The Business Consumer: Don't call them "users"

IT and business consumers need to stop fighting and work together to find common ground. Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo

Daryl Plummer, Gartner's managing vice president and chief of Research, is tired of the term "users" in reference to the employees using IT services. Instead, we should be calling them "Business Consumers."

Plummer actually put more bluntly in his keynote at the Gartner Portals, Content and Collaboration Summit in San Diego. He said, "Drug addicts are users." Employees at work are consumers, just like they are outside of work, so let's call them what they are.

These are people who have a job to do and are simply looking for tools to get them done. Throughout the Summit there was tension between the idea that you need to provide tools for your business consumers that are as compelling as what they can find on their own -- and maybe, just maybe, even better -- and the notion that if you don't, employees will take things into their own hands and find their own tools.

There was a big difference between the conversations I heard at the AIIM conference in March and what I heard this week. At AIIM, I heard a lot of open hostility toward the changes that are wracking IT. But the people at the Gartner conference seemed open to hearing about these changes and how to deal -- even if they were confused about how to get started. 

They recognized the trends, too. They see what's happening in their organizations and the power that users feel with that smartphone in their pockets and the ability to get apps that help them get their jobs done. It's easy. It's quick, and it's often free or very low cost, meaning it doesn't take a huge investment for the business consumer -- notice I didn't say user -- to find a tool, download it, and get to work.

An argument for getting in the way

I heard a lot of suggestions that if business consumers are getting work done, then why get in their way? If they have found tools they like, and they are in the field making their customers happy, why would you want to stop that?

The issue is one of risk and reward.

If you let business consumers choose their own tools, you reduce your control over the data and information that originates in your company. This risk is particularly pronounced in our litigation-crazy country and in highly regulated industries. The answer from the vendor community, whether HP, Laserfiche, Citrix, or Box is to try and provide a more secure experience using tools similar to those found in the consumer world.

But this approach relies on IT to balance user experience with security. As one person put it to me, what kept him up at night was the idea that IT could make the security so tight on his company's tool, that it would negate many of the qualities that made it as easy to use as consumer tools.

Kimberly Samuelson, marketing director at Laserfiche, said when you have that tension, it's best not to play into the emotions on both sides of the argument. Instead, look for a way that both can feel comfortable. She suggested one way to do that is to build a maturity model.

You can start with Phase 1, where everything is on premise, and then maybe in Phase 2 put some content in the cloud. As you get more comfortable with the idea, you layer on more mobile, cloud, and social pieces. She says when you use this approach, it takes the emotion out of the equation.

Dan Carmel, who is head of ECM Strategy and Solutions for Autonomy called for "judicious and intelligent application of these technologies." In his view, there's nothing wrong with letting your employees use cloud and mobile tools, but there needs to be a governance and security framework with some boundaries and ability to monitor what employees are doing with them.

But where are those boundaries, and how much freedom do you provide those business consumers within that framework? The answer is probably different for every company, and even for different employees within a given department or across an organization.

Those business consumers, most of whom are prefectly capable of finding the tools that work best for them without IT, may not be willing to wait for you to figure this out. They may not even make a conscious decision to go their own way. They're simply finding tools to do a job.

It's a partnership

One thing most people seem to recognize at this conference is that the days of command and control and racking and stacking are fading fast. You have to partner up with business consumers and help them understand that you still have business issues that matter -- and you can find places where both of you can find common ground or compromise.

Just remember this is all going on against a backdrop of change and disruption that lends a greater sense of urgency to your task. You can't take forever because an upstart (or even an established competitor) who is faster and more agile, and willing to embrace an all digital lifestyle, might just be breathing down your neck, while you sit around and talk about it.

That applies even more pressure to these companies. At Gartner the attendees got this. They didn't have clear answers, but at least they understood that there are questions -- and that's a huge step from what I've seen before.

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