by Mark Gibbs

Picking a Fight With Users: Everyone Loses

Nov 07, 20113 mins
Consumer ElectronicsIT LeadershipIT Strategy

When users try to solve problems that IT can't afford to address, IT has to think very hard about its attitude. Or else.

A comment to my last posting contended, in rather appalled tones, that applications and devices that users bring into the enterprise are merely “toys” and that “It’s time to grow up, be an adult, and leave your toys at home.”

The argument put forward was:

“[IT] usually has tools already in place that were either paid for or are a part of the system already, but the user, wanting to bring his toy to work has found this App. We don’t want to hurt their feeling either, as these days it’s more about keeping workers comfy instead of expecting them to do what they are trained, hired, and paid for.”

There is a huge problem with this way of looking at IT and how it serves users. At the heart of this problem is the fact that IT exists to solve and support data and information handling processes so when IT comes up short and doesn’t (or can’t) deliver what the users want (and by “users” I don’t just mean Betty in Accounting, I also mean the entire Accounting department), then whether you like it or not, IT is failing.

Now, it’s true IT is often financially constrained but when IT can’t deliver what is needed, politics always comes into play. And the politics get ugly when IT declares “We can’t afford to do what you want and we won’t allow you to solve what you see as a pressing problem for yourself because we are the only ones who understand the issues and can appease the Gods of Information Technology.” (Oh, alright, I made up the end of that sentence.)

By way of an example, a few years ago I was talking to the CIO of a company in the SMB bracket. He told me that his budget for IT was some tens of millions of dollars and that each year, they polled all of the lines of business for what new projects they needed to have IT work on to improve their effectiveness and or bottom line.

“How many new projects do you think we get to do each year?” he asked me. I guessed half a dozen, maybe a dozen, tops. “Nope” he said, “one. Most of our costs go to keeping what we’ve already got running. If we’re lucky we get to do one new project each year and that one will be picked as the most beneficial that fits within however much surplus we have, and it’s usually not the one that will be the most profitable!”

What that CIO said he was finding was that his users were getting creative and finding simpler answers than they would have asked IT to produce. That, in turn, saved him time and effort and, occasionally, created a more cost effective and timely solution.

Now, it may turn out to be true that a user generated solution isn’t a great one but when IT adopts an authoritarian approach combined with arguing from assumed authority it’s a great way to create hostility and outright insurrection. When it comes to IT if you thwart the users, they’ll usually just go and do what they want anyway! And then the politics get really ugly …

Allowing an “us vs. them” confrontation to develop is a huge mistake because making a business operate effectively requires collaboration. When it all degenerates into turf wars, energy is wasted on the struggle rather than on driving business forward.

Sure, IT can adopt a disparaging attitude and treat the users as if they are fools but then the outcome is guaranteed: Everyone will lose.