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Power Users - A Bridge Between Business and IT

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Charles Robinson's BlogCode Poet Charles Robinson bemoans the lack of sufficient "user perspective" across the Domino Blogosphere in his recent post entitled "A Matter of Perspective". He muses:

What seems missing from most discussions is the voice of the end user and customer. The role of a BP or consultant is inherently different than someone on staff. The BP is brought in for a specific project or problem, and when they're done they move on.


This reminds me of the company where I was first exposed to Notes 10 years ago. At the time you might have called me a "power user", and I was certainly oriented toward the business end of the organization, as opposed to IT. They had just rolled out their first global WAN and standardized desktop with Netscape and Notes 3, and I was just starting to build little databases and having my Notes epiphany. That was the good news.

The bad news was that the Notes implementation was horribly micromanaged and there were all sorts of performance, mail routing, and user interface problems that in retrospect were probably deliberately created just so that I could experience my first "Let's move to Exchange" moment. How thoughtful.

A few months into this situation and I somehow found myself at this big "how do we fix it" meeting that convened around 40 folks from various IT groups, including some from the parent company which was itself a huge IT consulting shop. What struck me about this gathering was that there was NOT ONE PERSON other than myself representing a user perspective in the room. If this had been a purely "back end" problem, I would have understood, but much of the discussion centered around the user experience and what they would find acceptable. The disconnect was amazing, with suggestions being discussed seriously that betrayed a complete ignorance of how the "non-geeks" worked.

In the end, nothing good happened. The "experts" who were told to evaluate the best way forward (i.e. keep Notes or not) recommended a move to Exchange and then ran for the airport. It was my first realization that IT decision making is rarely based on technical merit. It was not my last.

It Could Have Been Different - A Power User's Lament

I can't help wondering how things might have been different if the business leaders had been able to see the whole picture, and not just what the blind men in IT wanted them to see. After all, as we've been reminded repeatedly, the real value of Notes is the power it gives the users to get stuff done. If all they think they're paying for is mail delivery or server uptime, what are the poor bean counters to do?

So how do we avoid these tragic disconnects? Well, for starters, I'd like to see the walls between IT and the rest of the business get a lot shorter. For reasons both good and bad, businesses have made it increasingly difficult to launch (and update) applications on the corporate network. This bureaucratic trend has hit Lotus Notes particularly hard in my view, since it typically takes less time to rollout a new database than it does to fill out the form requesting such a rollout. In many cases there is no real technical reason to disallow database creation privileges from responsible power users, at least on certain servers. Such power users are key to bridging the gap between IT and the rest of the company, but far too often they are denied real power, or a seat at the IT table.

Until the valuable role that power users play in an enterprise is recognized, and institutionalized, expensive misunderstandings between business and IT will continue to be the norm. This would involve cultivating technical expertise *inside* business units, and offering a career path that allows such folks to get technical training and earn higher "IT salaries" without becoming a formal part of IT. Truth be told, really good power users can easily be more valuable than the typical 2-person team of business analyst and developer/programmer, because there is little chance for miscommunication with yourself. I'm sure such an initiative will scare many in IT, but it's still the right thing to do if "aligning IT with the business goals" is anything more than an empty catchphrase.

Since I will be giving a presentation at Lotusphere that touches on some of these issues, I'd love to hear any stories you may have along these same lines. In particular I'd love to hear any success stories where power users have achieved their rightful place of honor. Please email me if you have any thoughts you'd rather not post here .

Comments

1 - @Charles - I'm thinking your "power users" may not be deserving of the name

@Esther - All good points, and exactly why I proposed doing a lotusphere session on the subject. Indeed I believe that this "untrained power user making a mess of things" scenario is probably the single most important reason Notes has struggled in the marketplace in recent years. You can almost think of it as a slow buildup of sludge that occurs inside a building's plumbing, which left unattended will eventually bring the system to a crawl.

The larger point that many of us are trying to make is that the problem isn't so much technological as it is cultural. Simply put, the notion that IT is only for geeks is deeply ingrained in society. Consequently, there are lots of folks like myself or Jane out there who only find ourselves straddling the divide between IT and business by happy accident. Young people deciding on a course of study have no idea that such a career path exists, and I have yet to see any attempt by IBM or anyone else to change this.

Ideally, there should be a well-funded outreach effort targeted at bright, business-minded students that would proactively identify (i.e. scout out) individuals with the right aptitude to become "technology evangelists". Making Notes/Domino software and training freely available to the academic community would be a necessary element in this effort.

A lot of us seem to get that "Notes is different" from other application development languages/platforms. It therefore shouldn't be much of a stretch to realize that cultivating talented "Notes People" also requires a different approach than the rest of IT.


2 - Kevin,

Very interesting, and huge, subject. I've put my thoughts on my blog: http://blog.fourlakes.co.uk/2006/12/11/it-its-all-a-blur/

Cheers,

Colman

3 - Kevin, I'm glad my comments could serve as a jumping off point for such a useful commentary. I keep trying to push my power users to do more things they consider IT and all I get is push back. They're firmly entrenched in the mindset that IT needs to do all IT work. I have had a few users step forward and ask to be allowed to create databases, but they're usually the type who thinks they know more than they do.

4 - Hi Kevin ... in reading your comment on "The larger point that many of us are trying to make is that the problem isn't so much technological as it is cultural. Simply put, the notion that IT is only for geeks is deeply ingrained in society."... it struck me how many business users spend hours and hours designing large, intricate Excel spreadsheets that do all kinds of weird and wacky thing! No one would ask an IT department to develop these; they just sit down and create them, and 9 times out of 10 they are created to manipulate legacy data that is pulled in from text file dumps.

If a few power users were shown how easy it is to pull the legacy data into Notes and generate reports, including Excel reports, automagically the light bulbs might start going off!

5 - @Jane - You are absolutely right that many "excel jockeys" working on the business side of an organization would quickly "get" Notes if only they were given a few pointers. The person to give these pointers is that special bread of power user you might call a "Notes Evangelist", and it is precisely this type of person who I recommend be given a more formal status within the organization.

As Esther points out, most companies would take a dim view of employees playing an *informal* evangelist role, or doing anything other than whatever they were hired to do. I suppose the trick is figuring out how to measure the performance of someone who IS hired specifically for that role, in order to make the business case to hire them for that purpose.

6 - @Colman, how the hell are you! Long time no talk, but I had noticed you've been a regular reader, and I thank you for that.

Thanks very much for the lego reference in your blogpost. Joel Spolsky also referenced Om Malik's Business 2.0 article talking about the subject of development building blocks. I had seen that article and was already planning to cite it and similar articles in my LS presentation.

@Jane, thanks for chiming in. Interestingly I just discovered your blog a week or so ago - very good stuff, especially the story of your end user/IT experience.

7 - Kevin, assuming that these power users are given the appropriate training, I think it's a great idea. But I'd say it's pretty unlikely - the company mindset is generally that people who are hired to do other things should be concentrating on those other things, not "playing around with databases." So there's no training, and all too often, a power user sets up a database for use in their department, and it's truly awful. So awful that when their manager is looking for a solution to a larger problem that Notes would be perfect for in the hands of a trained developer, the manager absolutely refuses to consider it because of the bad experience with a database created by a non-developer.

8 - Great post Kevin. Like Colman, I've posted my thoughts on my blog as it's way to long for a comment

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