They call at the most inconvenient times and have recently taken to determining our IT strategy. Their insatiable desire to own the latest gadgets might be one of the reasons the IT industry has looked to the addictive substances market to borrow the common term coined for their customers – users.

There has always been an uneasy relationship between the IT function and the user community. Back in the mainframe-only era users had to queue at the service desk to submit a print job. They were advised to return in 24 hours to pick it up and woe betide the user who incorrectly spelled ‘print’. The IT function was in control and didn’t the users know it.

The arrival of the PC saw a power shift towards the users. Now they could upload the apps they wanted and download the data that would make them attractive to their next employer. If this were a restaurant the diners would be bringing in their own food and utensils and moaning about the food poisoning.

To suppress this chaos the IT function locked down the technology with thin-client architecture, and users could forget any personalisation of their desktop.

The arrival of the cloud has returned control to the users, with covert IT services just a credit card away. To many this seems like the battle that concludes the war: the users appear victorious and many IT managers are inconsolable.

As if to rub salt in the wounds, firms seem to be believing their own claims that people are their most important asset, so those who in any way antagonise or fail to support this asset are unlikely to be viewed kindly from the C-suite.

Some CIOs are ahead of the game and have already embraced the latest service management frameworks. Unfortunately none of these frameworks appear to address the service end of service management, particularly in respect of a highly interpersonal caring experience.

Some service-oriented CIOs are already thinking in terms of user experience, but they are treating the user as if they were the client. Any mindset that differs from ‘the user is the enemy’ is a step in the right direction, but it still encourage a few negative outcomes:

  • The users perceive the IT function as a supplier who should know their station in life and do what they are told.
  • Users have someone to blame if failings in their expected business outcomes can be attributed to underlying IT.
  • The business, while recognising the importance of IT, fails to encourage business innovation through technology.
  • The business runs the IT function solely as a cost centre rather than as a source of competitive advantage.

This ‘IT function as service provider’ might well be summed up in the over-used phrase ‘business-IT alignment’. Again this is an improvement on the barbed-wired service desk situated in a war-torn demilitarised zone.

But I believe an organisation’s external client is its only customer. It is the role of the users to provide that customer with a competitive experience and to enlist the IT function to that end. IT teams should drop the ‘user as customer’ model in favour of ‘user as partner’.

This takes the relationship from alignment to business-IT entwinement. The IT function is a peer of the users and not a supplier. The success of the users is entwined with the IT function’s success.

‘The customer is always right’ remains a good adage, but no longer applies to the users. When they ask for a cloud-based CRM system, it is your responsibility to ask how this will enhance the customer experience. If they respond by stating that the existing CRM system continually crashes then you have some factory issues to resolve before you have the right to engage as a partner.

This partnership model should yield the following positive outcomes:

  • The users take greater ownership and responsibility for harnessing the value embedded in the IT systems.
  • The users treat the IT function as a business adviser rather than just a technology manager.
  • Articulating the value the IT function delivers will be easier because of the shared focus with the user community.
  • The IT function will be given greater freedom to explore services that sit at the leading edge of technology capability.

This vision will not be easy to achieve after decades of distrust, but keep in mind that the sooner this becomes reality the more likely your IT function will be seen as a key element of the clients’ experience, which in turn will increase your boardroom relevance.