Time to Rethink Your Relationship With End Users

As the rise of shadow systems attests, end users can build their own systems. If you want to stay relevant, you need to stop developing applications for them and start working with them.

I asked my friend, a user support specialist, what most annoyed him about end users and he said: End users are demanding, self-centered, narrow minded, shallow and completely detached from technological reality.

His idea of a good end user was of the seen and not—or even better, never—heard variety. An end user who follows the processes and procedures decreed by the IT department. One who makes his job easier by keeping to what he or she knows best, while IT keeps to what it knows best—thus, preserving the age-old principle of functional specialization that has served organizations well for more than a century.


For more about user relations and shadow IT, read An Autocratic Approach to Users Will Fail and Users Who Know Too Much and the CIOs Who Fear Them.

This view of end users as little more than self-centered children is not unusual. However, a transformation is occurring that should cause us to reconsider our views. From relative ignorance, end users are becoming increasingly IT savvy—able not only to use technology but also able to develop their own solutions. Shadow systems—those that replicate the data and functionality of formally sanctioned systems—are a testament to this ability.

These systems are not necessarily simple variations on the Excel spreadsheet. On the contrary, they can be very sophisticated—rivaling and even exceeding any technological solution produced by IT departments. Such systems range from consumer solutions like Google Apps to highly tailored solutions like Webfuse, a course management system developed at my university as an alternative to the applications installed by IT. (Full disclosure: I am a Webfuse user and I know its developers. The system is now supported officially by the IT department.)

With this change in the relationship between end users and technology, the IT department's singular claim to technology knowledge is disappearing, and with it its position of power. The more technologists try to counter this effect by enforcing the old ways, the more defunct and isolated they will become—their decisions ignored and their solutions unused. For IT departments to survive, we need a new social contract with end users that fosters open communication and collaboration.

A Broken Relationship

A social contract is the set of implied agreements by which people maintain order. IT experts have enjoyed an advantage due to their possession of knowledge that organizations could not afford to be without. In many cases they could—and did—dictate the terms of their relationship with end users, even when it was unsatisfactory to the end users.

We kid ourselves that this patronizing tone has been missed by the users themselves. In a recent case study of Webfuse, for which I was the principal researcher, I found that the IT department had so offended end users that the end users would go out of their way to defy them. Said one interviewee: "Just because management somewhere decides that 'Yep, we've got this new beaut system and everyone's going to use it'—it's just rubbish... Until these [official] systems do the things we need them to do we will continue to use [shadow] systems to get the job done."

One of the primary reasons shadow systems succeed is that people at the front lines of organizations need them. They know when they have a problem and when they find a solution that works well for them, their needs are met. IT departments, on the other hand, become too focused on the technology that exists to solve a problem rather than the problem itself—to the extent that when end users do not use officially sanctioned solutions, IT may proceed on radical search-and-destroy missions of user-created systems. In doing so, it ignores why the user did not use its solutions in the first place, and in effect it destroys one of the few sources of IT strategic and competitive advantage an organization has.

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