The User Whisperer

In the company where I work we have a "user whisperer" in the IS group. His name is Michael, and when I first experienced his gentle, patient ministrations, I was in a righteous lather over some typically baffling instance of misbehaving technology. Michael sized me up and saw the obvious danger. Acting quickly, he summoned the "calm voice of sanity" that one reserves for use on the incipiently psychotic. At first I was resentful-someone was wrongly depriving me of the necessary resistance that is the fuel for a good fit of anger. Instead of tensing, Michael relaxed. Instead of ordering me to chill out, he assumed the demeanor of an "understander," of someone prepared to feel my pain. (He may even have said, "Gosh, Lew, that must be frustrating," though I can't be sure.) Eventually, my anger blew itself out against Michael's oddly unbaitable serenity. Then he fixed my problem, thanked me for my patience and expressed the hope that the whole ordeal hadn't been too upsetting to me. "No," I said very carefully. "It was fine." (Vaguely, I wondered whether a suitably "concerned" report on my near- breakdown would be prepared and sent over to HR.) I thought this was an isolated example of Michael rising to the occasion until I later compared notes with other users. "Oh, yeah, he does that with me too," all of them said. And that's when I christened him "the user whisperer," after the guy (played by Robert Redford in the movie The Horse Whisperer) who "gentles" unruly horses by using a similarly calming technique.

It is the fate of IS groups to be judged-often quite harshly-on the basis of individual user interactions such as mine with Michael. They add up to the fabric of reputation that persists through all sorts of changes at the top of the IS function itself. Most employees' view of technology is rooted more in these one-on-one "help desk" relationships than in a sophisticated understanding of whether the enterprise's use of strategic technology is being wisely shepherded. In fact, there are two technology functions in most organizations: the one that enhances competitive performance and the other that simply keeps the troops on the march. And it is this second mission that is always most visible from day to day.

I don't know whether Michael was born knowing how to gentle users or whether he had to be taught. But I salute the rare set of skills required to turn intemperate nut jobs like me into models of relative civility. The world needs many more Michaels, because with every passing day, there seems to be many more of me-angry users in need of whispering.

We would like to hear tales of your own sedative encounters with user whisperers (or even with their more common opposites, user whippers). Send e-mail to mccreary@darwinmag.com.

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