Catch 22: To avoid IT, end-users need IT's help

Catch 22: To avoid IT, end-users need IT's help

Summary: Application programming interfaces and cloud may represent this generation's 'skunk works,' but they're not ready to go it alone.


Starting back in the 1950s, within the bowels of Lockheed Martin, was an informal outside-the-mainstream den of innovation called the "skunk works," in which engineers and designers were allowed to work on any ideas they had, unfettered by management dictates.  The skunk works produced a range if innovative aircraft, including the U-2 and SR-71.

The "skunk works" concept was popularized by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their seminal work In Search of Excellence, which celebrated teams of employees who shucked and generally ignored the bureaucracy to create innovations which changed the course of their businesses.

Are application programming interfaces (APIs) and build your own applications (BYOA) today's version of skunk works? That may be the case, say the Loose Couple.  But there's a catch-22.

In their latest post, they posit that IT departments tend to represent the bureaucracy ("ball and chain") that end-users are going around, through and under to create their own technology vision. Previously, they note, "many of these innovations came in the form of snippets of software, or micro-applications, usually created through a combination of necessity, whatever was available on their desktops and sheer bloody-mindedness. Where I come from, they call it Skunk Works."

There are some differences between the skunk works of yore and today's skunk works. Skunk works typically were supported by Microsoft Office applications running on PCs -- now they are popping up "in a myriad of shapes and sizes, and on across a plethora of mobile device platforms – iOS, Android, WP8, Ubuntu…and whatever comes next."

APIs now exist to support business processes, as well as deliver and analyze data.

However, paradoxically, while skunk works may be intended as end-runs around IT, the participants need IT to help them. As the Loose Couple put it:

"To a large extent, leveraging the true power of an Enterprise API today in the form of an app for a mobile device requires the skills of a developer. Not many of the end-users that are able to create MS Access databases for their own purposes have the required skills to code HTML5, Xcode or Java and are not familiar with how to interpret a JSON payload."

The Loose Couple says this too, shall pass as front-ends to ever-increasingly complex technology get simpler. Perhaps it's more analogous to a parent seeing his or her child off into the big, bad world than a skunk works team breaking free from a ball and chain. But in the meantime, IT is going to have to help users get around IT.  Keep those support and help desks ready.

Topics: IT Priorities, Software Development

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  • End-users want the "easy button"

    How many new applications hit the enterprise to make end-users lives easier and yet they still want that "one-click, do-it-all" button sitting on their tablet or desktop?
    Yes, we like to turn all of IT into elementary school work, but in the end, still want most of it done automatically. Programming comes right in there, too. We have a degenerative learning curve going on. For every one student coming out of school that will relish in the job, you have a few hundred that will ride on that one person's back to find the easy way out and still get paid the same. Rather sad to see that the need for pay overrides the need to quality work. Ahhh the American way.
    • A Person Rises to the Level of Their Incompetence

      This is not an "American Way" issue. This is a case of people that have risen as high as they can go and try to latch on to the other guy who is on the way up as a way of rising above their level. This ultimately fails and the ones that are on the way up move on.
  • Technology Is An Enabler, Not A Gateway

    The key point is whether the IT department see themselves as there to help the users get their job done, or to guard a gate that only allows the fortunate few to pass. The former is all about enablement, the latter all about empire-building and job security.

    Which kind of IT department are you?
    • Both

      They need to be able to do both roles. They are there to help users and enable them to do their jobs, but they are also (in many jurisdictions, along with the CEO and CIO) legally responsible for ensuring that the gate is guarded and that, once somebody is through the gate, they don't start leaking corporate information back outside.

      If you BYOD and leak data outside the organisation, because "you don't know what you are doing," you, you CIO and CEO can end up in prison for a few years and / or face a hefty fine.

      There are good reasons why IT departments are reluctant to give users everything they want. On the other hand refusing everything, because "we have never done it that way," is also the wrong attitude.

      They need to help users get the benefits from the modern technology, ensuring that it fits as seemlessly into the corporate infrastructure as possible, but they also need to ensure that it is secure and data can't leak out.

      Don't be surprised, if you BYOD your own tablet or smartphone, when you are told, in order to access corporate systems, including e-mail, you have to agree to allow them to remote wipe it and that you password protect the device. Also don't be surprised, if they say that your spouse or kids can't play with your iPad, once you get home, because it now contains / has access to corporate data.