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Self-service IT: Are users up for the task?

Empowering users with do-it-yourself tools is all the rage in IT these days. What could possibly go wrong?

January 9, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Self-service procurement. Self-service business intelligence. Self-service recovery. User provisioning in private clouds. It's a wondrous world for end users today as IT departments roll out tools that hand them the reins to the data and services they desire, whether it's instant access to their employee benefits accounts or a deep dive into corporate data stacks that were once off-limits.

But all this user empowerment raises a question: Are users up to their new role? To be sure, it's been a long time since IT staffers have had to show employees how to use a mouse or check that a desktop PC is plugged in, but there's a big jump between choosing a dental plan from a drop-down menu and applying advanced analytics to large volumes of enterprise data.

Have users really advanced so far that they can roll out their own business intelligence queries or recover from a hard disk failure entirely on their own? Yes and no, say IT managers and industry analysts.

On the one hand, thanks to the boom in smart consumer devices and the ubiquity of the Internet in corporate and personal life, employees at all levels of the organization are more comfortable with technology than ever before.

On the other hand, the U.S. workforce is now 20-odd years into a decline in expertise in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM disciplines), according to the National Research Council and other education observers. If you include statistical analysis in that skill set, the decline potentially sets the stage for a perfect storm in self-service IT, where overconfident but underskilled end users run amok in business systems, draw bad conclusions from randomly mashed-up data or corrupt IT's once-pristine data stores.

"Some employees -- particularly the younger members of the workforce -- have an attitude of 'give me access and I'll figure it out,' but there are nuances to data that they may not realize," observes Cindi Howson, founder of business intelligence consultancy BIScorecard. "Some start out quite cavalier in their efforts, then get to a certain point and have to call for help."

That said, Howson believes such failures are a necessary part of the process as IT, business units and end users renegotiate the delicate balance of who can do what when it comes to corporate data.

After years of tight control by IT, the pendulum is swinging the other way -- "sometimes maybe a little too far the other way," Howson says. Nevertheless, the move toward self-service is only going to accelerate, she and other analysts say, as IT departments face increasing demand, from the newest hire to the most senior executive, for faster, better access to corporate services and data. "IT cannot keep up. They need to be delivering intelligence faster and in a way that's more aligned with the business than what they've been able to deliver in the past," she says.

5 Tips

Keys to successful self-service IT

How do you do self-service IT right? Tech managers and analysts say the goal is to empower users without overwhelming them -- and without putting corporate data at risk. Here are their specific tips:

1. Retain tight control over corporate data. User access to that data is important, but a user's need for data should never take precedence over security, privacy or regulatory compliance concerns.

2. Know the people you're designing for. Users with different roles and technical skills may need different types of tools.

3. Rather than asking business users what data they think they need, ask them what decisions they need to make or what tasks they need to accomplish.

4. Consider bringing in a business analyst during the projects planning stages to facilitate communication between business users and IT.

5. Test with a small group of users to quickly identify and address trouble spots.

Change management is crucial to a successful rollout of self-service tools. Line-of-business leaders -- not IT -- should explain to users how the tools will benefit them.

— Tracy Mayor

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