Swept Away by the Geek Whirlwind?

Quite by coincidence as I’m writing this (I came up with the title last night), a remnant Tsunami that devastated Japan is just now hitting Hawaii — with apparently far less devastating effects. But, in fact, this column was inspired by something far more trivial (yet, somehow, related — at least that’s how it feels): the transition of EMA’s website and Outlook server with nothing very elaborate on it, i.e., more Web 1.0 than 2.0.

The switchover occurred six days ago and the rippling tremors of that are still being felt, with bouncing messages and calendar anomalies. So far this has made everyday an adventure — missed meetings, meetings that moved, and failed communications all the way around. While I’ve been probably one of the least impacted, yesterday I was reduced to throwing a paper cup against the wall (about a third full with cold water) after an hour of fruitless icon clicking and three separate service calls just to restore my calendar. Which leads me to believe that there must be a market for movie dishes — the kind that really give you satisfaction when you hurl them at the meeting room wall — but don’t cut anyone.

The “whirlwind” I’m referring to is really a much larger phenomenon than a switched server for website hosting and email. It has to do with what I’ll call geekdom vs. real people (not to show my true colors too explicitly). The Geekdom Whirlwind isn’t all bad and, far more than many of us predicted, it has actually changed how people work and play with a rapidity that any mid-20th Century sociologist would have found astonishing or maybe even unbelievable.

But we also live at a time of over inflated geekdom where expectations in social networking are, for instance, likely to settle into something a lot less glamorous than they may appear at first, and new tools to keep us constantly current and “in-touch” may crash against the larger need to think, live lives and actually do work. This may take some time, but if we don’t make this transition we’re all in for a lot more trouble than any IT organization could ever fix.

I’m writing this because, of course, many IT organizations are culturally still driven by geekdom, rather than harvesting what’s most creative and beneficial in the techno-culture; with results that are predictably disruptive and frustrating to their consumers. Moreover, I would posit that there are rather consistent design points around the geekdom imagination that affect actual software application interaction, as well as how real people are expected to cope with IT change.

Complexity vs. usability – This is nothing new, especially in the arena of management software (networks/systems, apps, etc.) that EMA focuses on. But technology-driven approaches to new releases invariably result in additive functionality that almost no one uses, and virtually no one needs. Having an excess of functionality — no matter how well packaged and designed — comes at a price.

Even when icons are good, they become more numerous, and hence more perplexing. Just the requirement to make an unanticipated choice slows down user interaction. Every drop down menu poses mysteries to new users and then houses mysteries within mysteries as successive mini menus appear. Since most end users aren’t really geeks by nature (or aspiration) these exploratory actions are in fact not fun. Rather, they may remind those of us with some liberal arts in our backgrounds of Winston Churchill’s summary of Russian history: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Change is disruptive by definition – Right. Change can be good. And by Q1 2011, we all should know that we need to be change-ready individuals. On the other hand, when it comes to day to day work rhythms, change is, by definition, disruptive.

When software is upgraded and impacts work processes without warning or notification the results are, once again, predictably bad. The idea that there’s new functionality available, or that the OS is cleaner (Oh, joy!) really doesn’t do much when people and sometimes entire organizations are caught in the equivalent of communications sand traps.

People don’t like to spend time compensating for software transitions that should have been seamless. I know this sounds obvious but a part of geek culture is a fundamental failure to grasp the fact that real human beings don’t like tinkering with software and many of us quickly come to loath the process. In our case, technology support actually told one of our secretaries to go in and reschedule every meeting for the entire company. This is the abridged version of her note:

“OMG! OMG! OMG!!!!!!!!! First I open the old appointment, and then I retype the names of all the invitees PLUS (Joe Blow). I then send it out. After that I accept it as (Joe Blow) and once the appointment lands on his calendar, I drag it to the new company calendar and delete the identical meeting that says ‘copy.’ I then delete it from (Joe’s) calendar. Agggghh!”

Timing should be business-driven, not geek-driven – One of the hallmarks of geekdom is a passion for new functionality. To some degree this is natural and healthy. It’s part of the pride in creativity that’s put high technology on super steroids for the past four decades. But just because new functionality is available, doesn’t mean it’s needed or wanted.

Once you remember that all change is disruptive, managing change to support business processes becomes a matter of sober planning, not raw enthusiasm. And, of course, the flip side to this is to understand what functionality business users actually want! We all talk about this, but the process, ITIL aside, is far from being well defined by the industry as a whole. It remains in most cases ad hoc at best, if it exists at all, and still depends tremendously on your leadership as an IT executive, and your willingness to explore and promote more creative dialogs proactively, rather than reactively, with the business you support.

I’m sure this list of geek vs. real people mind sets is far from complete and welcome all of your thoughts and additions.

Dennis Drogseth is VP of Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates, an industry research firm focused on IT management. Dennis can be reached at [email protected].