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A dangerous gap: End users vs. executives

End users are fed up with IT execs who say one thing and do another.

A new Forrester Research report reveals an alarming divide between end users and their IT managers, resulting in confusion, apathy and pessimism at many companies.

Almost half of the end users surveyed by Forrester perceived their employers as failures when it came to supporting IT initiatives with proper funding and new resources such as training. Meanwhile, only 20% of IT executives agreed with that disappointing assessment. Among the chief complaints from employees was a lack of good communication and companywide projects that wind up solely in the hands of IT without proper follow-up throughout the rest of the company.

The report, "The IT Organization: Users Versus Decision-Makers," highlights the need to align IT and business priorities, a popular and pressing issue for today's CIOs.

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Matt Kesner, CTO of Fenwick & West LLP, a Mountain View, Calif.-based legal services firm for technology companies, is among the many IT executives who have seen those survey results play out in the real world. "I think it's really easy in IT for management to create higher expectations than it's possible to meet," Kesner said. "Here, we generally don't make big announcements about projects or technology. We try to have gradual rollouts."

Lack of good communication cited as biggest issue

The report, authored by Forrester analyst Meredith Morris, surveyed 692 end users, such as salespeople and marketing professionals employed by U.S. companies, most of whom spend at least five hours per day using a range of business applications and other IT. It also surveyed 528 IT decision makers at North American companies who set IT budgets and plan strategies.

Of technology users, 28% think multi-department projects start out cooperatively but end as separate projects, according to Morris' report. The survey shows 44% of technology users believe executives talk about and encourage innovation and risk-taking, but fail to back up their talk with adequate resources for such projects.

Kesner said it's "absolutely true" that IT projects start out with input from many departments before the techies set off to finish the project on their own. "I don't think it's ill-intentioned on IT's side," Kesner said. "There are only a certain number of practical ways of doing something."

For example, Kesner said, his company recently installed Windows XP with Office 2003, and a new document management system. The package offered literally thousands of possible configurations, so extensive input from a variety of groups was impractical. His IT group held several meetings with end users to determine their priorities, chose the package based on those priorities and informed staff of the rollout in several low-key e-mails.

Bad attitudes make for big trouble

Kesner believes that the success of an IT project, no matter how fast or cheap the installation, must be judged on the reaction of end users and the IT department's follow-up to that reaction.

"The good part about our IT department is we admit what we got wrong," Kesner said. "The second phase of our rollout is to fix what we got wrong."

Without constant communication with end users about the progress of major IT initiatives, cynicism will likely prevail, said Mark Lutchen, a former CIO and partner with the IT effectiveness practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"Pessimism sets in when users don't believe [an IT project] is going to happen," Lutchen said. "Disaster occurs when they don't work together and they have a huge failure and it affects the bottom line." Explaining the reasons why a project was announced but never implemented -- even if that means sharing disappointing budget figures that caused a project cancellation -- could help employees set expectations for the next time a project is planned and prevent pessimism, he said.

Lutchen advises clients to set stringent business standards to IT projects. If it's an internal project, end users must remain involved with the project from start to finish -- so their input is considered along the way, he said. "If they [end users] absolve themselves and say, 'I got IT involved, they'll take care of it,' … it's not a good excuse," Lutchen said.

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