Traffic wardens, tax collectors, lawyers, (ahem) journalists... the list of occupations that inspire contempt among the public they serve has a new addition: IT support staff.
“Everyone hates the IT department (#) ,” an executive with storage and data-recovery firm EMC told us recently. But why is there so much antipathy towards a department that is, after all, designed to help and support workers?
Often interred in the basement, trapped between the rack servers and a bank of screens, the IT worker is cut adrift – both physically and psychologically – from the rest of the company.
Afforded little more respect than cleaners, the widespread belief that IT isn’t an essential part of an organisation is belied by the fact that companies need IT to function. It’s the first department to be blamed when something goes wrong, and the last to be credited for success.
IT is still seen as a bit of a dark art, and some like to cultivate that
So why is IT the most maligned department? Why is there such a disconnect between the enterprise and IT for so long? We try to find out.
A breed apart
One reason for the disconnect between IT and the rest of the company is that IT actually takes pleasure in being different. Like any clique, many in IT enjoy being part of a close-knit gang with their own quirky traditions and interests.
“IT is still seen as a bit of a dark art, and in some ways, technology people do like to cultivate that,” says Katherine Coombs, IT director at outsourcing provider buyingTeam. “Technology is a thing that they don’t need to build into the business too heavily. Sometimes, it suits people for there to be a clear line between IT and the rest of the business.”
In some respects, separation isn’t only desirable, but necessary. Other departments don’t need to know what’s keeping things ticking along in the basement. Why should the accounts team care what’s keeping the datacenter cool, or how the storage arrays are organised? They only want the equipment they use to work.
“Does the person who is handling the backup tapes, and programming bits and bobs behind the scenes need to integrate with the rest of the business? Probably not, because that’s an internal IT operation,” Coombs adds.
It’s when the two are forced to come together, however, that the classic worker vs IT relationship begins to unravel. The service desk is where the first seeds of antipathy are sown. The scenario is a familiar one: worker A has put in a request to IT as his desktop has collapsed under a pile of error messages, none of which he’s bothered to jot down before repeatedly clicking OK.
He waits for a couple of hours with no response, eventually calling IT to figure out what’s going on. A disgruntled IT worker, distracted from his gargantuan list of tasks, says he’ll check who’s dealing with it, since it isn’t in his remit, before telling worker A that someone will be up soon.
IT staff on TV
How the IT Crowd captured the disconnect between IT staff and office workers (http://www.pcpro.co.uk/features/371431/it-staff-on-tv-insufferable-nerds)
When that someone doesn’t appear instantaneously to conjure up an instant fix for his ailing machine, worker A sits back in his office chair and begins spewing out vitriolic curses about IT’s inadequacies to workers B through Z, who join in with their own woe-filled yarns. Thus, employees’ hate of IT is further fuelled by this unjustified ire.
Andrew Corbett, director of the UK IT Association and an IT department worker with more than 25 years of experience, has seen his fair share of broken relationships with workers.
In some cases, he found employees refusing to use the name “helpdesk”, claiming the “help” prefix didn’t apply. “There’s quite a lot of antipathy,” Corbett says. “There is the feeling that IT is almost like a priesthood, living in an ivory tower far away and you have to go to them on bended knee. The sad thing is that they usually mean well.”
What’s more depressing is that in the majority of cases, it isn’t the fault of either IT or the employees – it’s the fault of bureaucratic, convoluted, impersonal systems installed by management, which are left to spawn imbroglio after imbroglio rather than be replaced.
“Take away the complexity,” urges Dylan Roberts, chief officer of IT at Leeds City Council. “Tier-one and tier-two support shouldn’t be rocket science. Leeds City Council has a really diverse and complex environment in terms of what we’re supporting: we’ve got Novell, Microsoft, Siebel, everything. Support-wise, it could be a bit of a nightmare, but in terms of tier one and two, what most people ring for, there’s no excuse for not providing a good operational support service.”
As Roberts notes, however, you need people capable of empathy to ensure the IT department isn’t fostering contempt itself. “I’ve been head of IT now for 12 years. When I’m recruiting support people, I don’t recruit them for their technical skills, I recruit them for how they get on with people.”
Computer department says “no”
One thing workers often fail to grasp is why IT has to say “no” to requests so frequently. When employees ask for a new desktop, or whatever update they feel is critical to their job, IT is bound by the two indomitable forces of budget and time. These two constraints frustrate IT managers just as much as employees, often even more so. When workers are denied, though, it’s often assumed IT is either being truculent or incompetent, when neither is true. In most cases, at least.
The IT department are perceived as the 'no' men, naysayers to technological advancement in the business
This problem has been further exacerbated by the quality of technology in the consumer world overtaking that found in most businesses. So-called “super users” expect to have the most current technology handed to them when they want it. In reality, it isn’t that simple.
“The demands of the workforce are changing,” says Adam Thilthorpe, director of professionalism at BCS. “Their expectations of what technology does for them in their private life are the same as within the office. It’s all very well saying let’s put everything on apps, and have our own internal apps shop, for example, but you might have legacy systems that are fundamental to business success.
In companies where workers don’t get what they want from IT, they may “go rogue”, circumventing the department to satisfy their technological needs.
Those shiny Windows 7 laptops working so smoothly at home are much more enjoyable than the clunking Windows XP systems employees are forced to use at work. When they start taking those Windows 7 machines in and out of the office in rebellion, they have no idea of the implications, and little understanding of the risk of infecting the network or leaking intellectual property.
It’s something IT gets, but employees don’t, only eroding relations even further. In a recent survey from Unisys and IDC, eight out of ten IT leaders cited security as a significant barrier to allowing personal devices in the workplace.
Yet four out of ten workers are running business applications on their own machines every day – a proportion set to increase dramatically over the next few years.
“Sometimes, whole departments decide to procure things for themselves, without ever taking into account the bigger picture,” says Thilthorpe. “People might go rogue and do it themselves, buying their own iPads, not securing them, and then losing them.”
Software can be another source of tension. Workers will ask: “What do you mean I can’t have IE9? It’s a free download, how could there possibly be costs? What compatibility issues? What testing? I just want what I have at home.”
When such requests are turned down, instead of the IT department earning respect as the purveyors of good practice, they’re perceived as the “no” men, naysayers to technological advancement in the business.
“I’ll tell you the truth about us in IT: when we graduate, as well as the certificate, we get a rubber stamp with ‘no’ written on it,” Corbett quips. “This is so we can deal with requests faster – that’s the perception, that IT is a problem, never a solution.”
The executives are equally guilty, reading computing magazines extolling the latest tech innovation – cloud computing (http://www.cloudpro.co.uk/) and thin clients being two notorious recent examples – before trundling over to IT and demanding support.
When those C-levels receive an assessment telling them why the idea is a non-starter, the foulest insults are heard rattling off the office walls as IT again gets the blame.
The IT worker has to live with being as unpopular as a traffic warden
“You get things such as departmental heads using their own OS to set up a cloud-based system that IT don’t know is there,” says Corbett. “There will be issues, or they’ll ask to get it supported, and IT will say, ‘hold on, we don’t even know about this, we haven’t got the budget to support this’. The boss says ‘I’m not waiting years for IT to tell me what to do. I’m going to use the stapler and envelope budget to buy something else’.”
The blame culture
Moaning at IT about failing to fix a computer or provide support for smartphones is far from healthy, but saying IT is at fault for truly major issues is akin to bank executives blaming cashiers for the financial (#) crisis. It’s awfully simple for CEOs to berate IT for big failings.
Not only does this entrench people’s view of IT as a bunch of useless so and sos – for the executives, it handily distracts attention away from where the core problems lie.
“If you think about many of the government projects that have failed, people look at it as if it’s IT’s fault,” Roberts says. “But really, how much focus is put on the people and process changes necessary to make it right? How much focus is placed on the way people are putting information into the systems that manage information properly?”
An old adage known throughout the profession should offer the perfect riposte for under-fire IT chiefs: there’s no such thing as an IT project, there are only business projects.
“The CEO will spend millions of pounds on something that’s too big and ill thought out,” says Roberts. “It becomes a big failure and they say ‘oh, bloody IT has failed again’.”
“These massive changes are like boiling an ocean,” Roberts adds. “Incremental change in many ways is significantly better. You need pragmatism.”
Healing the wounds
Is there any panacea for these festering relationships? In many companies, there’s evidently a need for greater integration. Put simply, IT deserves more respect – in particular, from those in the boardroom.
A recent survey from NetApp showed how little IT departments feel valued by CEOs. Almost two-thirds of IT pros surveyed said they had trouble convincing their company directors about the value of a proposed project, regardless of the significant benefits it could bring.
To start with, it may be wise to take IT literally out of the basement, and have staff meet with the rest of the business in a more proactive way. Even having them set up permanent residence outside of the dungeon below could lessen the sense of an unconquerable hierarchy, of which IT is at the bottom.
“Certainly, it’s a danger having IT kept in the basement,” says Martin Ferguson, head of policy at Socitm, the professional association for public sector ICT management. “You’re seeing organisations that are putting IT into the basement in terms of its thinking, and not recognising that strategic importance.”
Put simply, IT deserves more respect – in particular, from those in the boardroom
To some extent, it would be sad to see the old ways gone. There’s something almost romantic about IT as the outsider. Being the underdogs, the unsung heroes, can curiously provide a job satisfaction of its own, even if the average IT worker has to live with being as unpopular as a traffic warden.
But if the divide is too large, if IT doesn’t have a presence in the boardroom as well as on the floor, not only will the department suffer, but the entire business will falter.
“The role of an IT department needs to change,” Ferguson says. “It needs to become more of a strategic enabler and much more involved in information management, governance of information, as well as organisational change, improvement and transformation.”
IT is a core part of the business. It should be treated, and act, as such.
Author: Tom Brewster