by Sandy Behrens

Time to Rethink Your Relationship With End Users

Jul 24, 20078 mins
Consumer ElectronicsIT LeadershipRelationship Building

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.

Under the new social contract, IT departments should position themselves as the helpers and not the hinderers in such creative efforts. In fact, this will be the only way that IT departments will be able to justify themselves in today’s organizations.

The New Social Contract

Going forward, the relationship between end users and IT should be based on open-mindedness and a constant dialogue about the ways technology can support changing business needs. The provisions of this new social contract should include:

You will put people first. How many times has the first response an end user gets when calling the helpdesk been, “Did you log a ticket for that?” This is but one (classic) example of the way IT departments have become so focused on their processes that the user’s problem takes a backseat. The focus on process can become so intense that the actual problems fade completely from the big picture. For instance, in the Webfuse study an IT manager admitted: “Sometimes with all the processes we deal with it can take weeks, months, years and sometimes never to get a response back to the user.”

Yet the processes and procedures that exist in your IT department can make or break the relationship with your end users. What end users want is for processes and procedures to be transparent, flexible and oriented toward them. When an IT department is focused on the end user, creative and innovative solutions can be developed.

At my own university, the Webfuse system, as a shadow system, was a successful and creative innovation. One of the key reasons was that the Webfuse support team was fully focused on the user. All of the team’s processes were designed to make it agile and responsive from its first contact with the end user to the final resolution of his or her problem. It employed a lightweight development methodology. It located its office among the faculty, which was its principal user group. And so, on paper and in reality the Webfuse team was firmly entrenched in the day-to-day operations of the faculty. Furthermore, its processes evolved over time to match the needs of users, not the other way around.

You will talk to real end users. Typical approaches to dialogue with business users include creating a position to ensure effective communication or setting up committees manned by managers. In my own organization, a developer reported, IT staff met every two weeks with middle managers from the faculty, but no front-line users were involved. And so, although I am a front-line end user, working at the core business of my organization, this group is not getting information about my needs—for tools to help me teach students. It is learning instead about my managers’ needs—for statistics that let it track performance.

For genuine communication to occur between IT departments and their end users, technologists must commit to talking with them directly. As an end user I want spontaneous, easy and relaxed communication with a person I know—preferably the same person who is going to solve my problem. I want that person to care about my problem.

I’m not alone. When I asked Webfuse users to tell me about the difference between solutions delivered by the IT department and their shadow system, a collegial relationship with the shadow system development team was a key differentiator.

You will build trust. If IT departments are going to remain relevant, they need to develop trusting, collaborative relationships with end users. Unfortunately, for many technologists, this will require a fundamental shift in their attitudes. Too many IT departments view their work as developing solutions for—not with—users.

On the other hand, where technologists have empathy for the users and a fundamental desire to work with them to develop solutions, end users are more likely to want to collaborate with their IT departments. When this type of collaborative relationship exists, end users feel ownership and even pride in their systems. Furthermore they become comfortable taking a risk, which according to many studies is essential to gaining a competitive advantage.

Comfort with risk-taking comes from knowing that your IT staff cares about what you do and will support you. As a Webfuse user, I might have thought twice about asking for help incorporating a blogging tool into my course this term if I had not had a good relationship with someone on the support team.

Today’s competitive environment requires that IT departments become more sensitive and responsive to business needs. But old ways of relating to end users have made IT staffs insular and unaware of what happens at the front lines of their organizations. IT leaders have to respond by developing a new relationship with their end users. With this new social contract, based on open collaboration, IT departments will be able to respond appropriately with technology to help their organizations survive and thrive.

Sandy Behrens researches shadow systems and teaches in the School of Information Systems at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton, Australia.