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Staying Out Of Holes February 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , , ,

Since the dawn of computing, we’ve worked really hard to make technology easier and more accessible.  Computers started out in protected data centers, with mere mortals kept far, far away from actually using the machines.  Today, we’ve pushed powerful tools into the hands of end users that enable them to do all sorts of amazing things on a regular basis.

As users become more comfortable with these tools, they try to acquire more of them.  That’s a great thing, until those well-meaning end users get in over their heads and wind up holding a technology tiger by the tail.

Let’s be honest: computers, especially enterprise computing systems, are inordinately complicated.  They are not easy to buy, install, configure, or maintain.  It takes a a team of experienced professionals to make sure that a company buys the right systems, deploys them correctly, and maintains them for maximum business advantage.  When end users try to take that on themselves, disaster invariably ensues.

Every CIO can tell a story about some non-IT organization that tried to buy some cool system without bringing IT into the picture.  Typically, the first call comes about halfway into the implementation, when the project is behind schedule, the gory details are being exposed, and the poor users have no idea how to get out of the hole they have dug for themselves.  By the time IT gets involved, lots of money and time has been wasted, and the cost of recovery far exceeds the project estimates and often outweighs any potential benefits of the system.

It is easy to blame these scenarios on the users.  The real blame lies with IT.  We need to build trust with our users so that they feel comfortable turning to us when they need a new system or have a problem to solve.  The worst situations occur when IT is so inaccessible and arrogant that users prefer the pain of a bad implementation to the pain of dealing with IT.

Beyond earning trust, we also need to educate our users so they understand why our systems work the way they do, and how we integrate new technology to benefit everyone.  Systems architecture is of little interest to end users, but we must teach them how we fit all the pieces together so they can see how we bring all these conflicting systems together.

Finally, IT brings a lot of non-technical benefits to any technology acquisition.  In my experience, users make a good effort at finding a tool that has the right featurs to meet their needs.  Where they completely miss the mark is with the contract and service details around the purchase.  Users have no idea how to negotiate good pricing, or how to see through the smoke a vendor may be blowing their way.  They don’t know about service level agreements, or good maintenance pricing, or how to write a contract that indemnifies them against a product failure.  They don’t know how to evaluate a vendor for financial stability, or to know if their solution is a risky leading-edge idea or an outdated platform on its last legs.  We know all these things, and we need to provide that assistance to our users.

Like almost every other aspect of our job, it starts with communications and trust.  Begin by reaching out to users when they aren’t facing big problems.  Calmer times give you the opportunity to explain what we do, why we do it, and how we can help.  When users do reach out to us, bend over backwards to help them navigate the world of technology.  Respect their needs and take time to figure out what they really need.  Work hard when users aren’t in a hole, and you’ll eventually keep them from digging a new one.


1. No? No. No! « The Effective CIO - April 22, 2009

[…] at some point.  You’ll have accrued so much resentment among your customers that they will begin to bypass you to get things done.  When that happens, your effectiveness as a CIO has diminished, and your […]

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