Dealing with “users”, freedom and shadow systems

Apparently Accenture have discovered “user-determined computing” and associated issues.

The definition goes something like this

Today, home technology has outpaced enterprise technology, leaving employees frustrated by the inadequacy of the technology they use at work. As a result, employees are demanding more because of their ever-increasing familiarity and comfort level with technology. It’s an emerging phenomenon Accenture has called “user-determined computing.”

It’s not new

This problem, or aspects of it, have been discussed in a number of places. For example, CIO magazine has a collection of articles it aligns with this issue

This has connections to the literature on workarounds and shadow systems. Practices by which people within organisations workaround the official organisational systems or hierarchies and do things their own way.

This is not a problem limited to IT departments. I work within a group responsible for curriculum design, e-learning and materials development at a University. We’re a provider of services for academic staff. Those staff can and do workaround the services we provide.

The question is, what should we do? How should we handle this?

Reactions from IT folk

I find it interesting that a common knee-jerk reaction from IT folk tends towards the negative and/or aggressive. Check out some of the comments on this blog post or one of the Time to rethink your relationship with end-usersCIO articles.

This is often seen in the official reaction of IT departments to shadow systems. “SHUT THEM DOWN!!!!”. It’s a discourse that have been circulating at my institution in recent times.

Having been a creator and heavy user of shadow systems it’s not an approach which I believe is productive. In fact, some colleagues and I have argued that there is a much better approach. From the abstract

Results of the analysis indicate that shadow systems may be useful indicators of a range of problems with enterprise system implementation. It appears that close examination of shadow systems may help both practitioners and researchers improve enterprise system implementation and evolution.

The gulf

The users who know too much CIO article puts it this way

And that disconnect is fundamental. Users want IT to be responsive to their individual needs and to make them more productive. CIOs want IT to be reliable, secure, scalable and compliant with an ever increasing number of government regulations. Consequently, when corporate IT designs and provides an IT system, manageability usually comes first, the user’s experience second. But the shadow IT department doesn’t give a hoot about manageability and provides its users with ways to end-run corporate IT when the interests of the two groups do not coincide.

Other earlier work has suggested that this gap or gulf, in some cases a yawning chasm, is created by a number of different factors.

Perhaps it is the fundamental nature of some of the factors that create the gap which contribute to the negative reactions. The perspectives creating the gap are so fundamental that the people holding them never question them. They don’t see that their view is actually counter-productive (in some situations) or that there are alternatives. They simply can’t understand the apparent stupidity of the alternate perspective and the hugely negative ramifications.

Super-rational versus complexity

One of the fundamental outlooks which contribute to this gap is that most IT, and most organisations, are based on the ideal of top-down design (teleological design). I’ve written about this previously.

That previous writing includes one of the more interesting characterisations of the difference in these two fundamentally different perspectives. I’ve included it as an mp3. It’s by Dave Snowden, and is an excerpt from a presentation he gave in Helsinki on sense-making and strategy. In the excerpt he describes two approaches to organising a child’s birthday party. One based on traditional top-down approaches and another based on complexity.

What should we do?

This is a real problem which we have to address. How do we do it.

The users who know too much CIO article suggests the following principles as starting points

  1. Find out how people really work
    This connects with ideas in our earlier articles. Look at the shadow systems people are using and understand the factors leading them to use them. We need to know much more about how and why staff are doing curriculum design, e-learning etc.
  2. Say yes to evolution
    On reading the article I wonder if “don’t say no” might not be a better name for this principle. One of the nice quotes in the article is “No one will jump through hoops. They’ll go around them.”. We have to make it easy and safe for folk to do their own thing. Not just understand what they are doing, but allow them to evolve and do different things and keep an eye on why, what and how they do it.
  3. Ask yourself if the threat is real
    There is often a reason why IT believes a shadow system is bad – security, inefficiency etc. This principle suggests spending a lot of time considering whether or not this is really a big problem. In our line of work that might be equated to telling an academic that a particular learning/teaching approach is less than good.

    Another quote from the article ” When a CIO….is setting himself up as a tin idol, a moral arbiter. That’s a guaranteed way to antagonize users. And that’s never a good idea.”.

  4. Enforce rules, don’t make them.
    Some recent local experience reinforces the importance of this. It’s not the support group saying no. It’s the rules that were created by the appropriate folk within the business. As an addition to this I would suggest: “Make sure everyone knows who made the rules.”.
  5. Be invisible.
    This principle relates to the “important things” a service division should do. For example, an IT department is responsible for ensuring security of important data. The processes used to do that should be invisible. It shouldn’t cause the users grief in order to be secure. It should just happen.
  6. Messy but fertile beats neat but sterile.
    It’s not included in the article as one of the principles, but it is used as the closing section and I think it deserves to be included. To much of what goes on in organisations is based on the idea of having tidy diagrams, one way to do something of being neat and sterile. “messiness isn’t as bad as stagnation” and “If you want to be an innovator and leverage IT to get a competitive advantage, there has to be some controlled chaos.”

    Another approach

    Nicholas Carr argues for one response in terms of IT departments.

One thought on “Dealing with “users”, freedom and shadow systems

  1. Pingback: University IT governance and Innovation « Col’s Weblog

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