Friday, April 08, 2005

Client Wants vs. Practicality

I had a discussion about an Important Concept the other day with my German IT colleagues from a client. During their visit to Japan, we were discussing that for good user support, it should not be "I want application X" but rather "I want software that does function X". There's a big difference, and it's important for various situations, and not merely in the context of user support.

Let me give you some background: corporate Information Technology departments usually have to provide support for a fairly large number of applications (I worked with a large one that had over 500 packages to cover), without even considering the possible version-driven variations. Some companies simply decide "whatever the users want, they get" and more so if those users happen to be the lifeblood of the company's profits - for example big-name traders in securities firms or top sales professionals for instance. In my experience though, IT departments have to balance user demands with practicality, and limit the number of applications supported. A firm stance is required within the IT department, and should be presented consistently to the company's users, so that when a user asks for a specific and non-standard application, IT staffers or consultants will automatically begin a process of instead considering, with the user, what function that user needs.

If you're an IT support staffer or consultant with enough experience, you'll probably agree that few of your customers likely have the time, experience or patience to understand the depth to which a solution should be examined prior to implementation. However, looking at it from the receiving end, the fact that users or clients want to dictate their solutions to IT consultants is natural. A CFO somewhere might say - "I want an Sleek!Base database that will let everyone in the corporation to do their expenses." The CFO has diligently researched the issues, and as far as she is aware, Sleek!Base is THE answer.

Assuming you have the backing of the department and a mandate to do so, instead of jumping to the conclusion that "Sleek!Base is the right platform for the job of allowing 40,000 users to do their expenses", there are some important initial actions that the IT staffer or consultant should take:

  • If you don't have management backing for this sort of strategy, get it before you enter into negotiations, even ad hoc.
  • Leaving any trace of arrogance at the door, explain what the standards are if they exist. IT group standards should be rolled out in a transparent and accessible way, before you can easily make such an argument. "Because I said so" does not work.
  • If there are no standards that match the request, be prepared with an business-oriented, non-technical explanation of what actions are normally required. How it will be paid for is a matter which will change for every site.
  • Allow the requester's resistance to be voiced, and listen carefully. Address the resistance specifically, and simply allow the debate or argument to occur.

At last, it's important to maintain momentum by following up thoroughly (don't skip steps) with either a standard solution, or a custom one, based on what is agreed.

Thanks for reading.

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