Technology is in the hands of users as never before. As web-based tools from social networking to online applications put powerful easy-to-use technology in the hands of users, technical development is being driven in a direction that may diverge from corporate IT strategy.

The initial reaction of many CIOs to employee use of consumer technology in the workplace has been defensive. Polls indicate that at least 50 per cent of workers are being blocked from accessing social networking sites like Facebook by CIOs who are worried about the impact on productivity and security.

But Jeffrey Mann, an analyst at Gartner, cautions against a negative approach. “The focus has been on risks and putting filters on et cetera,” he says. “But now, what the better CIOs are doing is taking up the challenge to channel this energy. The greatest danger is if the CIO is saying ‘this is bad and we’re going to stop it’. If you embrace it and appraise, promote and reward people, it is less likely to go underground.”

Mann believes super-users should be leveraged as champions of collaborative working. “Often, the challenge is to get people to use collaborative software,” he says. “When people do want to use it and go out and find the software, you should use that energy, making sure they understand the risks and take the necessary precautions.”

Pushing boundaries
“We call these users ‘power users’ and they should be promoted as they are the people with the most energy for finding new ways to do things – how is that bad?” he says. “We have seen power users planning a show, a promotion, using consumer technologies to communicate and inform people about things going on in the company. You can encourage these people to keep up with other companies, collect examples of best practice, and sales people can use these technologies to collect information and contacts for prospects.”
According to Keith Little, chief technology officer at the BBC, super-users have always been around but controlling attitudes towards them is changing. “The BBC intranet started as departmental tools run under people’s desks in the 1990s,” he says. “The BBC brought that together into a central system because you couldn’t navigate and there was a problem with consistency. Before Web 2.0, everyone agreed that IT needed to bring all this together so that there was common information and a common set of content management tools.”

Little set up a communications mechanism to encourage networks being set up by super-users. “What we tried to nurture in the early days was the creation of informal networks breaking through the organisational structure. We had a chap on the internal innovation team that did a lot of communications on this, a lot of going round and looking at what the super-users could do. Quite quickly it hit its own momentum and that role doesn’t exist anymore.”

The BBC’s fostering of the efforts of super-users who started using social networking tools over five years ago has borne fruit. Those early experiments have turned into a major communications route for the BBC internally and externally.

“It has been a very useful tool to speak to audiences grown from internal to external,” says Little. “We never thought of this as a threat, just an opportunity that makes our job easier in IT.”

The BBC has now brought social networking within an enterprise-wide system but Little is pragmatic about the next generation of super-users wanting to work outside that structure.

Case Study: Allen & Overy

Jason Haines, global IT director of law firm Allen & Overy, has introduced a number of initiatives to allow IT to work with super-users who are partially responsible for driving the law firm’s innovative use of technology. Allen & Overy picked up last year’s Most Innovative Law Firm award from the Financial Times and Haines is aiming to build on that profile.

He believes the firm has a number of super-users within its “friends and family” group. “If we have a new software version we use people who are willing to take it on early release to iron out any problems. There are people in our friends and family who are happy to try things out that we suggest, and also some who develop uses of their own.”
Haines acknowledges that more innovative users do bring their own management challenges. “On the one hand, this can be useful or it can be challenging to fit the adoption of new ideas in with a conventional governance process.

“Those who want to be at the leading edge sometimes try to do things that are challenging and there is a balance to be achieved.”
Each Allen & Overy department has its own IT relationship manager and part of that job role is to monitor and foster super-users’ ideas. “All interaction flows through the relationship manager; this is how users interact with IT,” Haines explains.
Haines is also making sure that his department plays an active part in the culture of user innovation, with a new scheme called Technology Watch.

“The business strategy has to drive IT and at the same time IT can inform the business,” he says. “Through Technology Watch, I engage the whole IT department in identifying what the opportunities are, looking at the hundreds of new technologies out there. The IT department works out the most interesting ones and takes it to the business to see if there is something worth exploring.”

Ruth Ward, head of knowledge systems and development, was a pioneer of social networking technologies at Allen & Overy. “There is a good open dialogue and communication with the research and development group in the IT department. We partnered with them to do experimentation,” she says.

“The R&D group was very conscious of the emergence of Web 2.0 and it was a challenge for mainstream IT. They can see that it is interesting but how to get a feel for the best place to begin to pilot it can be a real struggle. They want to start somewhere where it is going to be successful. We were able to provide an idea and business support and initial analysis and testing. It was a clear business process wrapper.”

Ward believes that most law firms, apart from Allen & Overy, worry about the risk element of super-users forging ahead with blogs and wikis.

“The challenge for IT is how you foster innovation in the context of strict financial controls,” she says. “It is important to continue to help ideas to percolate and to bring people together. It has held people back not having these connections.

“Some law firms have not been able to make progress because IT is not sure who to go to.”
She warns there is a limit to how much the super-user can contribute working alone, and partnership is vital: “Using people as guinea pigs who are willing to pilot systems is fine but it is very different to use them to prove business cases.”

Allen & Overy has set up an innovation panel to support projects with cash prizes for creative individuals and Ward describes this as “absolutely the right sort of thing” to encourage super-users by getting people to think about where else they could use technology they use at home or socially.

Network ahead
“We want to start replicating Facebook- and MySpace-type tools inside the enterprise and this lines up with the strategic way forward for IT as the organisation becomes more porous. In 10 to 15 years’ time a new generation will not expect the constraints of an enterprise system.

“They will have a global identity. There are obvious areas to protect such as finance and HR but we’re looking at single sign-on and people being able to bring their own devices into work.”

Ben Booth, in a CIO job share as global CTO at research giant Ipsos MORI, welcomes super-users. “I aim to encourage innovation and keep the dead hand of bureaucracy off it,” he explains. “Inevitably, there are people who will try out consumer technology and that can be quite interesting from the point of view of getting to understand what the applications are.”

In Booth’s opinion, the super-user can be useful in identifying new forms of customer interaction. “In a business like market research we have to look at IT in our own organisation but also look at what clients and people responding to a survey may be interested in. We have several different means of working with super-users. There is an online innovation forum where people who have ideas, usually targeted at specific problems, can contribute to looking at new technology. A lot of the way we work is informal, so people will experiment with things and then talk to people in various areas of IT.”

However, he says super-users often act in the mistaken belief that they are saving the company money. “Consumer technology has a lot to offer but there is also some rubbish that is not appropriate in a business environment and the challenge is to ensure what we have is industry strength.”

Some CIOs are bringing Web 2.0 super-users back under the wing of the corporate IT infrastructure by implementing enterprise-centric solutions.

Research company Forrester surveyed both sponsored use and unsponsored, employee-driven use of Web 2.0 and found that CIOs were strongly focused on enterprise-sponsored technology use.

According to Forrester, most firms interviewed cited integration between both individual Web 2.0 solutions and overall infrastructure as major concerns. CIOs reported a strong desire to purchase Web 2.0 technologies as a suite, as well as a need to purchase the suites from large, incumbent software vendors.

Group efforts
If this sounds like a return to the traditional CIO preference for the monolithic system, stifling the creativity of super-users en route, it need not be. In fact, enterprise Web 2.0 systems can be used to identify and bring together the super-users who are increasingly recognised as an important part of the intellectual capital of the enterprise.

Charles Armstrong, CEO of Trampoline Systems, which analyses social behaviour within enterprise 2.0 systems, says, “Companies are beginning to support emergent collaboration and communities and, rather than having a formal structure and chain of command, they are letting people who share the same work focus create new pieces of network.

“In the last 10 years, the whole business information movement has been based on fact-based real-time financial data,” Armstrong says. “We are at the beginning of a parallel phenomenon around human organisation. Strategic leaders need to have fact-based information about who are the leaders. There has been no real information about this in the past.”

As businesses start experimenting with blogs and wikis, only a small proportion of the workforce use them, he adds.

“If you can identify who the super-users are, and invite them to be early adopters, this really increases the success rate. We have developed a tool in response to that, an algorithm for identifying who the super-users are within a network with multiple geographical and function areas. These people are key in the uptake of new tools, have an important role in innovation and can synthesise ideas coming out of the organisation. They are information brokers. If you have a merger-and-acquisition situation and you are in charge of integration, you can identify the super-users to find out who you need to speak to first. If the CIO wants to roll out a new wiki, they will want to know who the pilot users should be, get these people together and promote the technology. These people should be recognised and harnessed as resources and given more support.”

Supply on demand
Adam Thilthorpe, professionalism in IT programme manager at the British Computer Society, says super-users tend to start implementing technology when the IT department is not quick enough to respond to needs, whereas “people want it now. The CIO needs to be conversant with what the needs are”.

Good PR skills help. “Where there is a technically-savvy workforce, IT is able to make people have the feeling that it is tying in with what they want to do, for example, to have chat rooms. Users feel they are getting value and IT is the enabler and the guardian of funky stuff. When people feel they have to circumnavigate IT is when the problems start.”

STA Travel global webmaster Craig Hepburn warns CIOs that the days of complete control of content are starting to be numbered.

“IT definitely needs to employ a different skill set internally. We’re interested in engagement metrics and how to understand the power of certain people, both internal users and customers discussing travel on Facebook and travel blogs,” says Hepburn.

“Super-users are using blogs to help promote themselves as sales people, for example. We try and create best practice and reward it, and give people the opportunity to come up with ideas. I was put in place to structure local activities and, once we got all the countries online within a content management system, my role then became what we could add on top of that, and to foster their ideas and developments. I am not an IT person and I am interested in what we can do and deliver without huge IT skills. The IT people focus on the server support and databases.”

Where staff use of Web 2.0 becomes core business there is the danger of the CIO being left on the sidelines providing nuts-and-bolts support while the technology driving the business is in the hands of the users.

However, from what experienced hands relate, it seems that a CIO with a strong presence across the business should be working to identify and communicate with the super-users who may be the key to helping IT meet business needs.