Why IT needs to involve users

Ignore them at your peril, says Paul M Ingevaldson

In information technology, we want to consistently develop effective systems. We also want to maintain a good reputation within the company. I have noted before how essential users are to both of those goals, and I've argued that it is our responsibility to train them so they know how to help us achieve our goals and realise how doing so is mutually beneficial. But just what areas are ripe for user training? Let me count the ways. Project initiation. For a lot of users, how projects are selected can be a mystery. It can help if your company is enlightened enough to have a steering committee that prioritises major projects. But some companies still use the "squeaky wheel" or the "all-knowing CIO" approaches. If you help users understand how things work in your company, they might even be able to help improve the system. Project involvement. Users, happy to see their projects approved and scheduled, might not realise how important it is for them to be involved at every stage. It is especially crucial that we educate them about how vital their assistance is in the systems' analysis and design stages. If they don't devote all the necessary time and resources at those stages, specifications won't be properly transmitted. And at the end of the project, user feedback is the only way to ensure the system is performing as desired. It can help to impress on the users that the completed project will belong to them, not to IT. Decisions about development options. With requirements in hand, IT can investigate the various options that are available to deliver what users are requesting. Each option will have trade-offs that the users are best situated to evaluate, so again the users should be involved in the discussion. For example, IT might note that a packaged application is available that addresses most but not all of the requirements. Would users be willing to give up some features in return for a rapid deployment of existing technology? If not, do they understand the complexity of developing customised modules and the even more severe cost and time ramifications of developing custom solutions? Either way, IT has to make sure it is adequately informed to make a decision it won't regret in a few months. Other areas that cry out for user involvement are not tied to specific projects. Business continuity impact analysis. Sometimes we mislead ourselves into believing that if IT systems are breached or knocked out by a natural disaster, it's purely an IT problem. So we make our business continuity plans in isolation. But leaving users out of the equation is sure to result in plans that fail to properly assess which data is critical and what recovery time frames must be achieved. It is also one sure way to guarantee a poor reputation for IT. So get users involved, not only in developing the plan, but also in testing it on a regular basis. New technology decisions. Both IT and users must constantly be on the lookout for new technologies, and they should bring any potential discoveries to each other's attention. Together, they should explore the ways the technology could impact users, the potential for competitive advantage and compatibility with existing systems. There are, of course, other areas where users and IT should interact regularly. And sometimes it is the business side that is guilty of leaving IT out of the loop; this often happens during a merger or acquisition. But if you adhere to this list faithfully, you will find that not only will IT's reputation improve, but user-IT interactions will become a natural event, everyone on both sides will come to expect as a rule.

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