Over time, IT organisations have developed reflexive procedures for engineering productivity improvements within specific functional groups such as accounting, manufacturing, logistics and customer support.
IT maintains a small but highly specialised corps of Business Systems Analysts (BSAs) who work directly with client groups to understand their needs and challenges.
BSAs routinely establish formal business requirements or technical specifications for individual IT projects.
BSAs also work with their client groups in facilitating user acceptance testing of new applications before they are put into production.
BSAs' interactions with their client groups are frequently funnelled through a small handful of super-users who represent the needs of their departmental colleagues.
Under these circumstances, BSAs have relatively limited exposure to the majority of employees that are actually using IT applications.
The current frustrations and future needs of these employees are being summarised by the super-users.
Super-users emerge within almost every functional department for a number of reasons.
- The majority of employees don't have the time, interest or energy to deal directly with IT
- They have tried to work with IT in the past but became frustrated with IT's shifting priorities, chronic resource limitations and cumbersome procedures for funding new ideas
- There are frustrated technologists within each department who harbour a deep personal interest in IT and actually enjoy thinking and talking about IT issues and opportunities.
These individuals typically possess the greatest proficiency in the applications that have been deployed within their department.
It's no surprise that these super-users derive a great sense of personal satisfaction from their ongoing interactions with members of the IT team.
Whatever the motivation behind the emergence of super-users, most BSAs find themselves collaborating or taking orders from these individuals the majority of the time.
Although most super-users undoubtedly have the purest of motives in trying to improve the productivity of their department, they inevitably focus on technology enhancements or acquisitions that would improve their personal productivity or that of other, like-minded super-users.
Put another way, super-users rarely focus on improving the productivity of colleagues who are only 50 per cent proficient in the use of current systems.
Instead, their primary focus is on improving the IT capabilities being employed by the most proficient users, who, like themselves, already possess the greatest dexterity in leveraging existing applications to get their jobs done.
This assertion can be tested by having members of IT's application development and maintenance teams visit their clients on a periodic basis.
During these visits, application team members should sit deskside with their end users and watch the ways in which existing IT systems are actually being employed.
Based upon personal experience, I'll predict that these exercises will uncover a list of frustrations, needs and recommendations that is quite different from the enhancement list developed by the departmental super-user.
Super-users will frequently object to such an exercise as a complete waste of time, since they have already determined IT initiatives need to be undertaken by themselves.
I'm not suggesting that the role of the super-user needs to be abandoned or discontinued.
A professional and competent super-user is a key asset for any IT group. These individuals have operational, technical, organisational and political insights that IT could never develop or maintain on its own.
Their knowledge, intuition and personal networks are invaluable in planning and implementing any IT initiative.
I'm simply suggesting that their greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. Their in-depth proficiency in the applications employed by their department tends to bias their perspective towards enhancements that will boost their productivity and the productivity of like-minded co-workers.
IT needs to periodically break the symbiosis that develops between BSAs and super-users by spending time with the employees using IT-supported applications.
Ongoing support and enhancement activities, in particular, should be periodically vetted against real-world, deskside observations of how end users are employing existing applications to perform their jobs.
Deskside observations of application utilisation will inevitably lead to another, quite discouraging, conclusion.
Application support teams will rapidly discover that their users, both individually and in aggregate, are employing a very small portion of the functionality that they (IT) have delivered in the past.
One of the principal recommendations that will inevitably emerge from any series of deskside observations is that we need to spend a lot more time training employees on the functionality they already have before embarking on initiatives to deliver the next batch of enhancements or extensions.
Mark Settle is CIO at BMC Software and a former CIO for Visa International