Faculty, administration and students at the University of Toronto have complaints about the IT staff that are similar to complaints end users have in many corporations: The IT staff disrupts their lives rather than makes them better.

"They upgraded my PC with Windows XP, and I can't find any of my files," is one of the complaints from end users documented by Marden Paul, the university's director of strategic computing.

The answer, he says, is better communication between the people who install and maintain the technology, and those who use it in their jobs. That is the task Paul was hired to carry out, but it's not easy. With no direct authority to demand anything, he is charged with making the university's decentralized IT departments work together.

"What I can accomplish is based on moral suasion. I perform the Socratic gadfly function: I run around among people and ask questions. I bring people together to get them to work together," he says.

The challenge Marden and others face is three-fold:

1. Users feel IT staff just doesn't get how much they can negatively impact their lives.

2. IT Staff feels users are naive about technology and underappreciate what IT does.

3. There is no easy way to resolve these mutual misunderstandings.

Users want a say, too
As end users demand more from technology, there is an increasing need for jobs like Paul's, says Joan Mann, a professor at Old Dominion University and an IT management consultant. She says users are pushing back to the point of using contract clauses to limit the number of software revisions allowed per year and filing grievances that say they are forced to use new technology without end users approving it first.

Mann has identified what she calls an IT-user gap that needs to be filled, and in some cases that means hiring a person to fill a hybrid position such as Paul's that is neither IT nor part of an organization's business staff.

But the task can also be handled by people within IT departments who are chosen not for their technology skills but for their ability to interact successfully with others. Or, the job can be delegated to users with a technology bent who understand the business needs of the organization and articulate whether IT meets those needs, she says.

Massachusetts government is embracing the first alternative: a group of IT professionals known as relationship managers, says Peter Quinn, the commonwealth's CIO. These managers are assigned to specific state departments. It is their business to know the business goals of their departments and successfully supply them with the appropriate technology.

"They should be in front of customers all the time," Quinn says of the relationship managers. "They should almost never be at their desks." One of the best went to all staff meetings at the agency he was assigned to in order to get inside their mind-set, he says.

Influencing practices and skills
Written and verbal communications skills and negotiating finesse are the skills Quinn seeks for his relationship managers. "They have to get things done via influencing practices rather than a hammer and tongs," he says.

The College of New Jersey in Ewing uses the model of end-user departmental liaisons to the IT staff to improve the delivery of technical services, says Jeff Kerswill, the school's director of user support services. Academic departments choose these people to communicate the departments' needs to the IT staff, he says.

Generally, the liaisons demonstrate an interest in technology and have good relations with the faculty in their departments, Kerswill says. These liaisons provide IT with an insight into user thinking, and help spread the word among users about IT projects and what to expect from them.

On the IT side, the College of New Jersey has a team of support specialists who are assigned to particular departments similar to the Massachusetts model. "We're looking for people who have very good interpersonal skills and the ability to juggle responsibilities. They may have 25 different faculty calling about 25 different projects, and we look for how they would prioritize," Kerswill says.

Mann says it is important for IT to address the IT-user gap because users are pushing harder against technology changes when they don't fully understand them. "We just can't drop technology on someone's desk anymore and expect them to accept it," she says. "They're not willing to accept arbitrary changes that don't make sense to them."

What's your rep with the users?
To avoid the pitfalls, IT departments can take action, Mann says. First, they should find out what their reputation is among users. For instance, complaints at the University of Toronto included that IT staff uses "tech speak" too often, so it cannot be understood. It also doesn't adequately communicate why users should be concerned about viruses and other threats, Paul found.

Once IT departments become aware of any pitfalls, they need to identify who their customers are, identify what their needs are and fulfill them, which is the main goal of any IT organization, Mann says. Then they need to communicate clearly what they are doing to meet those needs, says Kathleen VanScoyoc, a consultant with Mann at Adept Solutions Global. The more formal interactions between users and IT, the better, she says.

When IT succeeds, it needs to advertise it, she says. "Do IT departments do reputation (enforcing) activities and impression management activities? They should," VanScoyoc says. "Market yourself so users know you did a good job."

If an IT department has a good reputation and something goes wrong, it can enjoy a halo effect that will mitigate disappointment over the shortcomings of subsequent projects, she says. Without that good reputation, users won't show any mercy. "One bad thing and everyone talks about it," VanScoyoc says. "It takes 10 good things before someone will say something good about you."