No, this isn’t clickbait. This is one of those “in the pub” moments where you have a sudden epiphany that links together two situations or events that seemed to be completely and utterly unconnected. I’m not sure what the term for it is (alcoholics might refer to it as “a moment of clarity”). But anyway, in all seriousness, what lessons can enterprise IT staff from the rise to power of a certain Donald J Trump in the United States?
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, you might have failed to notice that in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, outsider Republican candidate Donald Trump emerged victorious in a battle that no-one in the media seriously expected him to win. His defeated opponent was career politician Hillary Clinton, a member of one of America’s biggest Democratic political dynasties and the clear favourite for most of the run-in. Coupled with the “Brexit” vote in the UK, which ran along similar unexpected result lines, it’s clear that underlying factors were in play that many of those within the corridors of power and also the media had completely missed, or even possibly ignored.
This isn’t intended to be a politically-charged article by any means, so please don’t take it as that. But the point I’m trying to make depends on touching briefly upon what are, in general opinion, considered the main reasons for such an unexpected result. Trump’s victory has been put down, in part, to a failure of the political elites to stay in touch with the heartlands of working-class middle America, instead gauging the mood of public opinion based merely on the liberal metropolises of the US coastal areas. In the UK too, a perception had grown amongst a sizeable subset of the population that the metropolitan liberals of London and its boroughs had chosen to concentrate their policies on people within a particular demographic area, policies that failed to reflect the problems and concerns of those outside of that zone. Another driver toward this, many agree, is that the habit of labelling voters who chose to reject the established political norms as uneducated or extremist only served to fuel the fire of dissatisfaction that was burning within a section of the voter base. This is also most likely the reason for the complete inaccuracy of polls in the run-up to the pertinent votes. In essence, votes for Trump or for Brexit became “protest votes”, a kickback against an established political order that appeared to be ignoring the valid concerns of many ordinary people.
Does I.T. have the same problems?
I.T. departments can, on occasion, suffer from a deep-rooted cultural mindset that can give rise to similar issues. In many enterprises, I sometimes see the race to embrace the latest and greatest technologies working at odds to the core mission of any I.T. department – which is to provide users with a reliable service that allows them to get their job done in the simplest and most optimal way. Whereas a government’s first duty is to provide security and safety to its citizens, an I.T. department must strive to provision the applications and data that their users require whilst not detracting from the entire “user experience”. Sometimes this core principle gets lost as I.T. strategy moves too far towards fulfilling other – dare I say, sometimes political – objectives.
A case in point concerns a business I had some dealings with. A long-time Citrix environment, they spent a great deal of time and money moving away from Citrix because a small number of vocal executives had continually voiced their dissatisfaction with certain elements of the service and the overall cost. But in moving away from their thin client environment – and also scoring themselves media brownie points as they proudly announced publicly that they’d completed their migration to a full Windows 10 implementation – they lost sight of the bigger picture. Without the Citrix environment, large swathes of their ordinary users began to suffer from performance issues that previously had never existed, losing the ICA technology they’d relied on to provide solid application and printing services to remote locations. Windows 10 introduced legacy application problems that – this time without the media fanfare – eventually involved the re-commissioning of a XenApp 5 environment to mitigate against this. The entire project was tainted by a failure to engage with ordinary users and a formulation of strategy based around satisfying a vocal minority and pursuing a goal of “being first to deliver Windows 10”. Like career politicians ensuring that they landed high-paying non-executive directorships once their brief political career came to a finish, the strategists were guilty of concentrating on showing that they’d achieved a particular end without caring about the effects of this end on the wider user base.
Of course, this particular case represents a failure of the top level of the organizational structure, but it can run deeper than the high-level strategists. Like the Democrats in America and the Remain campaign in the UK, who both had a predilection for hurling nasty barbs at those who they perceived to be on the other side of the debate, there is a tendency among I.T. staff to label users as idiots, to disregard their concerns because they don’t have the education or technical skills that make their opinions in any way valid. This is dangerous ground to be on. Whilst most users do not have deep technical skills, more and more are capable of adopting and embracing new services to suit their own needs, thanks to the proliferation of SaaS apps and mobile applications. Dismissing their concerns out-of-hand leads to the I.T. department being viewed in the same way as the established political elites in the US and UK – as out-of-touch with their core demographic, focused on their own agendas and not addressing the day-to-day issues that people are suffering with. And when users feel disenfranchised in this way, they will react – often in ways that can be unintentionally harmful. In politics, they’ve gravitated to the rhetoric of Donald Trump, who is promising to solve their immigration concerns by building walls. In I.T., they may reject problematic services like SharePoint in favour of easy-to-find, easy-to-use services like DropBox. In both instances, there are unforeseen effects that can be caused by these behaviours – community division from the prospect of “Trump’s Wall”, security issues from putting corporate intellectual property into a public service like DropBox.
What can we learn?
Both political parties and I.T. departments can learn from this by doing more to reconnect with their users. This is not to say that users should drive I.T. strategy in its entirety, nor should Brexit voters be expected to negotiate the terms of the separation from the EU. However, there sometimes needs to be more effort into discovering, understanding and addressing the issues that affect users on a day-to-day basis. There also needs to be more communication between the lower levels of the I.T. organizational structure and those formulating strategic objectives. In the case mentioned above, it was revealed that the “anti-Citrix” lobby amongst the C-Level executives had no understanding that the ICA protocol provided such performance improvements to their remote sites – they simply believed putting raw thick client compute power on each desk would solve every issue they had. This is a failure on a number of levels, but in enterprises with complicated structures and compartmentalized teams who each only care about fulfilling their own objectives, it is the sort of thing that can happen.
Engaging more with users requires efforts that consume resource and time. Roadshows, PoCs, steering groups – there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction and involving users within the testing and selection process for new features and applications. But there is also simply generating the feeling that people’s concerns are being listened to. If you explain to a user why using DropBox is not such a good idea from a security standpoint, and do so in layman’s terms, then there is a good chance they will feel much more comfortable with using a corporate alternative once they understand what risks they are taking.
You can utilize various monitoring technologies to proactively assess user experience metrics and the entire health of the user endpoint – LakeSide SysTrack, Aternity, Nexthink, Extrahop are a few examples of solutions in this crowded space – but ideally they should be used in conjunction with end-user engagement, rather than a replacement for it. Rather like politicians relied exclusively on polls or Twitter posts to gauge public opinion, instead of going out and meeting the voters, technical solutions aren’t the best way to make people feel like their concerns are being addressed. They can definitely complement them, but interaction goes a very long way to making your users feel like their I.T. staff are working for them, not in spite of them.