I would like to bring a bit of balance to the views presented by Ottavio Rubini (“Colleges fill IT graduate void left by universities,” NWC, Nov. 6, 1998, page 14.)

While agreeing that universities have not risen to the occasion in terms of the demand for IT skills, I question the assertion that “too many university students are still enrolled in more esoteric studies rather than science- or mathematics-related studies.” This position fails to understand both the purposes of those “esoteric studies” and the necessary knowledge skills in our information age.

The IT sector has recorded dramatic growth by becoming part of other sectors, not by replacing them. Within the IT sector, the demand is for a range of skills well beyond code, network and applications management. Thinking otherwise is to believe, for example, that the problems of urban transportation are best handled by automotive engineers, with no role for social, cultural or geographic considerations.

The letter refers to psychology, medieval French, Polish history and Victorian literature as “esoteric studies”. While a network management program is targeted to produce a network manager, a program in medieval French is not intended to produce either medieval French or a medieval French person. The product is critical thinking and an ability to “think outside the box”.

It is the absence of such critical thinking that has left us with the year 2000 problem as a costly repair. The two-digit year may have made sense in those days when bytes were more costly than gold, but one would have thought that between then and before now we would have seen the obvious. We didn’t and it is costing us dearly, even if we are fully compliant by year 2000. Why didn’t we act sooner? It had to do with vision and culture, not technical skills. It was the inability of those inside and outside the IT sector to take the issue from a concern to a change strategy. Now the issue has became a costly repair, with a lot of confusion and anxiety.

The need for thinking beyond the hardware, the systems and the applications is nowhere more obvious than in the emerging challenge around knowledge management and the learning organization. What do these terms mean for organizational structures and for human resource strategies? What do they mean for the learning strategies of individuals, groups, and communities? Where do information and communication technologies (ICTs) fit in all of this? How do we face the future with one foot in these emerging virtual workspaces and the other in traditional literal venues? How do the individual, the organization and society deal with the electronic venue as a social process space, and not just a channel for e-commerce or “edutainment”?

Most IT training focuses on “how”, and not “what” or “why”. Consider knowledge management, learning organization and human resource development strategies. The current IT posture is much like that of a well-trained dog waiting to fetch a stick thrown by its master. It has been trained to fetch the stick, but until the stick is thrown, the dog stands in “ready wait”.

The IT posture of “ready wait” for knowledge management, etc., is to put in place capacity to capture knowledge (databases, text management, etc.), and conduct virtual work (intranets, groupware, video, etc.). When this IT capacity fails to deliver, the blame is placed on corporate culture, or organizational and behavioural problems. Here we have gone full circle. We need those esoteric skills, and we need them at a table with IT people, sharing a common language. It may well be a blessing in disguise that IT recruits come with a university degree. This does not, of course, let the universities off the hook.

It is not for me to say how IT training should be distributed across the universities, the community colleges and the private sector. That is a “turf” issue. It is true that universities have been painfully slow to understand what ICTs have to do with society and the economy, and with what universities are about. ICTs are producing a electronic venue which is both a workspace and a social process arena. It is stating the obvious to say that this will impact on all aspects of society.

The challenge is for the entire educational system, as it is and as it will be, to rise to the occasion and make sure the changes are beneficial. This will not be easy. Efforts to situate ICTs within the university environment have either focused on infrastructure development, IT training or (usually hostile) critiques on IT and society.

My own university administration has suggested that an IT program be housed in the math department and wonders if there will be a demand beyond the year 2000 bug! At the same time, I get one or two e-mail requests a week from first-rate students looking to do advanced studies in the relationship between ICTs and economic development, education, health or whatever. Some come from an arts background, some come from a scientific or technical background. The sad fact is that there is almost no place to direct them. There is where the real challenge lies in preparing Canada, its people, its communities and its corporations, for the future.

The void left by universities is not in their failure to train IT professionals, it is in their failure to confront the educational and research needs of a future which incorporates the electronic venue and virtual workspaces — one where virtual social process arenas are real and extend beyond Canada. This is done not by adding an IT program as though it is a plug-in for one’s favourite browser. It is done by asking what do ICTs contribute to the future of psychology, medieval French, Polish history and Victorian literature, and how do those insights, in turn, contribute to facing a future where ICTs influence structures, behaviour and process at all levels.

This is the heart of the challenge. It is not met by taking sides in the “turf war” over IT training. It is met by asking the right questions. That calls for more than waiting for the master to throw the stick (or carrot) and yell “Fetch”.