In your organisation, which department within IT has the largest cohort of staff? Is it development, with its solution architects, programmers – nowadays called software developers, analysts, and project managers? Is it infrastructure, with its network engineers, hardware technicians and systems administrators? For most organisations, in fact, neither development nor infrastructure are their biggest IT staff components. Rather, it is a little-known department, sometimes labelled “Operations”, sometimes “Support”, but always with the same function: dealing with “user issues”.
The journey of the average IT department is a well-known one: it began life as a quasi-department, usually within the finance group, providing basic support and handholding to a few users within the organisation. Over time, however, the organisation grew, and with it the IT department and their offerings: where one previously had a handful of users and a few spreadsheets and in-house databases, one now has a fairly large company, with hundreds of employees and dozens of computer applications. And, of course, a massive IT department charged with both improving the digital workplace and keeping the lights on, as well as helping users deal with their daily issues as they try to make the computer systems at work, work for them. This task is not easy!
Many IT departments have, at their core, an assumption common to the modern workplace: they make their support plans on the assumed basis that the organisation’s workers are sufficiently IT-literate, so much so as to be able to navigate common computer system problems on their own. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. The ubiquity of mobile computing devices – laptops, tablets, smartphones – has led to a rapid consumerisation of IT, putting significant computing capabilities in the hands of the average person. This is usually in the form of very easy-to-use tools or “apps”, requiring little or no training and generally featuring extremely user-friendly navigation options.
As a result, the average employee is quite confident working with such smart devices, and this is what tends to work against IT departments: they assume that, just because someone can update their status on a social media platform or use a smart device, that person must be able to navigate their way around a business application. The reasoning usually is that “the underlying principle is the same”, but there is little recognition of the fact that expecting consumer-device usage techniques to transition to business-system usage is akin to expecting a person to instantly be able to compete in the Formula One World Championship purely on the basis that they are able to drive a passenger car.
Organisations fail themselves and their staff when they do not invest in the IT literacy of their employees. In many organisations, IT training is more or less limited to one of two occasions: when a new employee joins the organisation – at which point she is taken through a day or two of systems familiarisation – and when a new business system is purchased or released within the organisation, with the resultant “training workshop” arranged to show employees what the new system is and how it works – and that’s it. Even worse, most of the training will take place before the new system is in place, sometimes weeks before it goes live, and the trained employees are somehow expected to retain this knowledge until the new system is in place, and to then apply that knowledge flawlessly from the day the new system is live!
The results of this common approach are to be found in every user department in any organisation that utilises information systems: users complain that the system is difficult to work with, work targets are not met, and the organisation responds by increasing the size of its IT Support budget and department, to help resolve the mounting backlog of user requests. The real problem, of course, will be that users are not really that well-versed in the application system they are expected to use, but this is lost on the higher management of the organisation, who want “answers now” and “issues resolved yesterday”. Proposing a detailed training of the users is a risky undertaking for the IT department, whose managers are constantly reminded that the organisation has “invested heavily in systems and IT personnel”, and the general approach is to beef up the support group within IT so that user calls can be resolved ASAP – effectively, turning IT into a handholding department within the company.
Significant change is required in IT management to deal with this and to change the approach from one of “IT Support will resolve the issue”, to “We will train our users to be able to manage most application issues on their own”. The IT department should, ideally, focus not on solving IT problems, but on providing enhancing business systems solutions and ensuring that whatever systems are in use are also in alignment with corporate strategy. This requires a forward-looking IT philosophy that is as far removed from the common “service desk” model as possible. Granted, there will be issues that require IT assistance to sort out. But these should be the exception, not the norm. The longer the time spent by IT departments fixing current or past problems, the more the chances they lose of planning for the IT challenges that the organisation needs to be prepared to respond to.