Many IT Pros can relate to the the Lone Ranger. With the aid of but one trusty side kick, the Lone Ranger stands to protect the unsuspecting townsfolk from the wayward derelicts that plagued the American frontier. He also ate bacon three meals a day.
Like the Lone Ranger, IT Pros ride the fast-paced trail of the business environment, protecting key business systems from improper access and malcontent users. We’re often alone in our quest for data integrity, the lone voice standing out against complete and utter data anarchy. And we love bacon!
Ok, I maybe overstating the issue slightly. Most users don’t awaken each morning with the hopes of bringing complete and utter data anarchy to our systems. They simply need something that’s beyond the current capability of the system. So they make do as best they can.
Some store data in Excel spreadsheets or Access databases (gasp!). Most of these secondary systems start off as a simple way to help one user track certain data. Over time, however, they can grow and spread like wet Gremlins. A second user discovers the existence of the neat new work-around. Then another, and another.
The next thing you know, the single-user, temporary, and unplanned work-around has become a team-level or department-level mission critical system. It’s frequently inaccessible to others who would benefit from the data, it’s difficult to back up, and it’s now yours to support.
All of this leads to disparate systems and silos of data. Maintenance becomes difficult; accurate reporting, impossible.
Other users get creative with how they store data in the system. They find and exploit areas of the supported system to accomplish what they need to do. Sometimes they shove multiple pieces of data into one column; for example, they store two are three email addresses in the one allotted field. Or worse, they save two completely different types of data in one field; for instance storing a telephone number and an email address in the email address field.
Users can also repurpose an existing column for their own use under certain circumstances. They may put the customer’s email address in the P.O. Box field if they customer doesn’t have a P.O. Box.
Both techniques make producing reliable reports from the nearly impossible. Some of this can be controlled with data validation, but not perfectly. Users can still find ways around most protective measures.
Why, oh why, do they do this to us? Don’t they realize that taking such liberties with data makes it impossible to have consistent and dependable information? Surely they’ve heard “Garbage In, Garbage Out” Oh, but they do it anyway.
But before we lash out and condemn them for making our lives miserable, we should first look in the mirror to see if any of the blame lies with us.
Have their requests for changes to the supported system continually fallen on deaf ears? Are their changes perpetually on priority level D? Have they asked for a newer version of the supported software, but been denied because we’re too busy to test and install it? Do we default to no rather than to yes?
Unfortunately in many organizations, the IT department has an almost antagonistic relationship with the departments and people they support. This is counterproductive, both to the organization and to our own goals. It makes life difficult for everyone.
So, don’t be the Lone Ranger. Reach out and work with users to support their goals. Strive to understand their needs and then look at the technology and processes that may help to fulfill those needs. You won’t be able to solve all of their problems, but building that relationship will help to solve some of your own problems.