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IT's Business Lesson Wed 28 Oct 09

Learning how the business side works can yield better IT systems and service.

Different Approaches To Time I just returned from a week of vacation in London, which was fun as always. The great thing about being an American in London is that it forces you to rethink a lot of things. This ranges from driving on the other side of the road (I hope my U.K. friends appreciate that I did not say the "wrong" side of the road) to fries being chips and chips being crisps and so on. Many things seem the same--but not quite.

Obviously the British have no difficulty with these things. It's second nature to them, it's their culture. It is only those new to their way of doing things who have to adjust. This is the same feeling many of our users experience whenever we roll out or modify a system. We roll out systems, processes and programs that perform adequately but somehow never feel natural to our users.

The problem is that these systems are designed for our information technology culture and not the culture of our users. We design them using the terms and conventions we are familiar with and just assume our users are familiar with them too.

The most obvious example of this is the cryptic error messages that we put in our programs. Highly technical with vague phrasings, these error messages often leave users more confused than enlightened.

Our IT culture permeating our systems can be even more subtle. As I was preparing to leave London, I saw British actor, Johnny Briggs, on BBC Breakfast promoting Get online day. This is an initiative to get people that are either unfamiliar or uncomfortable with computers and the Internet to take their first steps with using these technologies.

Briggs was open about his lack of experience and how he learned to accept and even love the Internet. He did admit it wasn't always easy and sometimes it was very confusing. "Who in their right mind would press "Start" to switch their machine off?" Briggs asked. But to IT folks this is "normal," and we fail to see or understand the confusion it creates.

Cryptic error messages and using "Start" to turn off your PC are trivial issues in and of themselves, but they highlight the issue. Rather than complain about how clueless our users are, perhaps we should try to see things from their perspective.

By switching to their culture rather than making them switch to ours, we can increase user satisfaction and acceptance so they'll really use our technology. Just as the painted warnings on the street to "Look left" were helpful to me in London, they weren't always enough to prevent me from almost stepping into traffic. It's only when the system or process and my culture are in sync do things really work well.

The design, testing and training phases are instrumental in gaining user understanding and acceptance and in getting the process and culture in sync. But there is more we can do.

The process should really be ongoing and not focus on a particular system or program, but rather, on merging our culture with that of the users. We need to not only understand the business of our company and also truly become part of it.

A good way to do this is to get your development (and even your support staff) out of the IT department. I don't mean in an organizational reporting way, but in a true physical sense. Embed your people with the business users they work with. Having them work among your users will give them the opportunity to see all the issues firsthand and understand how the users work. Have your people attend business meetings with your users to get a better understanding of the issues they face. Consider having your people "shadow" or actually perform the users' job for a period of time to get a true first-hand experience of what they are up against. Do whatever it takes to merge your culture with that of the business!

There are downsides to all of this, of course. Your staff may lose some benefit for the normal technical interchange among the IT staff because they will be dispersed. There is also the risk of "clientitus," which can be especially dangerous when your task was to change the status quo rather than to be absorbed into it.

Still, the benefits likely will outweigh the risks. Getting our IT culture in sync with the business requires IT leaders to be creative and manage the risk.

"Different Approaches To Time" photo by Mike Schaffner on flickr

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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