X Marks the Spot

Last year, I had some minor surgery. OK, if you must know, it was a hernia repair. The last thing I did before getting on the gurney to go into the OR was to take a hospital-issued marker and make a big red X on my right thigh indicating that it was a right hernia repair.

After the surgery, as I lay in the recovery room, I couldn't help but reflect on that red X. Here I was in a modern surgical environment, surrounded by the latest in medical technology, and the surgeon had relied on marking-pen "technology" to ensure that the correct job was done. Indeed, he had relied on the user to tell him, for sure, where to operate.

In many ways, this process very closely parallels the ideal situation in the IT-user relationship . Despite all of the latest whiz-bang technology in computer departments, it's still the responsibility of the user to tell the technologists where the problem is and what the solution should look like. No one wants to undergo the pain and expense of surgery or a system project if it has no hope of solving the real problem.

This crucial communication between users and IT must begin in the initial meetings prior to development, just as the doctor and patient must talk before any surgery can be ordered. That is when the user/patient discusses with the IT staffer/doctor the issues at hand, and the IT staffer/doctor outlines the options available to resolve the matter. Just as the patient is asked to describe the symptoms of his illness, the user should be asked to identify the symptoms of the poor process that the new system is meant to address. The analogy isn't perfect, of course. The modern CIO also has a responsibility to determine the technology opportunities that could help the enterprise achieve success. Still, at the end of the day, it's the user department that must concur with the assessment and that must fully support the potential solution. It is the user who places the X on the right spot.

Just as with an operation, the user doesn't have much involvement during the actual development process. But once the operation or the system development is over, both the user and the patient have important roles to play. The user must verify that the system developed has resolved the problem, and the patient must tell the doctor whether the problem has been alleviated and the treatment successful. Finally, just as a patient goes on with his life while monitoring his own body for potential problems, IT users own the completed project and are responsible for communicating any problems or shortcomings to IT.

All too often, though, IT goes out on a limb and develops applications that are not endorsed by user management. Sometimes that happens because of IT arrogance, and sometimes it's a matter of user apathy. Either way, the result can be disastrous for the system, the user or the CIO.

So the next time your user department objects to getting involved in the IT development process, remember the story of the red X. Assure the users that you will do things right, but only if they help you determine that you're doing the right things.

They must ensure that the red X marks the right spot.

Paul M. Ingevaldson retired as CIO of Ace Hardware in 2004 after 40 years in the IT business. You can contact him at ingepi@aol.com or visit his Web site, PaulIngevaldson.com .

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Knowledge Center.

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