Tap new employees for IT insights

They can see what's wrong with how things are done, says Frank Hayes

They say that if you have a jackhammer operating nearby, the noise will be incredibly annoying at first, but as time goes by, you'll get used to that loud background noise. After a while, you won't even hear it.

I'm writing this column with a jackhammer pounding on concrete 20 feet away. We'll see just how true that is.

In IT, we get used to background annoyances too. Temporary work-arounds become permanent. Rebooting to solve software problems becomes routine. Pidgin magic to handle flaky hardware is passed down from one systems administrator to another.

After a while, we don't think of those things as problems. We don't even notice them.

But do you know who does? New employees.

They're the ones who are astounded at what their co-workers put up with. They can't understand why all the old hands tolerate a kludgy procedure, why they're unfazed by a network that often suddenly stops responding, or why the old hands never, ever go near the online help system.

At least, they're astounded at first. Soon enough, they learn that the kludgy procedure is the one known-safe path through a minefield of legacy bugs. And that the network freezes at predictable times that are easy to work around. And that entering the help system wipes out all your current work.

And in short order, they'll be doing things the way everyone else does. They won't think of those once-astounding annoyances at all. They won't even notice.

And an opportunity for IT will be lost.

Every new hire is a fresh set of eyes. They see the problems that everyone else ignores.

We can use that. But we have to get the timing right. It's not much good to ask a new employee about annoyances as soon as you set them up with his PC. Until he learns procedures and gets into the swing of things, he won't know how to answer.

And after two or three months? By then, the new guy will have been assimilated into The Way We Do It Here. What was at first as jarring as jackhammer noise, he'll no longer notice.

But somewhere in between, there's a sweet spot. Use it.

About three weeks after setting up each new hire, send an IT support person to his desk for a chat and a "system checkup". Be sure to schedule it with the employee first. Sending along a standard checklist is probably a good idea too.

And make sure your support tech knows what to do: Ask how everything is working, if there are any problems and if there's anything IT-related that the employee doesn't understand. Take notes. Nod a lot. Smile. Don't try to explain anything; just listen and write, then do a quick check of the PC's software and hardware.

Some users won't say much. Others will complain about everything. But from the rest, you can gain useful intelligence about how your systems are actually working.

You'll find out that users are still taught to use work-arounds that are no longer necessary. You'll discover software and network glitches you thought were minor but actually cause users a lot of pain. You'll spot gaps in the way you train users. (You'll also discover what unauthorised software and hardware the user has smuggled in, but that's just a bonus).

In short, you'll get the maximum benefit from that new hire before he's blind and deaf to all those virtual jackhammers that everyone else ignores too.

As for my real jackhammer? well, after a few days of this, maybe I won't hear it either.

I'll be deaf.

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