Back to the (cube) farm

Why exactly do we keep our IT people in cubicle farms instead of spreading them out among users? Four weeks ago, I asked that question. And boy, did you respond.

Why exactly do we keep our IT people in cubicle farms instead of spreading them out among users? Four weeks ago, I asked that question.

And boy, did you respond.

“As a former IT director, I took every opportunity to get my people working directly with end users,” writes one reader, who’s now a consultant. “I wanted them to live with the other people in the company so they could understand the problems firsthand, and work toward a real-world solution (which often, by the way, involved very little actual software development).”

But he ran into two kinds of opposition.

“Senior operating executives opposed the idea, claiming loss of accountability and loss of control,” he says.

“And the IT staff liked having a home, their own social group, and valued the interaction with their technology peers. More than a couple of weeks at a stretch of working out of the department caused anxiety and stress.”

The problem isn’t just missing a chance to shoot the breeze with other tech geeks, as a Fortune 100 IT director points out:

“The programmers working in user departments are geographically isolated from other programmers. This leads to a decrease in communication, and loss in sharing of common, reusable code, exchanging of new ideas and ‘skunk works’ efforts.

“And once you place the people in user departments, they’re not into ideas such as cross-team projects, rotation or shared resources,” he adds.

Another reader points out that when people leave, it’s harder for colleagues to pick up the slack if they’re scattered throughout the organisation.

Which doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to get IT people out of the cube farm, at least temporarily.

“When I started my career 21 years ago, the VP of DP had an edict that each new programmer would spend at least two weeks working in the user area that his/her group supported,” writes an IS auditor.

“Nothing I experienced before or thereafter was more humbling, more eye-opening and more useful than getting a heavy dose of real-world end-user experience!”

And even if IT people aren’t permanently stationed in userville, he says, the best software products came from developers who teamed with the most knowledgeable users — and had face-to-face interaction on practically a daily basis.

And what about the dollars-and-cents costs of all that face time with users?

“Yes, putting developers in the user area for a period costs money in lost development time, and causes a slowdown of user processing because a new person is learning the business,” the auditor says.

“But the paybacks that follow make the investment up front very well worth it.”

So, to recap: Most IT people should be in the cube farm at least some of the time, so they don’t feel isolated or miss out on the chance to exchange ideas and build team spirit — or disappear from their managers’ radar. But at least some of the time they need to be living with users, too.

And how do you figure out who should be where, and when? If you trust your people, that one may be easy, says another reader: “The workers involved probably know with whom they need to be co-located to be most effective, and it would be wisdom for management to ask them.”

Simple? No. Simple is keeping ’em all down on the farm, all the time. Making the best use of your IT people is complex. What users, equipment and the business need will define where each IT worker should be, when and for how long.

On the farm or with users? There are good reasons for them to be in either place.

Just make sure you know why.

Hayes, Computerworld’s staff columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Email Frank Hayes.

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