The IT oath: First do no harm

There is a line in the famous Hippocratic oath that states, “I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.” Modern doctors have updated the phrase to, “The health of my patient will be my first consideration.” Facing life-and-death decisions every day, doctors take this pledge very seriously.

IT professionals rarely face life-and-death situations with the people in their care — those we call “users” — but perhaps it’s time that IT departments adopt a credo to state the seriousness of their work. I’d like to propose the following as the IT oath: “I will do my best to provide the means for my clients to perform their jobs effectively and efficiently, and I will not intentionally impede their progress.”

Such an oath is necessary to restore confidence in IT organizations. Especially important is the part about not impeding progress. Whether deserved or not, IT departments have a reputation for being adversarial with users. Here’s a story that illustrates this point.

The IT department of a Fortune 500 company recently determined the many remote users accessing its network posed a security threat. The group decided to implement a new system based upon active cards and more secure remote-access software. Tens of thousands of home-based or traveling employees were notified via e-mail of the impending switch to the new system and were given a deadline to proactively migrate themselves. This meant workers had to request, receive and configure the active card and software on their own.

The 12-step migration process was no simple feat, especially for workers who were not IT savvy or had a non-standard configuration. When deadline day for the first wave of users arrived, more than 1,500 employees had not yet completed the migration. When these workers attempted to log on to their network that day, they learned that their access was shut off because of non-compliance with the new system.

Can you imagine how the lights on the help desk phones lit up? Without warning, 1,500 people couldn’t do their jobs because the IT department made an arbitrary decision to cut them off rather than help them through the migration. One worker told me she was locked out for three days while she struggled with the installation, which was made all the more frustrating by long waits to talk to help desk personnel.

In another case, a company outsourced its e-mail system. Employees were informed the switch would take place over a weekend, and that their e-mail addresses would remain the same and no incoming messages would be lost. What they weren’t told is that no old folders or calendars would be migrated to the new system. When workers arrived Monday morning and logged on to the new e-mail system, their calendars were blank, contact databases empty, and old folders and messages inaccessible. The IT department had decided to archive the old information and retrieve it only if users made a request.

I don’t know about you, but my work life pretty much revolves around my e-mail.

IT professionals must make sure their business colleagues have what they need to do their jobs. It might be access to e-mail, business applications, instant messaging, Web sites or any number of other computer-based resources.

Any interruption or change to these services has to be considered not only for technical merit but also for how it affects the user community. So raise your right hand and repeat after me: “I will do my best to provide the means for my clients to perform their jobs effectively and efficiently, and I will not intentionally impede their progress.” It’s an oath we should all live by.

Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company, a Houston technology assessment firm. She can be reached at [email protected].

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