Re-engineering the user

Much has been said and written about the need for software that aligns with and supports the processes and policies of the business using it. The goal is to make IT systems, and the companies that run them, more responsive to ever-changing market threats and opportunities.

It’s an appealing vision, in a Darwinian sort of way: a lean, agile organization, bristling with streamlined technology that delivers a competitive advantage while mocking the arcane clunkiness of old-fashioned enterprise systems.

At the end of this line of thinking is IT, which does the dirty information work. It serves up the data and analysis needed in real time — and then gets out of the way, leaving the informationally empowered user free to think strategic thoughts. The better these big corporate IT systems do their jobs, the more they recede from the attention of end users. They certainly alter the ways those users think and behave, if in largely unnoticed ways.

But some increasingly popular technologies are designed specifically to structure and alter users’ thinking and behavior. These tools and systems are loosely categorized as collaboration, knowledge management, project planning and brainstorming software. Their use suggests a more humbling perspective on human/computer interaction.

The basic premise is that software can make us better by imposing order (policies and protocols) on the way we interact with it and with our colleagues, customers and partners. The software speaks to that perceived need to get organized that pervades every workplace — and maybe every life. .

There’s more than a hint of the didactic about these tools — it’s not surprising that many of the companies that offer such software have roots in the e-learning and training industries.

When the tools work well, they can quickly move to a central role in an organization. Eurocontrol, the 33-nation alliance that controls air traffic throughout Europe, is in the process of an expanding implementation of Centra Web conferencing and e-learning software. John Byrom, head of the organization’s flow management division, recently made use of the e-conferencing software mandatory for meetings among Eurocontrol members.

“We’re taking a hard line on this: If they want to meet with us, they have to use the tool,” says Byrom. “We tell them that we’re trying to be more cost-effective — and we are — but the other factor is that the software makes our meetings more efficient and productive.”

Byrom acknowledges that a trip from, say, Brussels to Athens for an hour-long meeting, as was Eurocontrol’s past practice, has its appeal. But besides the time and money expended, such jaunts probably aren’t the most effective way to get things done.

“Now people stay in the office and concentrate on finding a result for the meeting. There’s always a real agenda, and there’s nothing else to do but work, and you find a fairly quick solution,” says Byrom. “That doesn’t mean that you’re not open to ideas, but it gets you back to a culture of results.”

There’s also software to guide you in those early phases of a project, when you have no idea what those results should be. Many of these tools are designed to facilitate “visual thinking” — turning brainstorming sessions into project maps and diagrams. A tool like Microsoft Visio might help you turn your ideas into graphical presentations, while software from vendors like Mindjet or Inspiration Software produce pictures to clarify ideas.

The delivery systems group at Genencor International, a biotech company in Palo Alto, Calif., looked around a couple years ago for a knowledge management tool and picked Mindjet’s MindManager. The scientists in the group liked the Mind Maps — detailed but easily changed diagrams of ideas and how they’re connected — that emerged from brainstorming sessions using the software, according to group leader Todd Becker.

“It was a way to capture ideas, put everything together and have it in a common repository,” he says. The software has spread out through Genencor for uses ranging from preparation of papers and presentations to project management. Becker says his only reservation is that MindManager tends to organize most ideas into hierarchies, and sometimes that’s not appropriate.

That’s the rub for all these systems: Having a structure allows you to build ideas and get results, but it also imposes limits.

But some advocates take an expansive view of the potential of the collaborative software their organizations use. Byrom, for example, ultimately wants to build a change management system around the Centra system that covers situations ranging from training to crisis control.

“We’re only using a little piece of the software’s potential, and we need to use that little piece better,” Byrom says. “We have to get smarter, and the technology will get smarter, and things continue to improve.”

Tommy Peterson is Computerworld’s technology editor. Contact her at [email protected].

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