Guerrilla IT: How to stop worrying and love your superusers

Your organization is filled with IT rogues and tech renegades. Here's how best to embrace them

Here's a sobering statistic: Eighty per cent of enterprise IT functions are being duplicated by folks outside of the IT department, says Hank Marquis, director of ITSM (IT systems management) consulting at Enterprise Management Associates. In other words, for every 10 people doing IT work as part of their jobs, you've got another eight "shadow IT" staffers doing it on their own.

You probably know them. They're the ones who installed their own Wi-Fi network in the break room and distribute homemade number-crunching apps to their coworkers on e-mail. They're hacking their iPhones right now to work with your company's mail servers. In short, they're walking, talking IT governance nightmares.

But they could be your biggest assets, if you use them wisely.

The reason superusers go rogue is usually frustration, says Marquis. "It's a symptom of the IT organization being unable to meet or even understand the needs of its customers," he says. "Otherwise, it wouldn't be happening."

The solution? Put them to work.

"Most IT managers have too many requirements and not enough time or budget to get everything done and keep everyone happy," says Jeffrey Hammond, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "If your infrastructure is flexible enough, you can let superusers solve their own problems, take the heat off your developers, and provide some of your business needs."

Here are five tips for getting the most out of your superusers.

Tip No. 1: Leverage the knowledge -- without the noise

If you want to find out where IT operations fall short, ask your superusers. Most will be more than happy to give you an earful. But figuring out who your superusers are -- and which ones are worth listening to -- is trickier than it may first appear.

That's because there are in fact two kinds of superusers. One is the geek who loves technology for its own sake and deep down really wants to be an IT person. He or she will do whatever it takes to get the job done without waiting for IT to sign off.

But there are also superusers who may not necessarily possess a wealth of technical knowledge but eat, breathe, and sleep a particular application -- whether it's your in-house accounting tool or your hosted CRM solution. They're your primary internal customers.

The problem? The geeks tend to squawk the loudest and to focus on minutiae, says Rachel Happe, research manager for the digital business economy practice at IDC. But it's the application hounds whose voices matter most.

"You'll get an overwhelming amount of feedback from people who are being very thorough but not necessarily thinking about an application's primary- and secondary-use models," Happe says. "You end up with a preponderance of edge cases."

To counteract "the loud crowd," Happe advises organizations to examine log files to find out who uses the applications most often, and then shoulder surf -- watching superusers work and asking them questions about what they're doing and why.

"You want to develop an anthropological understanding of what your customers do," Happe says. You also need to identify those who should be superusers but aren't because the current version of the application is too difficult to use, she adds.

Happe acknowledges that organizations may be reluctant to dedicate limited staff time to watching their own employees, but the alternative is millions of dollars spent on developing applications nobody uses.

"If you've got an ERP system, the accounting department has to use it whether they like it or not," Happe says. But as organizations start to deploy less structured communications-style tools such as BI or CRM apps, that changes.

"If they don't like the tool, you can't force them to use it," Happe warns. "And the only way to drive business value out of application deployment is regular usage."

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