Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Technology projects require end-user input

February 25, 2012

The biggest problems in technology aren’t due to technology. The biggest problems arise from how the technology is applied. As we used to say in a career I had long ago, you can hammer a nail with your shoe, but it’s not particularly efficient. Unfortunately, too many technology users are doing just that.

I can’t count the number of projects I’ve seen fail because the people supplying the technology didn’t understand how the users needed that technology applied. Stories abound from every organization about disappointments with new software, even software that was written expressly for the organization’s needs. Developers write software or create databases for lawyers, doctors, scientists and factory workers without ever talking with a lawyer, a doctor, a scientist or a factory worker.

What’s been needed for a long time is a hybrid profession that combines technology with the business areas technology is supposed to serve. I’ve written before about business analysts, and they’re one solution to the problem. Another is the new field of informatics.

Informatics is a hybrid study, combining knowledge of a commercial field with the ability to apply technology in that field. That’s why you find a plethora of adjectives in front of the word “informatics” when doing a search for the term. There are legal informatics, health informatics, bioinformatics, hydroinformatics, social informatics, engineering informatics, and more than two dozen more listed in Wikipedia, and probably more than that by now.

Informatics, as should be apparent, is a relatively hot field. A search for “informatics” and “Indiana” on indeed.com, a jobs listing site, came back with more than 100 hits. Yet, a quick informal survey of colleagues revealed no consensus on what “informatics” was. For some people, “informatics” is apparently a cue to put on a puzzled frown.

Despite the widespread ignorance about the term, there are two campuses of Indiana University awarding informatics degrees: Bloomington and IUPUI. Both have schools of informatics, although Bloomington’s includes computer science, too. Strangely, neither school has a good definition of “informatics.”

The Bloomington school says informatics is “putting technology to work to solve complex problems.” I thought that’s what I did when I constructed a spreadsheet, but apparently not. The IUPUI School of Informatics takes a more determined stab at a real definition, saying informatics is “the study and application of information technology to the arts, science and professions, and to its use in organizations and society at large.”

Elsewhere, the American Library Association chimes in with a similar message: Informatics is “the study of the structure and properties of information, as well as the application of technology to the organization, storage, retrieval, and dissemination of information.”

The degree requirements give a hint of what informatics is all about. Each student is expected to declare an area of specialization outside of the School of Informatics. That might be in business, psychology, law, computer science, almost anything that might require a heavy dose of data and could benefit from a more savvy use of technology.

Graduates are expected to create websites, databases, applications and user interfaces that actually do what users would like them to do, rather than what programmers think people ought to want.

To me, the move toward better applications of technology is heartily welcome. The waste from poorly thought-out and poorly managed projects is immense. The Standish Group estimated in 2009 that only 32 percent of all IT projects came in on time, on budget, and with the required functionality. Another 24 percent were complete failures, being canceled before being rolled out.

I can personally attest to many failures that were somewhere between the two extremes. These were systems that were rolled out with fanfare only to wither as users found polite ways to avoid using them. Industry surveys consistently find that new software costs considerably more to maintain than users anticipated, and that around 40 percent of all projects don’t return the expected business value. In the aggregate, this invisible slippage has been estimated to cost some $50 billion or more per year.

It’s irritating that the solutions are so often simple ones. Involve the users and design expressly for them, not for management. Assign a project manager who has the right to bite when things aren’t being done on time. Write sensible requirements that are ranked according to priority. Perform technical feasibility analysis before launching the project. Hire business analysts and informatics graduates to help define functionality from the user viewpoint.

Even small projects can benefit from using these steps in the process. Projects today are too expensive to simply toss technology onto the user base in the hopes that it will return value. Technology isn’t a panacea. But the closer it can be tailored to the needs of business users, the more money it will return.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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