Lurking in the deepest recesses of companies around the world lives an endangered species of computer user. This user exhibits some rather unusual behaviour, particularly in their natural habitat, in front of a computer screen they can be picked out from their fellow workers by their uncanny ability to break working software and hardware
This user is Power User. Picture the scenario: Power User comes into work after a weekend slouched over his home PC and wonders why his work PC is so crap compared to the multimedia goddess he worships at home.
Power User is so frustrated with his work machine; he knows that the installed software is inferior. He knows he could tweak it to make it run better, because he has done so at home. Power User knows how to turn the operating system upside down and inside out to make it run a second quicker. And he knows how to delete files when disk space is running low.
There are many variations of Power User. For Microsoft, which is strongly committed to "empowering" the end user, the Power User is someone who uses all the features in an application and delves into customisation.
David Bennie, product marketing manager for Office at Microsoft, says: "Many people customise Office. Between 85% and 90% of people make some kind of customisation to Office." Bennie says there are a lot of people who do simple things with Office such as customising tool bars or adding their own macros.
Microsoft's line on this kind of customisation is that it allows Power Users to increase their productivity. For instance, it is possible to create a new fax cover sheet template in Word or write a macro which cuts out several keystrokes for a regularly used sequence of operations.
Lotus also takes this line. According to Steve Dunbar, SmartSuite product marketing manager at Lotus: "Power Users want to bring in data and manipulate information." He says that some of the activities associated with Power Users include connecting to Lotus Notes, an Oracle database or an IBM back-end system.
The problem with Power User is that he wants to treat his business computer the same way that he treats his home computer. At home, he spends time installing and reinstalling hardware and software. Often there is precious little support. Power User accepts this as a challenge and knows that if all else fails, he can always get it fixed in the office the next day.
IBM has written an internal paper on the cultural and technical differences between the use of the PC in the home and in the office. One of its observations is that the speed at which PCs in the office have become business critical is faster than the take up of PCs in the home.
The paper states that business workstations must meet specific requirements, unlike home PCs which are designed and configured for a standard set of applications. The business PC must be reliable because failure directly affects profitability. The paper points out that on a business PC response time is time-critical and data needs to be delivered at the right time, to the right place, and in a reliable and recoverable manner.
Commenting on the apparent threat of Power Users to companies, Mike Brookbanks, consultant global services at IBM and author of the paper, says: "If I was running an IT department, I would be concerned." One of Brookbanks' concerns is if a user customises software but doesn't tell the IT department.
Those changes may be overwritten when the software gets upgraded.
Worse is when a user's actions affect others. Brookbanks adds: "Ultimately, users are doing things that impact on others." For example, a Power User writes a macro to download software from his local site to a remote office where he occasionally works, the download could affect performance on the whole network.
A potentially serious problem, according to Bookbanks, is when senior people in a company make IT decisions based on what they use at home.
"If it takes a day to set up a home PC, and you have 20,000 PCs to install at work, this would take 20,000 days to complete and could cost millions."
The IBM paper suggests that if the transient requirement of the home user is introduced into the business environment, the IT department could become increasingly inefficient working in an unplanned, unstructured and uncontrolled manner.
IBM feels that users of workstations need to understand that their home PC requirements differ radically from their requirements at work. PCs at work are critical to the smooth operations of the business and offer functionality, responsiveness and connectivity over and beyond a typical home PC. Also, when a problem occurs, it needs to be speedily resolved by the IT department. The paper concludes that business users need to allow the IT department to deal with IT and accept that the PC workstation at work will not have the same facilities as the one at home.
In order to maintain a grip on desktop PCs, IT departments frequently limit the extent to which end users can alter their PCs. Large companies tend to lock down what can be locked down. For instance, the functionality of Microsoft's Office can be limited to certain templates or to opening and editing a particular file.
While this may make sense to IT departments, especially in terms of reducing management costs and cutting down on avoidable calls to the help desk, Lotus feels that giving users freedom to customise applications is not such a bad thing. Locking down and restricting functionality is not always effective as Lotus' Dunbar notes: "Power Users would get around any obstacles to push a product to its limits."
But does Power User really exist, or is it a term made up by the marketing men to hike up software sales. According to Laurent Lachal, senior analyst at Ovum: "The Power User is something that is spoken about a lot, but it doesn't exist."
Lachal asks wryly: "Do you know of anyone who would come into work and decide to change the sound card? I don't know of any company that would let their work-force go wild on company applications."
Modern software does give users the chance to change things to some extent.
"Very rarely do people create templates," Lachal continues. "But this is a very optimistic interpretation of power usage." By way of an example, Lachal explains that a knowledge worker may create an Excel template, but there is a big difference between customising software this way and being a Power User. "A Power User takes his fate into his own hands and puts together his own applications."
Ovum believes the trend towards thin-client computing, which takes control away from users, does not fit in with Power User mentality. It also feels that while the idea of the Power User is very appealing as users can build applications to suit the way they work, it does not work in the real world.
"It does not make sense to employees," comments Lachal. "Knowledge workers don't have the time. The effort required to build their own application would not be worth their while."
Reducing the freedom users have with their software is an attractive and relatively easy way for IT departments to keep control. But this is only effective when the IT department is well informed on users' IT requirements.
One size rarely fits all and IT departments need to look objectively at what each type of user requires.
Poor IT systems means frustrated users and provide Power User with an ideal environment to fester. Below are some recommendations from IBM on how IT departments can provide businesses with a reliable, high-performance service that meets service-level objectives and user requirements.
IT departments need to:
- Resolve problems simply and communicate with the users through a single interface on the current status of any aspect of the entire system.
- Control the environment through the management of change and a full understanding of the business requirements.
- Develop and understand the principles of service management in the workstation environment and the importance of single ownership across the organisation.
- Develop a systems management tool set that meets the IT requirements, and coordinates, so that it aids rather than impairs the IT department and the business.
- Be given the authority to update the environment as required in a structured manner.
- Develop configuration management to simplify the support functions and to centrally control the choice and configuration of workstations.
- Accept that users may now know more about their technical IT requirements than they did in the past.
- Communicate with users.
- Stop from reacting to user requirements and instead become a proactive organisation.
- Not view the business as a means of financing IT.
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