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User Rising

User Rising

It all should be a wake-up call that users are revolting, says Mann, PhD, associate professor of information technology at Old Dominion University in Virginia and vice president of Adept Solutions Global - and she does not mean that they fill one with disgust

The best laid IT plans sometimes go unappreciated by users.

In February 2003 Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher was livid.

"For the fifth time in my career here, everyone at the paper has been summoned to hour upon hour of classes on yet another new computer system that's supposed to boost productivity and improve life on our planet," he thundered in a Post editorial. "Computer training has become the living hell of the American workplace, a loathsome ritual that highlights the mounting battle between the computer cognoscenti and us mere mortals.

"My boss says she has one more change of systems in her before she is so diminished as a human being that she will have no choice but to retire. One of my most intellectually keen colleagues was reduced during this latest round of training to incoherent babbling on the screen, culminating in a pathetic plea to be allowed outside for recess. With each advance in technology, I believe I have lost some significant chunk of my personality, some measurable portion of my soul."

There may be few editorials in history that have struck such a ringing chord with computer users, and Associate Professor Joan Mann believes CIOs would do well to take note of it.

The editorial www.washington post Feb 5 2003 inspired an 874 message-long thread on the Slashdot forum thrumming with venom aimed squarely at software vendors and developers alike, with readers everywhere showing they knew exactly where Fisher's angst was coming from. The discussion thread showed users were enraged at software vendors for constantly changing interfaces and dropping useful functionality for no apparent reason. They were fuming about developers who built cumbersome and useless systems, and the arrogant, condescending and recalcitrant help desk/technical support people, and they were incandescent with rage with managers who rushed to adopt new systems when from their point of view, the old ones worked fine.

But while some IT professionals on that same thread agreed with the end users and brought up additional issues that might be seen to contribute to the IT folk's failure to bring users on side, others preferred denial, using the forum to air pet peeves about so-called "user morons".

It all should be a wake-up call that users are revolting, says Mann, PhD, associate professor of information technology at Old Dominion University in Virginia and vice president of Adept Solutions Global - and she does not mean that they fill one with disgust.

"Most organizations today have experience with several generations of information technology, information systems and generic software packages. Most have learned that information and communications technology must be managed in order to keep it up to date and to compete in today's technologically sophisticated environment," Mann says. "[But] all is not well. Like Marie Antoinette, IT departments seem unaware that the users are restless and showing signs of rebellion. That is the bad news. The good news is that, like most threats, there are opportunities for those who optimistically face reality and adjust to the challenges posed by the threats."

Mann has been wondering about the dysfunctional relations between IT and its users since the mid-1980s, when a student in her introductory MBA course mentioned that users in his firm called the IT folk "software Nazis" because they only ever showed up when on the hunt for pirated software. The remark planted the seed of a research question in her mind: How are the IT functions, in general, viewed by users? Mann thought she detected a gap unaccounted for in MIS research primarily focused on individual projects.

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