The cold war between IT departments and users is a battle that has likely existed since the first pocket-protector-wearing administrator replaced IBM Selectric III typewriters with 286 computers running WordStar 2.0. This cold war has become a general truism regarding IT—so much so, in fact, that it has made its way into popular culture in the form of the comic strip " Dilbert." The hapless representative of IT administrators and software developers, Dilbert is forever stuck between his pointy-haired boss and unreasonable end users with only semi-competent colleagues like Wally to help him. Not to be outdone, users have their own popular view of IT staff, epitomized by the ever-condescending Nick Burns, "Your Company Computer Guy" from Saturday Night Live, who routinely lambastes users who can't tell the difference between a printer and a print spooler. Does it have to be this way? The answer is no.
Just as diplomatic summits thawed US-Soviet relations during the Cold War, user summits can ease IT-user tensions in your company. User summits are easy to conduct, relatively inexpensive, and help IT departments to be more user-centric. In a nutshell, a user summit is a one-day event during which user representatives listen to presentations from IT staff about current problems, new technology, and plans that might affect users. The users in attendance give feedback about the presentations, as well as about IT in general. The feedback, when translated to action items, might be as simple as moving printers to locations that are more convenient to users or as complex as creating an online business workflow application to process expense reports. Action items based on user feedback should be assigned to appropriate IT managers to determine the best course of disposition. Within a defined period of time, the managers report back to the user representatives about how they will address the action items assigned to them. Summits should be held semi-annually, or even quarterly, to create a continuous improvement program.
User summits help you to make IT improvements that users actually want in a way that is quantifiable and easily demonstrable to management. The summits and the actions that you take as a result will also help you build rapport with your user community, thus thawing IT-user relations to create a stronger IT-business connection. Here are five steps you can follow to create your own user summit program.
STEP 1: Create a Project Plan and Get Management Buy-in
You need to define your user summit program. Start by documenting why the program is worthwhile for your company. Then, create a schedule: Holding summits twice a year is the best place to start. Each user summit should last one day. Define the process for recording and assigning action items and reporting the outcomes to users and management. Define budget requirements: At minimum, you'll want to budget for food and beverages for summit participants. Depending on the size of your organization and how elaborate your program will be, you might also want to budget for travel and rental of off-site facilities. Finally, present your program plan to management: Support from management is crucial to the success of the program. For more detailed information about creating project proposals and achieving management support, see "Don't Gamble with IT" (October 2005, InstantDoc ID 47637) and "The Art of the Executive Presentation" (May 2006, InstantDoc ID 49804), respectively.
STEP 2: Select User Representatives
After your project plan is final and you have management support, determine which users will attend the summit. As a general rule, no fewer than 10 and no more than 20 users should attend each summit. If you work for a small-to-midsized business (SMB), you'll want to decrease the number of attendees as appropriate. Ideally, the same group of users will attend each summit to allow the group to develop a good working relationship over time, which will help you gather direct and honest feedback. In a program of this type, continuity is more valuable than new faces. Work with management to select a balance of user representatives from across the company and within a cross-section of the organizational hierarchy. Seek out people who are influential within their peer group and who communicate well with others. It's crucial to the success of your summit program to draw together a group of users who can represent the views of the users in your company as a whole rather than only their personal viewpoint. Be sure to explain the summit goals and time commitments and the role of the user representatives to the users you select to ensure that they (and their managers) understand what they are committing to.
STEP 3: Conduct the User Summit
Each user summit should begin with an introduction by an executive that explains the purpose of the summit, the expectations that define a successful event, and the level of confidentiality that applies to all summit activities. After the introduction, members of the IT department make between three and five presentations on topics such as userrelated challenges that the IT department is experiencing, upcoming technology changes, or company plans that might affect users. The day should end with an open session during which user representatives can address any IT-related issue that wasn't discussed earlier. One representative from the IT staff should be responsible for recording action items. After the meeting, this recorder should circulate the list of action items to attendees to ensure that all action items were included on the list and recorded accurately.
STEP 4: Review the Action Items
After the summit, work with IT management to identify an owner within the IT department for each action item and communicate the action items to the assigned owners. The owners are responsible for determining the best course of action to take and for reporting back to the summit organizer within a predetermined period of time. The course of action should either contain the IT department's plan to address the item or explain why the item can't be addressed.
The final step in the user summit program is to provide feedback to the user community and company management about the summit's outcomes. Detailed and confidential information about each action item and the IT department's response should be distributed to the summit user representatives, IT managers, and company management. A more general report about the actions taken as a result of the summit should be distributed to the general user community. If you don't have an existing method for communicating with users, such as a newsletter or Web site, you'll need to determine the best way to distribute the information to users.
A primary cause of the IT-user cold war is the fact that IT is often focused solely on technology. In contrast, user summits are focused on people. Over the long run, this people-focused program can create a stronger partnership between the IT department and users to help your business accomplish its goals. User summits can offer you, as an IT manager, an opportunity to make technology improvements that users actually want in a structured manner. In turn, you can present the results of user summits to senior management to demonstrate your contribution to the IT department and the business as a whole.