Call the IT doctor before you declare the patient dead

IT directors facing calls from users to replace software or equipment should first check that they know how to use existing kit....

IT directors facing calls from users to replace software or equipment should first check that they know how to use existing kit. Julia Vowler talks to our guest editor, Owen Williams, about making the most of what you have

No matter what your IT systems cost, can you put your hand on your heart and say that they are all being used to maximum efficiency to drive business value? Probably not, says Owen Williams, head of IT at commercial and residential property agency Knight Frank.

"I've seen requirements produced for a new system to solve a business problem - but it is not needed because there's something already there that does the job but is not being used appropriately," he says.

So why don't users make the most of what they already have? The explanation is not always simple, and can have complex implications that go deep into the nature of the relationship between IT and the business.

"It is no good just being a technology deliverer," says Williams. "You must understand the human aspects of IT." There may be complex reasons why a system is under-utilised. Like a doctor, therefore, the IT director has to be able to correctly diagnose the symptoms being presented.

For example, it could indicate that the system was originally seen by business and users as having been imposed on them by an IT service that always knows best. It could be because users were not properly trained or because the system was brought in to support a new business process which turned out to be controversial, so it gets the flak by association. It could be that a system has no perceptible business function, and users just see it as a burden.

"It's very important to ensure that the way you deliver a system is tied to the business processes [it supports]," says Williams. "You have to present it in that way, or else the system can become just another task that makes users do what they don't want to do."

It is important, he emphasises, that users appreciate the relationship between a business process and the system that implements it. Showing users how data flows around the organisation, why it might be valuable to change that flow or create new flows, can help them to understand why change is necessary, and how the underlying IT is mapped to the processes. This may be basic work for IT, but for business users it can be a powerful way of making sense of IT and relating it to their work, and the success of the company.

"We need to make people see the relationships between process and system, but we can't do it too formally. We need to demonstrate that this is what the business does and this is how we make the technology support it," says Williams.

Because it can be difficult it can therefore be tempting for IT simply to opt out of the problem, and take refuge behind the door of the IT department. It is all to easy for IT to adopt the attitude that "we just do the technical work - if you don't use the system it's not our fault," warns Williams. That hand-washing attitude is not conducive to a partnership between IT and business. So it is better to treat users as valued customers, and nurture them on a customer-relationship management basis.

There is, however, a significant "but" that follows this. One of the tough-but-true premises of customer relationship management (CRM) is that the relationship varies with the customer. In business, like it or not, not all customers are equal. A CRM philosophy has to take that on board - which can sometimes be difficult for an internal IT function. "If the client is king, all users consider themselves to be clients and IT can be pulled in different directions," warns Williams.

An IT culture of service, participation and responsiveness towards the user and business community must have boundaries, and needs to be carefully managed and even more carefully targeted. Users can easily become over-demanding, and place too great a burden on IT. The users who shout loudest often turn out to be the ones who get most IT attention, irrespective of their ultimate value to the organisation in business terms. Your processes for managing the relationship with your user community must include the opportunity to say no.

"IT needs to make itself fit into the overall business strategy - it must not just listen to what people want, but it must be involved in the process of defining what the business needs," Williams says. "IT has to figure out who are the significant budget holders, spend time with them and manage their requirements," says Williams.

The key is to adopt a policy of appropriate level of service to different user communities, so that resources are not disproportionately allocated, he says. If systems are problematical, or pockets of users are having difficulties and placing high levels of demand on IT it is better to sort their problems out properly rather than offer continuous handholding.

"If people can't use the systems that support the business and they are too much of a drain on IT resources, then either the system is wrong or they need more training and perhaps in extreme circumstances you have to consider whether or not you have the right people," he says.

The bottom line is that user demand must equal IT supply - and if it exceeds it then it is up to IT to signal clearly that there is an unsustainable imbalance. "IT will either need more resources, or consumption must be reduced," says Williams. "You have to find a way of discussing that with business. There needs to be a clear picture of the services being demanded of IT."

Of the many roles IT can play in an organisation, that of martyr is no help to anyone, he says.

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