UK: GETTING IT RIGHT FROM THE START. - Winning the loyalty and commitment of users before you choose your IT system may be expensive and time-consuming but having to take remedial action later on can cost twice as much.

by Jane Bird.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Winning the loyalty and commitment of users before you choose your IT system may be expensive and time-consuming but having to take remedial action later on can cost twice as much.

There is more to successful IT than dumping PCs on people's desks and leaving them to get on with it by themselves. You need to win the hearts and minds of users if your investment in hardware and software is to be maximised.

Such advice may sound obvious, but in practice it is often unheeded, says David Davidson, of PA Consulting Group's IT practice. 'The people side is always the first to get cut back when any problems arise with an IT project.' Since IT ventures are typically fraught with difficulties, this creates a problem. 'Technical matters get the attention while the people side is regarded as dispensable.' The consequences can be seen in the litany of multi-million pound computer disasters in the UK during the past few years, from the Stock Exchange's Taurus system to the abortive project at Wessex Regional Health Authority.

But how do you go about winning the loyalty and commitment of users, many of whom may be wary of new technology and worried about changes to their working practices? Well, you begin by going and looking at where and how a proposed computer system will be implemented; you talk to users and find out how they do their jobs. From then on, you involve them in a continuous dialogue while the system is developed. Once it is complete, you ensure training is closely tailored to individual needs.

Jean Irvine, former head of IT at the Post Office (PO), is well aware of these issues. Irvine, who in September became the PO's group personnel strategy director, has made a point of trying to consider the human component from the earliest stages of IT projects. For example, when the PO's Parcel Force division needed a tracking and trailing system, she sent a team to see how parcel-workers operate in sorting offices. They discovered that parcel-handlers, who mostly work at night, tend to wear thick gloves. This makes it difficult for them to use a keyboard. Spotting the problem in advance enabled specially adapted keyboards to be incorporated from the outset. A similar approach is now being taken in the development of systems for the 180,000 people working in Post Office counter franchises. 'The major challenge is not the technology but how to fit it in to the sub-post offices which are essentially retail businesses,' Irvine says.

Neglecting these matters can hugely undermine the benefit of an IT system. For instance, gaps may emerge between what users want and what has been delivered. Davidson cites a complex calculation system developed for a financial services company to provide customers with advice. 'Because it was proving difficult technically, the design team made the system slightly harder to use and prevented it from doing one of the three main things needed,' he says. This rendered it virtually worthless from the financial advisers' point of view, as a result of which none of them used it.

Another danger of overlooking users is that they try to by-pass a system altogether. This is an increasing trend highlighted by Kit Grindley in his book Managing IT at Board Level. Thanks to decentralisation and distributed computing, users have become empowered and are questioning IT initiatives emanating from the centre, Grindley says. His research found that 53% of IT directors claim that users are trying to avoid the central IT infrastructure, preferring to make their own choices and bring in outside specialists for advice if necessary.

One way to avoid user disenchantment is to help people visualise the systems they will be using in advance. Instead of defining how screens will be constructed in technical terms, you attempt to show how they will look and feel. Irvine has long advocated this approach, using a process of so-called Joint Application Development to produce rough drafts of new systems. This enables users to understand what is being developed and to experiment with it during the design phase, rather than being confronted with a near-finished product. 'You don't even need to be particularly high-tech about it,' says Irvine. A white-board or flip chart will suffice. What matters is for both sides to be able to ask 'what if' questions. Users find they can spot potential problems or opportunities for improvement much more easily once there is a system to focus on. Developers, meanwhile, can discover what is workable and what isn't.

Once the system is agreed, the right type of training is vital. Here again, corners are often cut. In a recent PA survey of 250 general and IT managers, more than 70% identified inadequate training as a problem with IT. This probably helps explain why almost 25% experienced user resistance to IT innovation, and around 40% had difficulties with working procedures.

As with the systems themselves, training needs to be closely matched to user requirements. The Scottish Prison Service (SPS), for example, faced a formidable problem training 4,200 staff, most of whom were meeting IT for the first time. Training was crucial to achieving the necessary culture change as the SPS prepared to become an executive agency, says David Clater, information systems manager. The problem was that prison staff are not able to move around their buildings easily due to physical barriers, shift-working, and the need to maintain constant operation. Releasing large numbers of staff to go on courses is impossible. ICL, the main supplier of the SPS computer system, suggested a multimedia computer-based training system that staff could use at their desks and learn at their own speed. An eight-and-a-half hour CD-ROM was developed featuring the voices of well-known Scottish actors to give it an enjoyable, entertaining feel. 'Computer-based training suits the way we work because it is very flexible,' says Clater. 'People can start when and where they want.' Even the price, at £60 a head, compares favourably with most most other forms of training.

Bespoke training has also worked well at KP Foods, the snack food subsidiary of United Biscuits. When 110 managers needed to learn how to use a decision support package, KP worked closely with the software supplier, Cognos, to develop a tailored course based on real-life scenarios from KP. Kevin Chappell, KP UK's business systems manager, says: 'I know it's successful because it is being widely used from board level down. If I walk in to the marketing director's office it is invariably on the screen.' Even chief executives need a customised training programme. One such is a high-tech 'boot camp' run by US software giant Computer Associates (CA) specifically for company bosses. CA set up the camps after discovering that 58% of corporate managers are unaware of what goes on in their IT departments despite the high importance they attribute to it. Recent delegate John Bell, chairman of Bell Packaging, Dallas, Texas, says: 'I don't think any CEO today can operate without an in-depth knowledge of IT and what it can do for business. Otherwise you'd be fighting a losing battle.' There is a direct correlation between the amount of computer literacy a CEO has and the amount of computer literacy people in the company feel is expected of them, reckons Bell. 'If I don't use the tools, they won't either, but if I send people e-mails there is a lot of pressure on them to respond using the same medium.' Sometimes you have to get even tougher, reckons Bell. 'We've put 300 people through e-mail training, yet I still see staff sending paper memos. A level of force may be inevitable in getting people to change.' He has now banned paper memos.

Extra incentives may also be needed when employees are asked to change their working practices, as in the case of workflow or groupware products. These typically require users to share information that they are probably used to hoarding for themselves. PA has addressed this problem with the introduction of 'thought leadership' targets to go alongside traditional sales and operating targets. Staff are financially and professionally rewarded for showing a willingness to share their thoughts more widely via e-mail and groupware.

There is even a competition with cash and certificate prizes for the most effective use of the company's computer network by individuals publishing their ideas and spreading the fruits of their experience. The first year there were fewer than 40 entries. Last year 70 people tried, and this year hundreds of entrants are expected.

KP is also exploiting the competitive spirit among employees to stimulate IT usage. It has developed a self-test program that scores people's ability to use the system against their personal targets. Everyone, from directors down, can access the system and brush up their technique whenever they want, and they can also see how everyone else is doing. 'It encourages openness of information that otherwise people might be tempted to keep to themselves,' says Chappell.

So how much do these user initiatives cost? Irvine reckons hardware and software account for only about 20% of the total cost of IT during a machine's life cycle. Davidson suggests that the true cost of the average office PC is probably double its typical £5,000 price-tag once all the training and technical support costs are taken in to account. However, the cost of remedial action can be double the price of getting it right first time, he reckons.

Another way of assessing the cost is to consider the risk that the system won't be used or that service to customers will get worse rather than better. Irvine says: 'If you can start to put a financial penalty on it as a risk to revenue generation, it helps focus the minds of senior directors.' Paul Butler, director of learning technology at Peritas, the management consultancy arm of ICL, suggests that the way to measure failure is to see how much support you have to put in place to manage a new IT system. 'For example, do you have to set up an internal helpdesk? How much time are individuals spending calling it or going on courses to learn about the system?' Queries from new users are often trivial. A typical problem is that when they get back to their desks after a course they can't find the on/off button, says Andrew Holt, director of information services division at the Department of Health. 'For some people, that could be the point at which they would give up and it might take three months to get them ready to start again. You have to be able to prevent this.' Holt, who has recently installed a new system for 4,000 users at the Department, made sure from the beginning that people were available at all sites to answer queries and report back to him on areas causing difficulties. 'These measures may sound mundane but they are what made the project a success,' Holt says. 'The alternative is to put the minimum amount of equipment on people's desks then disappear.' It may be cheaper in the short-run, but in the end the costs are far greater. Ignore the needs of users at your peril.

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