The gulf between users and IT departments

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.”

This is something I’ve been observing for a number of years and am currently struggling with in terms of my new job, in a couple of different ways. In particular, I’m trying to figure out a way to move forward. In the following I’m going to try and think/comment about the following

  • Even though “Web 2.0 stuff” seems to be bringing this problem to the fore, it’s not new.
  • The gulf that exists between the different ends of this argument and the tension between them.
  • Question whether or not this is really a technology problem.
  • Ponder whether this is a problem that’s limited only to IT departments.

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 (Though having re-read them, I’m not sure how well some of them connect).

The third one seems the most complete on its coverage of this topic. I highly recommend a read.

The gulf

Other earlier work has suggested that the fundamental problem is that there is a gap or gulf, in some cases a yawning chasm, between the users’ needs and what’s provided by the IT department.

One of the CIO articles above 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.

One of the key points here is that the disconnect is fundamental. The solution is not a minor improvement to how the IT department works. To some extent the problem is so fundamental that people’s mindsets need to change.

Is this a technology problem?

Can this change? Not sure it can, at least in the organisations where all that is IT is to be solved by the IT department. Such a department, especially at the management level, is manned (and it’s usually men, at least for now) by people who have lived within IT departments and succeeded, so that they now reside at the top. In most organisations the IT folk retain final say on “technical” questions (which really aren’t technical questions) because of the ignorance and fear of senior management about “technical” questions. It’s to easy for IT folk to say “you can’t do that” and for senior management not to have a clue that it is a load of bollocks.

Of course I should take my own advice look for incompetence before you go paranoid. Senior IT folk, as with most people, will see the problem in the same way they have always seen the problem. They will always seek solve it with solutions they’ve used before, because that’s the nature of the problem they see. One of the “technical” terms for this is inattentional blindness

The chances of a fundamental change to approach is not likely. Dave Snowden suggests that the necessary, but not sufficient conditions, for innovation are starvation, pressure and perspective shift. Without that perspective shift, the gulf will continue exist.

It’s not limited to IT

You can see evidence of this gulf in any relationship between “users” and a service group within an organisation (e.g. finance, Human Resources, quality assurance, curriculum design etc.) – especially when the service group is a profession. The service group becomes so enamoured of its own problem due to pressure from the organisation, the troubles created by the “users” and the distance (physical, temporal, social, mental etc.) between the service group and the “users” that it develops its own language, its own processes and tasks and starts to lose sight of the organisations core business.

The most obvious end result of the gulf is when the service department starts to think it knows best. Rather than respond to the needs, perceived and otherwise, of the “users”, the service department works on what it considers best. Generally something the emphasises the importance of the service divisions and increases their funding and importance within the organisation. You can see this sort of thing all the time with people who are meant to advice academics about how to improve their learning and teaching.

IT are just the easiest and most obvious target for this because IT is now a core part of life for most professions, most organisations continue to see it as overhead to be minimised, rather than an investment to be maximised and the on-going development of IT is changing the paradigm for IT departments.

3 thoughts on “The gulf between users and IT departments

  1. [quote]Senior IT folk, as with most people, will see the problem in the same way they have always seen the problem. They will always seek solve it with solutions they’ve used before, because that’s the nature of the problem they see.[/quote]

    Doesn’t this stem from pattern-based recognition in the brain? You see a set of inputs that eventually coalesce into one of your thought ‘basins’ that have been etched from previous successes. Consciously breaking out of this self-reinforcing system is what lateral thinking is all about, especially when the solution to the problem seems achievable, but not optimal due to lack of options.

  2. Yes Tony, it is connected with pattern entrainment and/or the other phrases I’ve been using. Inattentional blindness, at least for me, is a potential/likely end result of pattern entrainment. The brain becomes so connected with a particular pattern it can’t actually see what is there.

    As for lateral thinking being the answer. I suppose it can be in some cases. But I’m not sure how successful it can be in other cases. The patterns underpinning some perspectives are so entrenched, so fundamental that the folk holding them aren’t even aware of them.

    You can’t change, what you don’t see. And that includes the own internal patterns.

    I would imagine that there would need to be a major, external push on to shift perspective for something like that to change. And the more senior/experienced the person the more difficult it will be.

  3. The patterns underpinning some perspectives are so entrenched, so fundamental that the folk holding them aren’t even aware of them.

    That’s the perfect time to try lateral thinking techniques. Coming up with only one solution should be warning bells that you’re probably missing something. The problem though is that lateral thinking is more of a personal process. If upper management people aren’t already using lateral thinking techniques then pushing in lateral thinking would be as hard as shifting perspective (although it would make subsequent shifts easier, which are guaranteed in this day and age).

    I would have thought that Unis had a higher than average proportion of lateral thinkers though. Maybe there’s more to it? Maybe I’m stuck in a ‘lateral thinking is the answer’ rut. That would be ironic.

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