Sometimes, IT can’t win

You need a thick skin to work in IT because some people will complain about anything. This is because IT sometimes operates in a reality distortion field, where the definition of “success” depends on who you talk to.

The IT staff goes into a major integration projects all wide-eyed and excited. We get to replace cranky old legacy systems with more streamlined systems, thrilled at the prospect of finally retiring the old system and delivering something more usable and productive to end-users. For successful projects, metrics are established early on, and when the project is done, IT reports back to the business side that the goals have been met or exceeded. All objective measurements indicate success, but there’s one problem: The end-users hate the system and complain that the old system was better. In a strange twist, the users who hated the old system the most often herald its wonders once it’s gone.

I exchanged e-mail recently with a systems manager at a large company who had just finished implementing an industrial application that automated previously manual tasks using a voice recognition system, increasing the employees’ productivity. The new system clearly solved the business problem it was intended to solve. But the employees claimed the system was an utter pain. When the system was first implemented, users complained that the voice recognition system slowed them down, but the data proved otherwise — productivity overall was demonstrably and clearly improved with the new system. A year later, the users still complain that the system slows them down, and the productivity numbers still prove them wrong. In this case, IT is simultaneously the business hero for enabling productivity gains and the employee scapegoat for on-the-job frustrations.

If IT demonstrates clear results on a project, why do anti-IT attitudes persist? IT implementations reflect a larger non-technical business-process change, but IT is often the front-line messenger of such change. Some percentage of employees simply don’t like changing the way they do things, and even when better systems are designed and implemented with their input, they steadfastly refuse to concede that a technology implementation was successful. They turn their general anger and frustration toward the new system. In times of uncertainty, there’s an easy comfort in hating a new system as the winds of change blow around you.

Frankly, some employees feel under-served and inconvenienced by IT because they simply don’t know how to use their computers, and that’s not necessarily their fault. Some of the technical frustrations in the enterprise today exist because employees have never been trained on basic Windows usage, for example, much less using a complex CRM or workflow system. Applicants for non-technical positions are rarely screened for the most rudimentary technology skills before they are hired. IT professionals are stretched too thin doing day-to-day IT work to formally train employees; many don’t have the temperament for training anyway.

So who is responsible for helping employees learn basic IT skills? To some degree, employees need to take on more of the responsibility themselves, partnering with IT and pressuring HR to offer basic IT training. For employees lacking basic computer skills, even the clearest IT successes can seem like failures.