Opennes is key to managing user expectations

Openness between IT professionals and those they work for is needed to make IT effective in the long term. Julia Vowler offers a...

Openness between IT professionals and those they work for is needed to make IT effective in the long term. Julia Vowler offers a guide to managing business expectations

Time after time, surveys questioning IT directors about what keeps them awake at night reveal one prevailing issue - concern over users' expectations of IT.

In one sense this can only be a tribute to IT directors and their diligence. After all, can anyone seriously imagine the finance director worrying whether the rest of the organisation considers him tight-fisted?

When IT directors worry about what the rest of the organisation expects from them, that's a good sign.

However, Colin Palmer, of top IT directors' club the Impact Group, says IT is not alone in feeling the pressure of user expectations.

"It's a very real problem. But most service organisations face this problem of having to manage and meet customer expectations."

Both the National Health Service and the education system are prime examples of arenas with ever-moving goal posts - no matter how healthy or clever the population is, it could always be healthier or more clever.

But even if user expectations are always rising, simply meeting the current level of demand at any time can be a problem. One key cause of the problem is not knowing what the demand is. The issue of hidden expectations affects IT.

Of course, users may not even be aware that such assumptions exist - to them it's merely obvious that something is desirable. The first task of the IT community, therefore, is to discover what the client desires.

There are three sets of capabilities to be put in place, claims Palmer.

"First of all you need to have people who are extremely good at building relationships between IT and business, who understand both the business drivers and how to relate the capabilities of IT to them.

"Then you need to have solutions-oriented people," he says, "systems thinkers who can take a business goal, such as being able to take an order and deliver it within three hours, and then think through the whole process and the systems involved to see where the problem is that makes order processing take seven days."

It is crucially important to have those who can deliver a service, whether it's in-house or by outsourcing."

Palmer says the key is to have high quality people whose skill is to ask the good questions and get beneath the hidden agenda to the heart of the matter and build understanding.

"Such people in relationship management and systems thinking are extremely able in respect of their behavioural skills and their extremely good grasp of what technology can do," he says.

Making user expectations explicit, rather than leaving them dangerously implicit, is a key function of establishing service level agreements (SLAs), argues Martin Brampton, chief analyst at Bloor Research.

"Most organisations do very little about SLAs," he says. "It's not that SLAs themselves solve everything, its the process of negotiating them that highlights the problem of user expectations."

Brampton says this is especially true when it comes to quality of service. He says, for instance, if users request a system to be available from 8pm to 6am, what exactly do they assume by the term "available"? Does it have to be online non-stop, or can there be update breaks, and if so, for how long?

"All these vague words need to be qualified," Brampton adds, otherwise "IT is making vague assumptions and users are make other vague assumptions" which, he warns, is a sure recipe for disaster.

It's essential, too, to get users to understand just what is involved in IT. Because IT is inherently invisible, apart from a collection of boxes and wires, it's difficult for users to get a handle on the work involved.

Although writing a major system can be the equivalent in time, cost and effort of completing a major engineering project, users find this hard to appreciate. Launching an e-business, for example, is not just a question of uploading a Web site.

"There's a lot of effort involved to go live with, say, an online marketplace," reminds Brampton. "Then there is the issue of legacy systems - they're not that easy to change."

Making the costs of IT explicit to users is essential - explaining why something small in business terms can mean something big in IT terms is necessary for users not to regard IT as blockading their legitimate demands.

Palmer's advice is for IT to appreciate the business's pressures and necessities.

"If you look at top CIOs they will tell you that their most valuable experience was in running a business unit and having line responsibility," he says.

For business there will be one clear priority to which other factors may need to be sacrificed. The old adage "you can have it fast, you can have it good, you can have it cheap - but you can't have all three at once," applies.

In the final analysis, the onus rests on the IT community to find out which of these priorities is in the driving seat so the underlying technology can support it.

Are IT suppliers to blame for unrealistic user expectations?

IT suppliers are often cited as the villains of the piece - promising all sorts of magic wands. But are they to blame? "It's a big issue," concedes Colin Palmer, "and it does fuel the problem."

Suppliers do, he says, "make a very high level of claim" for their technology.

But Palmer does not think that users are taken in. "Users tell us they never come across IT suppliers who truly understand their business - they understand the technology, but the come into the business with very simplistic views."

Once the supplier gets stuck into the business problem needing to be solved, in all its detail, complexity and sophistication, do they come to realise that quick-fix technology is not a fast-buck option? Users listening to the siren songs of customer relationship management and e-business suppliers should take heed.

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