Fighting the battle for common sense

If we were supposed to fly, we'd have been born with wings. That's the attitude some businesspeople have toward technology, and it's killing our bottom lines. Can the IT professional save the day?

“To me, a computer is nothing more than a television with a typewriter stuck underneath it.” When I was a programmer for a law firm, that’s exactly what one of the partners said to me. We were in a meeting called to discuss whether and how we should create a database to help keep track of the documents in an important case.

You’d expect to hear something like that come out of a businessperson’s mouth 15 years ago, which was when that meeting occurred. But it’s 2000 going on 2001—and still there are businesspeople who refuse to embrace technology, who ignore common sense, and who cling pathetically to the “old ways.”

It’s up to us—the IT professionals of the world—to convince those nincompoops to get a clue and join us in the 21st century. But it isn’t easy.

Sometimes you win…
In 1985, I convinced that partner to approve building a database. The associates, paralegals, and I designed the data-entry form, and the attorney was sold on the benefits of automation the first time I ran a simple report that listed all the documents that contained certain key words. Generating that kind of report the “old way” (manually) would have taken hours and hours. In that case, technology had an immediate, positive effect on the “bottom line” of the law practice. It gave our firm a huge advantage over firms who were still using manual systems to track documents.

That event took place when personal computers had only been on the market for a short time. All of you old-timers can probably tell similar stories about how you had to overcome the “FUD factor” (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) when you tried to convert paper-based systems to a computer-based system in your organizations. But I’d like to know what you think about the following case study.

…and sometimes you lose
Here’s the deal. I have a friend who works as an IT support technician for one of the largest employers in Cincinnati. A manager in that organization put in an urgent request for tech support because an ancient dot-matrix printer was acting up. “We’ve got to have this printer up and running NOW,” the manager cried, “I have to run my weekly reports!”

The support tech tried to do the right thing. First, he fixed the dinosaur printer. Then he made this suggestion: “Whydon’tyouletmebringyouupanicenewlaserprinterforthoseweeklyreports?

The manager blew a gasket, freaked out, and went off the deep end. “I don’t need a laser printer. This printer works fine!” In following up with the people who worked in that department, however, the support tech discovered the ugly truth about the problems that printer was causing:
  • Time. That printer took forever to print anything at all. It was slow. It jammed frequently.
  • Attitude. In addition to being slow, that printer was LOUD! The people working in that department despised that printer. Theyresentedtheirbossformakingthemusethatprinter. They resented the fact that they were stuck using it when people in other departments all over the company enjoyed the luxury of using speedy, quiet laser printers.
  • Money. That printer was costing the company money. How? Once the infamous weekly reports finally came off the printer, they had to be photocopied and distributed. And guess what? They were ILLEGIBLE!! Week in and week out, the people to whom copies were distributed called and complained that they couldn’t read the copies. So they wasted their time trying to read the reports in the first place, and then they wasted even more time by calling and complaining about the illegible copies. How did the people in that department handle those complaints? Theywastedevenmoretimebecausetheeasiest“fix”wassimplytorunadditionalsetsoforiginalreportsonthatblastedprinter!

I wish I was making this story up, but it gets worse! The support tech tried one more time to plead the case for a new printer with the manager responsible for those weekly reports. It turned out that the software that generates the reports would only need a little bit of tweaking in order to print correctly on a laser printer—tweaking that the tech could accomplish in a matter of hours.

But the manager just said no. “I can’t afford to have any down time in this department! It’ll cost too much to retrain all of my people to use it!”

Sothebattlewaslost. The dot-matrix printer still keeps sucking the life out the people in that department and costing the company untold thousands of dollars in lost productivity—all because some complete idiot refuses to exercise a little bit of common sense.

What would you do?
Have you had to deal with non-technical managers who refused to embrace technology? Did you bang your fist on a desk and make an argument for the change you wanted to make? Or did you take the politically treacherous approach of going over the person’s head to someone higher-up in the organizational chart?

If you have any advice to give your fellow IT support professionals on how to deal with those people who are utterly clueless about technology, we want to hear from you. Please post a comment below or drop us a note.
Each Tuesday, Jeff Davis tells it like he sees it from the trenches of the IT battle. And you can get his report from the frontlines delivered straight to your e-mail front door. Subscribe to Jeff's View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you'll get a bonus of Jeff's picks for the best Web stuff—exclusively for our TechMail subscribers.

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