Frankly Speaking :Let the users do it

It's time for corporate IT shops to get back to the serious business of unloading as much work as possible on users. No, really - we should be continually shifting routine tasks from our plate to theirs. Technology and users' increasing technical sophistication make that possible. These days, users generate reports, rework user interfaces and create Web sites - things that once would have required navigating a six-month IT-shop backlog and three levels of managerial approval. Now users do those tasks from their PCs every day.

Because they do, we don't have to. And the more we can get them to do, the fewer of our resources we burn on routine tasks and the more we have for making new technology useful to the business.

At a trade show recently, I ran into an old vendor under a new name. Blaze Software has some application development tools designed to let users do routine maintenance on applications. Specifically, it lets them change the business rules in the application without requiring programmers.

(Programmers do have to build the applications to start with. But once they're done, routine maintenance like changing what kind of customer gets a discount or when to deny credit can be handled by ordinary mortals.)Maybe this sounds familiar: It's a lot like the business-rules-based technology that a company called Neuron Data offered a decade ago, back in the days when the list of fourth-generation languages didn't begin and end with Visual Basic. That's no surprise - Blaze is really just Neuron Data with a new coat of paint, new management and an IPO.

But it's still a good idea - in fact, maybe a better idea now that users are used to revising spreadsheets and tweaking off-the-shelf software themselves.

We don't actually need Blaze to do it. We just need to decide from now on to build our applications as user-maintainable as we can.

Why? Not just because it means less work for us. Not even because it gives users more control over their tools - and they're the ones who know what those tools need to do and how, in ways we'll never completely relate to.

We simply can't afford to do lots of routine maintenance, not if we're going to deliver the projects that only IT can drive, like B2B e-commerce and full-blown supply-chain integration. That's where we're creating value.

But we have limited budgets and bodies. The more mechanical, routine tasks we do, the fewer high-profile, high-benefit things we can deliver. We're stuck with some tasks - help desks and bug fixes will be with us forever. But what we can get users to do, we should.

Because the more we do - the more work we hand over to users - the more time and resources we'll have for doing the really goodstuff.

* Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at and e-mail to for publication.

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