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Finding the Balance Between User Creativity and System Controls

By Tim Tisdale, CTO & Co-Founder, ThoughtBridge

It’s the age-old question. How much freedom do you give users when it comes to IT systems? In the past, this question was not an issue discussed during IT meetings. Most systems were mainframe- based and transaction-oriented. Changes made were planned well ahead of time with many controls and checks in place. I can remember when PCs were a novelty and networks were based on protocols other than TCP/IP. The Internet has changed the approach on how we think about systems forever. Every day, I see business leaders’ priorities shifting from thinking about IT as an unfortunate cost they have to incur, to instead, a strategy for winning the race against competition.

The ability to process information, find the answer and make an important move before your competitor is at the top of the mind in every strategy meeting. However, one of the big areas that I see missing in a lot of planning and strategy sessions is unlocking the wealth of information in their most important asset – their people. On numerous occasions, I have heard comments from IT staff about their lack of confidence in the ability for end-users to manage information. Comments such as, “Our systems would be flawless if we didn't have users to deal with” or comments about, “What a disaster it would be to enable users to have this right or that feature enabled.” Yes, it's true, that in the past, even if they could figure it out, enabling users to make a change to a mainframe application or one of the numerous structured ERP systems that we've spent millions on, probably, would have been a disaster. Today is a different time. Life is fast, business is fast and decisions have to be fast. There are numerous new technologies being employed and used by users today, most as a result of the Internet. Remember when everyone thought that you had to have a master Navigation menu for finding information on a web-based platform or that you had to be an HTML developer to publish information on the Internet? Excite, Yahoo, Wikipedia and other technologies changed our culture and our way of thinking about that.

One thing I have always wondered about is why don't we see more of these innovations cross into corporate systems? Years after these innovations have happened, business leaders of medium to large corporations are just now exploring these technologies, but still with hesitation. I can say that I haven't seen that problem with small companies. Why is that? Is it because the bigger we get, the more controls we put in place? What if a large corporation implemented innovations as quickly as a small company? What technology would support an environment where employees could use technology to create new innovations and form it to the way they do business? In my opinion, one of the greatest additions to corporate systems that can be game changing is the latest round of collaboration platforms available to corporations right now. One platform in particular that has gained mass appeal is Microsoft's SharePoint platform. I have followed this platform over the years and recently have witnessed how dramatic the impact is when this technology is adopted and embraced as a strategy. More importantly, placing the emphasis on the adoption and empowerment of the technology by end-users as a strategy.

For the first time, business users have a set of web-based tools to create their own ‘mini-systems’ that can live in between the more expensive ‘structured systems.’ These mini-systems are built by the person who knows the most about their business – themselves. New efficiencies happen when a user configures the tool to match ‘the way that they do business’ while still being maintained on a safe and secure central server. The platform is basically a large collection of ‘information gathering’ and ‘information sharing’ tools layered with workflow, search, personalization and numerous other capabilities that I don't want to list here.

My whole point of this article is, what happens when we don’t trust these users and allow them to work with these new technologies? What if we don't embrace the new wave of corporate social networking by thinking that users will lose productivity with these new advances? I feel that the time has come to rethink the way we approach business systems. One of my favorite analogies is that if you build a brick wall next to a tree, the tree doesn’t stop growing; its branches will just grow in the opposite direction. The way people share information is a lot like that. As business leaders, we can either continue to build walls or tear them down and enable users to innovate. Empowering people has always been the best resource for innovation. Will you embrace it first or will your competitor?

Tim Tisdale is CTO and Co-Founder of ThoughtBridge, an innovative business-improvement and application-consulting firm that bridges the gap between business and technology by helping clients visualize, organize and manage corporate information by leveraging Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 (MOSS 2007). He has over 18 years of technology leadership and business experience gained through his representation of various successful corporations throughout the state of Georgia. As the think-tank behind ThoughtBridge, Tim is responsible for the vision and strategy around the technologies and solutions the firm specializes in. He has created service divisions and Internet companies, led corporate IT divisions and served as a CTO for a billion-dollar corporation. During the .com revolution, Tim invented and executed a click to brick ecommerce strategy for a national corporation that is still in use and profitable today. For article feedback, contact Tim at ttisdale@thoughtbc.com 

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