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Pay Attention To The Wetware

The biggest influence on IT success is people; not the people in the IT department, but the users, a.k.a “victims”, of our IT. The single most important measure of whether the IT we deliver is successful is how well people use it. Network speed and stability, server uptime, security etc. pale into insignificance when considered against how well and productively our people are working in their jobs.


The reality is that user satisfaction & productivity are rarely measured by IT departments. IT Managers tend to focus on the more tangible technical metrics, but of themselves these metrics do not make a company more effective or profitable. One excuse might be that the subjective concepts of satisfaction and productivity are less tangible and harder to measure, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you want to know how good your IT is, take a walk around the office. Are people beavering away at their computers, or do they take any excuse to get up and stroll around, fetch a drink, talk to colleagues etc.? If so they’re probably less than comfortable at their workstations; so try asking why.

Are the workstation ergonomics good? VDUs at an appropriate height & distance? Adjustable chairs correctly positioned? Foot supports for the shorter of leg? Wrist supports for keyboard & mouse? 

Is the lighting appropriate? Do people have to peer at the screen because the lighting is sub-optimal and the display is washed out, lacking in contrast and harder to read?

Do they need spectacles? VDUs are normally at a distance which is too far away for reading glasses, but too close for glasses which correct myopia. It is common to have an intermediate prescription for VDU use.

What’s the noise like? Computer fans are actually quite noisy, and whilst we tend to filter out the noise it’s still there. Try comparing the noise in an empty office with the computers turned on and off and you may be shocked by the difference. 

Compensating for sub-optimal comfort, poor lighting, difficulty reading or excess noise is tiring and reduces employee productivity. Each may also have health implications. It is an important part of the IT Manager’s role to ensure that the computer usage environment is adequate for each user to be productive taking into account their individual environmental needs.

Moving up from the physical factors, the usability of software applications is another dimension of computing ergonomics that is often neglected - does the information displayed on the screen meet the users needs, or do they have to jump from page to page or tab to tab in order to piece together the information needed for a task? And similarly, when inputting data into forms is the sequence of input logical, can they move from field to field in the correct order using the Tab key or do they need to reposition the data entry point using the mouse? Both of these common faults increase the need for concentration, are tiring for employees and introduce avoidable errors.

The above are basic issues which any IT Manager should address and can easily detect by walking around the office and chatting with users who appear to be peering at their screens, shuffling position, taking lots of breaks from the desk or generally expressing frustration with “the systems”.

Moving up a level, the helpdesk statistics are often a dead giveaway as to whether the IT is working for the people. A scan of the IT helpdesk logs in any company will reveal trends in user difficulties such as forgotten passwords, difficulties with email and other common productivity applications, lost or accidentally deleted files, complaints about slow performance, problems using specific enterprise systems etc. 

Each of these logged difficulties is a cry for help, a reflection that the employee is, instead of getting on with their job, having to fight or wrestle with the computer systems. Obviously whilst they’re wasting time getting frustrated with their PC they’re not getting on with the job of making money for the company. 

The savvy IT Manager will treat the helpdesk logs as the primary intelligence source for their continuous improvement process to engineer out users problems with the IT. Log entries fall into two generic categories - inadequate technology and inadequate users. The latter might sound quite harsh, but whilst we refer to the younger generations as “digital natives” none of us were born out of the womb ready to rock the PC keyboard - computing skills have to be learned.

Reading through the helpdesk logs will allow the attentive IT Manager to identify trends and prioritise which problems should be fixed soonest to give greatest benefit. Considering each problem it will be apparent as to whether the user has a point - the system really should be expected to do X, Y or Z, or whether they system is behaving as desired and it is the user who needs correcting. 

Very often correcting a system behaviour is straightforward, and immediately benefits all users - fixing inadequate technology is a quick and cost-effective win for IT Managers. It may be that the Internet gateway is a bottleneck slowing everyone down, or a self-service password reset facility is needed, or that the start-up script when the PC boots does not correctly link all the network drives that people need, folders are badly labelled so that people can’t find the company Powerpoint template, or the printer names are inadequate so that people don’t know which printer is located where, or which is the posh colour printer they need for the final version of the sales handouts … All little problems which the savvy IT manager will fix fast.

Fixing inadequate users is more work, it usually means systematic training, but if the systems can’t be made to work better for the users then the users must be equipped to better work with the systems. Much of the IT training needed for the workplace is generic, it applies to all companies and can be addressed by putting employees through courses such as the European Computer Driving License (ECDL). If the IT Manager can strongarm a third of the company into going on such training then those graduate super-users will lift the whole company - it is so much easier and quicker to ask your colleague at the next desk how to create a graph in Excel than to raise a call with the IT helpdesk. Some training however is specific - if your company uses a particular ERP or Accounts package then you will need to provide training or risk the vagaries of people learning from colleagues on the job and commonly learning to do things the wrong way. 

In summary the people, a.k.a the “Wetware”, in computer systems are at least as important as the systems themselves. Recognising and acting on this is a major component in distinguishing the average IT Manager from the good, the chap whose IT is never noticed because nobody’s complaining.

In another article I’ll cover off the next level, good to great. Having considered how to make IT that works for people the next stage is how to create IT that actually helps them to do their jobs better.


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