahoon says, "the most important skills in becoming a good Internet user are reading and writing. It's ironic that the same technology that is revolutionizing our economy and our culture is also reinforcing the need for old-fashioned literacy.

"Unfortunately," says Cahoon, "in most workplaces, new hires are expected to acquire Internet and other skills at the same time they are learning how to do the rest of their jobs."

Cahoon says skills are often learned informally. There are also courses you can take online or in schools to improve your skills. But Dodge and Kenny agree that talking with co-workers and simply spending time on the Net play a big role in learning Internet skills.

"To get on in this environment," says Wellman, "you'll need to have good social skills and be good at maintaining relationships -- you need to know which friend of a friend knows what you want to find out.

"You need to know how to search for information. But at the same time, have a good garbage detector because it is much easier to wind up with garbage on the Internet than it is in real life. You need to have some tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. And you'll need to be able to enjoy an ever-changing life."


Exploring the Web
A Web tutorial online

Workers Say Web Vital to Jobs
USA Today article about the Web and workers

A resource about telecommuting and teleworking

Guide to E-Mail and the Internet in the Workplace
A guide to some of the legal problems

Benefits of Internet Use by Employees
Talks about Web-based training

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