Technology Empowerment vs. Frustration: A User(s) Guide


One of the most exciting aspects of running an IT Consultancy is the variety of views and opinions we get to hear about from our clients, teams, suppliers & partners. We want to focus this month on looking at the relationships between business users of technology and the IT departments that supply solutions.  As with most ‘marriages’ this is a complex, ever changing interaction, but two factors are key to this are: Empowerment  and Frustration.

We think we are on the cusp of a major change in the balance of power between the user and IT departments, this happens very rarely so we are watching with interest how it develops over the next few years. Business users now are digitally aware, often frustrated by tech departments and confident enough to bypass them. This is a dangerous time for the traditional IT team and trying to control and close down alternatives would be a mistake and is probably too late anyway.

The graph below highlights how users frustration with IT has increased whilst their ability to control has diminished. There was a brief (golden?) period in the 1990’s where Desktop computing and productivity tools helped business users become more self-sufficient but that was then reduced as IT took control back of the desktop


Business Frustration vs. Empowerment 1970 onwards

Business Frustration vs. Empowerment 1970 onwards

The 70s – the decade of opportunity

Obviously computing did not start in 1970 (although Unix time did start on Jan 1st…) but the ’70s was perhaps the time when IT started making major positive impacts to organisations. Payroll, invoicing, purchasing and accounting functions started to become more widely automated and computerised. The productivity gains from some of these applications transformed businesses and the suppliers (IBM, IBM, IBM etc) did phenomenally well out of it. User empowerment was minimal but frustration was also low as demand for additional functions and flexibility was limited

The 80s – growing demands and an awakening workforce

The 1980s saw the rise of the desktop with Apple and Microsoft fighting for top-dog position. This explosion of functionality was exciting for the home user initially and then quickly grew to be utilised and exploited by organisations. Productivity tools such as spreadsheets, word processing and email allowed business users to create and modify their working practices and processes. The adoption of desktops accelerated towards the end of the decade so we make this decade as: Empowerment up (and growing) and frustration down.

The 90s – Power to the people (sort of… for a while)

Traditional IT departments recognised the power of the utility PC and adjusted (and grew) to support the business. Networks and so file sharing, and as importantly, backups became the norm. Business departments were  becoming more autonomous with the power the PC gave them. Macros and Visual Basic add-ons turned into business critical applications, new software was being produced by innovative companies all the time. Business users were free to download and run pretty much anything on their work computer.  The complexity of IT infrastructure and applications was increasing exponentially… so inevitably things began to creak and break, end user applications (or EUCs as they became known) could be intolerant of change (such as a new version of Excel), also they were often put together in an ad-hoc fashion to solve a particular problem and then woven into a complicated business process which became impossible to change. This, with the additional twist of the ‘computer virus’ gave the opportunity for the IT department to lock-down users PCs and force applications to be developed by the new, in-house, development teams. Result for the 1990s – User frustrations rising, demands rising and empowerment on the way down.

The 00s – Control and process

The dawn of the new millennium, the first crash of the dot coms and the lockdown of user PCs continues at pace. The impacts from the ’90s – unsupportable applications, viruses, complexity of the desktop were joined by higher levels of regulation, audit and internal controls. These combined with a focus on saving money in the still expanding IT departments caused further reduction in user abilities to ‘do IT’. In large organisations most PCs were constrained to such an extent they could only be used for basic email, word processing and Excel (now the only spreadsheet in town). Any new application would have to go through a lengthy evaluation, purchasing, configuration, security testing, ‘packaging’ and finally installation if it was required for business use so inevitably – User frustration was rising to dangerous levels and empowerment was further degraded.

The 10s – A digital workforce demands power

The controls and restrictions of the ’00s now ran into signification budgetary restrictions on IT departments. Costs were, and are, being squeezed, fewer and less experienced resources are dealing with increasing demands an pace. Frustration levels were peaking to a point relationships between IT and business were breaking down. Outsourcing parts of IT organisations made some significant savings on budgets but did nothing to reduce user concerns around delivery and service (at least in the short term).

Some users started to ‘rebel’, the increasing  visibility of software as a service (SaaS) enabled certain functions to implement simple but functionally rich solutions to a team or department relatively easily and without much/any IT involvement. did amazingly well through an ease of use, globally available, infrastructure free product which did everything a Sales team needed and could be purchased on a credit card and expensed…  Internal productivity tools such as Sharepoint started being used for  complex workflow processes – by the business without need for IT.

At the same time personal devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops (BYOD) became the norm for the business community. They want and are demanding ability to share business data on these tools.

Public cloud usage by business users is also starting to gather pace and the credit card/utility model means some functions do not use IT for certain areas where quick creation and turnaround of data/processing is needed (whether that is wise or not is a different question).

So what are IT departments doing to ensure they can continue to help business units in the future:

  • Become much more business needs focused (obvious but needs to be addressed as a priority)
  • Encourage the use of BYOD – in the end it will save the firm money through not having to purchase hardware
  • Aggressively addressing traditional structures and costs – ask questions such as
    • “Why can’t we get someone else to run this for us?” – whether outsource, cloud or SaaS
    • “Why don’t you have a SaaS/Cloud enabled product?”
  • Become a service broker to the business – looking ahead and managing service and supplier rather than infrastructure, applications or process.

User empowerment rising but user demands and frustrations still high

The 20s – Business runs business and Utilities run IT

What will happen in the next few years? Who can tell but trends we are seeing include:

  • There will be a small number of large firms with massive computing capacity – most other organisations will just use this power as required.
  • There will be new opportunities for financial engineering such as exchange trading computing & processing power, storage & network capacity.
  • IT infrastructure departments in the majority of organisations would have disappeared
  • IT for business organisations will consist of Strategy, Architecture, Business Design, (small specialised) Development focusing on value-add tooling and integration, Relationship and Supply management of providers, products and  pricing

All these point to more power for the business user but one trend emerging which may reverse that is the on-going impact of legislation and regulation. This could limit business capability to be ‘free’ and the lockdown of IT may begin again but this time more from government onto the external suppliers of the service resulting in increasing frustration levels and reduced empowerment….. interesting to see how this goes.



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Posted on : 30-04-2012 | By : richard.gale | In : General News

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