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

Empowering end users with self-service systems is all the rage for IT these days. What could possibly go wrong?

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Self-service procurement. Self-service business intelligence. Self-service recovery. User provisioning in private clouds. It's a wondrous world for end users these days 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 account or a deep dive into corporate data stacks that were once off-limits.

But all this user empowerment raises the 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 (BI) 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 United States is now 20-odd years into a decline in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills (download PDF), according to the National Research Council and other education observers. If you include statistical analysis in that skill set, it 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.

To gauge IT's handling of this new breed of customer, Computerworld checked in with three organizations -- The Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS), Intel Corp. and Mitre Corp. -- that serve three different user constituencies. Read on for their take on how to best handle End User 2.0.

Kentucky Community and Technical College System: Broad swath of users

With 16 colleges in 70 locations serving an estimated 130,000 faculty members, staff members, and students, KCTCS supports a broad swath of users.

KCTCS uses Oracle's PeopleSoft Enterprise Human Capital Management system to roll out self-service components to its various user constituencies, says CTO Paul Czarapata. PeopleSoft's Campus Solutions application allows students to enroll in classes, pay their bills and schedule class changes; that module is relatively easy to administer, Czarapata says, for two reasons.

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