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News about users
  • What users want from IT departments

    If the question "What do you want from me?" screams in your head throughout the day, it might be time to re-assess the relationship you have with the rest of your organization."
    One of the first things IT shops can do to improve their relationships with the rest of their organization is to communicate what it is they are doing, according to Jennifer Perrier-Knox, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Ltd.
    IT tends to be "somewhat self-pitying," she said. They think that nobody understands them, that they work so hard yet nobody knows it, and that nobody realizes how long things take, she said.
    But the responsibility "really rests at IT's feet," she pointed out. IT tends to do a poor job of communicating what they are doing, keeping stakeholders in the loop and reporting back on what they've done, where they are at and why it is important, she said.
    One basis for problematic relationships is that IT often operates a "black box," said Perrier-Knox. "With a lack of information, people are going to come to conclusions with whatever scraps and piece of information they have," she said.
    Another thing IT can do is improve their help desk services. Because the help desk exists as the primary interface between IT and the rest of the organization, it is also a primary point where IT can alter its reputation, said Perrier-Knox.
    "For the average end user, the help desk is their only real point of contact, so they are going to form an opinion based on those interactions. That is basically all they have to go with," she said.
    Overlooking the help desk and leaving the opinion-building in the hands of the end users as opposed to taking control of it can be a bit of a gamble, according to Perrier-Knox. "You actually want to do something proactive and constructive and with intent to build the reputation," she said.
    A bad reputation can have further implications down the road, she pointed out, such as problems getting co-operation from other groups in the organization and being seen as just a cost centre versus a strategic enabler.
    "(One) big benefit of shaping up the help desk and having it being welcoming, responsive and effective at solving problems" is that it gives IT visibility and credibility in the organization, she said.
    It's important for IT to try to meet the needs and wants of end users because IT at its heart is a service organization and the primary recipients of that service are the business users in that organization, said Perrier-Knox.
    "If they are not providing high-quality service in delivering on the needs of the service recipients, then they are failing at their job," she said.
    Seeing the relationship from the other person's perspective can also help. The following are suggestions from end users on how IT can better meet their needs and wants.
    Exhibit good bedside manners
    Gary Babcock, president and CEO of Mississauga, Ont.-based medical office automation software developer HTN Inc., likens IT managers to physicians. "Your bedside manner has just as much importance as your capability in treating a disease," he said. End users want to know what happened, how to prepare to fix it and what they can do to avoid it in the future, he explained.
    If IT doesn't have the time to teach users how to do it, "at least they can make you feel you understand what is wrong with your computer and a lot of them don't do that. They just want to fix your problem and get out of there. That's not good bedside manners," said Babcock.
    Treat everyone as equals
    Employees may get treated differently from IT depending on which department they are coming from, according to Lorraine Lanham, manager at a major financial company based in the U.S.
    When she worked with the executive office, for example, her relationship with IT was great. "They got everything done quickly, there were never any issues," she said. But the relationship declined after she transferred to another group. "It seemed like it took forever to get things done," she said.
    Explain what they did wrong so they don't do it again
    When you run into a problem, you want it fixed really fast, but you also want to know how to solve it should it happen again, noted Julia Seltmann, application consultant at a major health-care diagnostics company in the U.S. "I'll call in for the same problem over and over again, because they didn't tell me how I screwed it up in the first place," she said.This is one of the weaker areas of IT, according to Seltmann. After asking what she did wrong and how she could fix it the next time so she wouldn't have to call in, the help desk suggested that should another problem arise, she should just call back again.
    Own your projects
    The ideal relationship with IT, according to Lanham, is when you have a designated IT person following through on a project with you. "Basically, just having someone who would own it," she says. Part of the frustration with IT occurs when you reach out to someone, they say it has been transferred to someone else and you end up chasing different people, she says.
    Avoid speaking in slang
    "The ideal IT guy or girl is one who can take a complicated idea and explain it in terms that the average individual can understand," says Babcock. Average people don't know certain technical terms, they don't know what they are doing wrong and they don't know how to fix it, he pointed out.
    Assign the call to the right person
    One thing Seltmann really appreciates about the IT help line provided at her company, is that there is one person who is "really good" at every application on her computer; as opposed to generalists who try to fix all the problems.
    If you have a problem with PowerPoint, for example, they have a person assigned to PowerPoint who knows everything about PowerPoint. When they get your call, they call you back and are able to fix it fast, she says.
    Some people say having to wait for IT to call you back is a big problem, but it's better to wait and have the right person call back than have the wrong person try to fix it immediately, Seltman says.
    Provide timelines and open communication
    There isn't much of a difference between the needs versus the wants from IT, according to Lanham. "What I would like is just open communication," she says, adding that her expectations would then be set appropriately.
    When a project is requested, "let me know from the get-go or within a short amount of time how long it is actually going to take, even if it is longer than I would like," she suggested. This includes providing updates as the project moves along and reasons why there may be delays.
    Explain that "it will take longer because of A, B and C, so I always have the right expectations," says Lanham.
    Keep the surveys simple
    Seltmann suggested scaling down help desk feedback surveys to just a couple questions or issuing those with dozens of questions periodically, as opposed to expecting end users to fill out lengthy reports on every interaction they have with the help desk. The first couple of times she did fill them out, but now she just deletes them, she says. "It's the opposite reaction they want. Even though I'm happy with the job they did."
    Time is of the essence
    The ideal IT manager is someone who knows that time is of the essence in fixing problems, according to Babcock. They can't wait until after the weekend or the next day, because having a system down can be calamitous and ultimately lead to worse problems later on, he says. "Loyalty and dedication to the job is important."

  • Why IT needs to involve users

    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.

  • Lessons for IT from the campaign trail

    I worked on my first local political campaign when I was 16, and it left a mark. Ever since then, I've never thought of politics as a spectator sport. So watching Barack Obama over the past two years as he went from underrated wunderkind to president-elect, it was clear to me how he'd succeeded. The key, it seemed obvious, was his huge army of volunteers.

  • Smaller deployments are best for iPhones

    Apple's pitch on iPhone 3G is that it's as well suited to enterprise use as a BlackBerry. The core technology is certainly there, with an ActiveSync (Microsoft Exchange Server) mail client, AJAX-capable browser, Cisco-compatible VPN, and Office and PDF mail attachment viewers. iPhone's UI revolutionised the mobile industry with scalable text and graphics, a display surface capable of responding to multifinger gestures, and an on-screen keyboard that works without a stylus.
    So iPhone has the essential enterprise ingredients. The question is, does Apple's recipe fit the enterprise better than alternatives? Having worked with iPhone since last June, the honest answer is yes and no. iPhone is an unqualified hit among users. No one will complain about being migrated from whatever they're carrying now to an iPhone 3G. Employees and contractors will trample each other for a shot at an iPhone, unwittingly exposing themselves to better reachability and collaboration. For Mac users, it's practically pointless to carry anything else.
    iPhone is a smart way to keep workers in touch while they're travelling because it's an unparalleled lifestyle accessory. Anyone who owns one will always have it with them, talking, texting, surfing, listening to music, and watching videos. Enterprises shouldn't brush this aside as a consideration. A mobile device is of limited use if its user can't wait to be without it.
    Apple invested the bulk of its initial effort in the design and implementation of iPhone to make the device irresistible to users. Mission accomplished. Phase two made the device an easy sell to developers. I'm still waiting for phase three, which makes iPhone enterprise-friendly for configuration, equipping, deployment, and management in substantial numbers. Right now, the best I can say is that an enterprise deployment of iPhone can be done, but not as easily, flexibly, or securely as for a BlackBerry or Windows Mobile device.

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