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12 April 2005

Everyday skills part 1: Delegation, definition and instruction

By Andrew Clifford

To fully realise IT's potential, you need to apply skills of delegation, definition and instruction. These are not specialist IT skills, but the sort of skills you use every day at work or at home.

Last week's newsletter described how you need to address both attitudes and skills to really master IT. This week's newsletter will cover three of these skills: delegation, definition and instruction.

Imagine that you are a manager of department that uses a computer system. Think of the computer as a member of your team to which you can delegate some of your responsibilities.

The computer will be quick and accurate. But it is only good at a few things, and stupid with it. To make sure you and everyone else understands what the computer will do, you need to write it a job description, which includes:

  • What information it will remember.
  • What rules and calculations it will apply, and when.
  • What incoming communications it will receive, and what it will do with them.
  • What people or computers it has to send information to, and what the communications mean.

The computer can only do things on this list. If the job description includes intelligent responsibilities like "decide" or "advise", or leadership responsibilities like "enable", you need to do them yourself or delegate them to a real person.

Remember that every aspect of the job description must be a subset of your responsibilities, and you're still responsible for everything the computer does.

Because the computer is stupid, it won't be able to provide any help interpreting data that is passed into it or communicated out from it. So you have to define this completely and unambiguously. This isn't a technical skill, just the careful use of language. The computer is so stupid, you will have to spell out how it should hold any ambiguous information. You will have to tell it that money is held in pounds, and not pence; and that the names are held as first name followed by surname.

Similarly, if you want the computer to apply any rules, you will have to give it very clear instructions, leaving nothing out. If you tell a four-year-old to get into the car, they will do so, minus shoes and coat. You have to say, "Go to the back door, find your shoes and put them on. Go to the coat cupboard, find your coat, and put it on. Then get into the car." Similarly, if there is a calculation to be applied, you have to tell the computer exactly how to do it, leaving nothing out.

Delegation, definition and instruction are not specialist IT skills. They are not related to your ability to actually use a computer – like being able to get bold on a word processor. They are the same as the skills you would apply every day at home or at work.

Delegation with clear definition and instruction is a major part of taking charge of your IT. Next week's newsletter will consider this further, by looking at the everyday skills you need to structure and manage the information held and communicated by your IT systems.

Next: Everyday skills part 2: Filing and administration

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