Researchers and theorists may argue about the strategic value Information Technology departments make to large organizations – or even whether tech prevents social change rather than encouraging it.
But few question the value of IT support to end users – who are often reputed to be more tech savvy than their predecessors, but who may also insist the tech they need to understand has more to do with getting video or cloud apps on their iPhones, not fundamentals like how to get back online if someone kicks a plug out of the wall.
Close support may improve productivity, but it could also create a dependency that makes end users more ignorant and less competent on tech issues in the long run, according to a new study on the dynamics of geek-human relationships and the unfortunate tendency to let experts do things for you.
In family groups, though probably in others as well, having one member who is technically skilled generally does not encourage others to learn more about the tech they all use, according to the study from researcher Erika Poole, assistant professor of Information Sciences and Technology at Pennsylvania State University.
Poole studied the tech-related behavior of 10 families asked to keep a log of every tech-related interaction or event for several weeks, in each of which Poole would introduce a new technical challenge such as asking the family to set up and use an iPod.
Usually that task fell to the more tech-savvy of the adults in the household, rather than post-Millenial children, for example.
When the task fell to the non-technical partner, however, Poole identified a consistent problem: Non-technical members of the household often had surprising difficulty with even relatively simple technical tasks, and reported avoiding or ignoring them for fear of getting stuck and feeling like a burden when they had to ask for help.
The more geekish members of the household tended to pick up a technical task and race through it without asking about the configuration preferences of other household members or explaining what was being done so other members of the household could modify or repeat the process on their own.
"They might make decisions about computer settings, for example, without asking the other’s opinion," Poole said.
Depending on others for even simple technical help can make non-geeks even more reluctant to ask for help or training, trapping both them and their significant, or to be taught how to do things themselves, leaving them far less able to deal with their own technical problems than they would have been otherwise, and trapping tech-savvy members of the group into permanent tech-support roles.
It's only when the tech-supporting partner was absent that the non-geeks were pushed to learn anything.
"When they put aside their initial reluctance to do an unfamiliar task, their self-confidence ended up increasing when they finally tried it and figured it out", Poole said in a Penn State announcement of the study.
The study didn't answer any questions about how to train tech-aversive end users more effectively. It did raise questions about what constitutes technical competence at a time when it's not unusual for end users integrate and use half a dozen cloud or mobile services to get a job done, but be stumped a the need to reboot – or even find – the home router that lets them touch the cloud in the first place.
"Tech is becoming more important everywhere, but not everyone needs to be on the level of a systems administrator," Poole said in the announcement. "I wish I could say there’s a set list of skills that everyone needs to know, but it’s a very individual thing. It’s about learning what you need to know to navigate the technology that’s important to you."
Unfortunately, the ease of use, 24/7 availability and support for a range of mobile devices that is de rigeur for cloud apps also seems to have raised end-user expectations for IT as well.
Internally produced apps and the interfaces to automated support have to be simple, support has to be 24x7, support multiple devices and be available through phone, email, web, chat and other services, according to a June, 2014 Help Desk Institute study comparing expectations of IT support groups and end users.
End-user support organizations are trying to meet those demands, but also admit they spend budget and work-hours on things that are important to them – security, reliability and efficiency of support tools and networks, for example – that are not important to end users.
And the focus is still on fixing the problem or answering the question – not on teaching end users to do things themselves.
Part of that is self defensive. You may only feed people for a day if you hand them a fish rather than teach them to fish, but at least your help desk won't be flooded with complaints about hooked fingers, tangled lines and fish that inexplicably burst into flames and exploded despite the user doing "exactly what you told me to."
It's simply easier to fix something for someone than it is to teach them to do it themselves, especially if they don't particularly want to learn.
If following that path doesn't produce users even more ignorant about the technology infrastructure on which everything they do depends, it will only be because it's not possible to fit any more ignorance into that particular group of users.
It's not all ignorance, of course. Many users consider themselves "tech savvy" because they know how to provision, integrate and use cloud apps even knowing nothing at all about the infrastructure underneath.
That's okay(ish). The cloud exists specifically to hide the ugly reality of infrastructure from the delicate sensibilities of users. It's usually not a good idea to ask end users to do too much of their own tech work, anyway.
And it is genuinely a good thing that corporate IT has finally recognized external clouds sufficiently to begin talking support for multiplatform datacenters, hybrid cloud implementations, federated security and flexible, dynamic security – as well as 24/7 multiplatform support for end users.
It's just that the good IT does by handholding and coddling end users in an effort to get their work done also makes them more ignorant about the tools and infrastructure they're using to try to continuously raise their productivity.
At some point the combination of ignorance, co-dependence not-always-reliable technology is going to combine into something really ugly, broken and helpless for end users, who may not even recognize enough about it to know who they should call to come fix it.