Windows 8: Why IT admins don't know best

Memo to IT depts: get out of users' way or expect to be out of a job in the long run.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor on

Running IT for a business is a thankless task. There're all those systems you already have to keep patched, updated and duct-taped together. There's Patch Tuesday — and Woeful Wednesday if you miss a really bad vulnerability for which there's a good exploit. There's dealing with all those tedious helpdesk calls. Eighty percent are still about lost passwords in many companies.

And then there's the prospect of whatever new technology is showing up. It might look like a light at the end of the tunnel but it could just as easily be an oncoming train, especially if it's something users are going to start bringing into the office and demanding to connect with.

Many IT teams devote a substantial proportion of their time and budget to just keeping the lights on and keeping working what they already have and what they've already paid for. There's a shift towards not spending so much on maintenance, either to save money or — better answer — to make IT more strategic and valuable to the business.

The advantage of that is the job gets more interesting. There's less writing patch scripts and more building systems that enable a new product line or delving into big data to see if it reveals a potential new business or a substantial internal fraud you can shut down. Big data isn't just about social networks after all.

Plus, you get to carry on having a job instead of being outsourced in favour of some IT services firm that can do the same thing more cheaply because they do it for a dozen companies.

The disadvantage is that if you're a more traditional IT admin, you see all of this as a threat, and a lot of work. BYOD? Bring your own security threat, and now I have to support hundreds of different phones.

Cloud? The users are copying the same files I just stopped them forwarding to their Gmail account by blocking access to Gmail in the office to some service I can't trust and don't control.

Windows 8? It's too much effort for me to learn how to take advantage of that. Why can't I make it look just like the Windows XP desktop they're used to?

Now that Windows 8 RTM is out, especially the 90-day free evaluation copy for IT pros, people who've ignored it so far are downloading the bits, kicking the tyres, going through the learning curve and proving whether they have a clue about what users want.

My favourite so far is the short tutorial that replaces the less-than-informative Setting up your account animation when a user logs on for the first time. This tutorial gives you a friendly hi, tells you it's doing some setup and then plays a quick animation showing how to get at the charm bar with a mouse and — if you have a touchscreen on the PC you're installing on — with a swipe gesture.

It doesn't run for very long and it makes sure you know that your PC is still doing something and hasn't locked up. Plus, it teaches you where to find what might be the single most important interface feature in Windows 8. You only see it once. Create a new account on a shared PC and the new user sees it when they log in.

But one IT admin decided it takes too long and users will complain about sitting through it, so he or she took the time to dig into Group Policy and work out how to disable it.

  • Because a blank screen or a spinning cursor that could look like the system hanging is obviously better than a tutorial that shows you how to use an interface that's different from what you're used to, right?
  • Because disabling the tutorial will obviously make account setup go faster, right? Wrong: after the animation there's still time for a mini psychedelic light show while installation completes, even though a clean install of Windows 8 Enterprise takes as little as 15 minutes.
  • Because the IT pro who sits through a dozen installs and gets bored watching the animation obviously knows better what his or her user needs than the actual user who only sees it once, right?

Again and again, I come across IT professionals who think the business is there to pay for the technology they look after, rather than the technology being there to serve the business, or who think they know best what the user needs.

These IT pros think the user can't cope with a new interface, even though they deal with a new interface on Facebook every few months, as well as using Gmail and Dropbox and a few dozen other sites and services every week, plus the interfaces on their iPhone or Android device.

These IT pros think the user won't want to touch the screen, despite their touching the screen on phones, tablets, ATMs, at supermarket checkouts. If you don't like touch, you're probably in the wrong century. Manipulating Excel or the Group Policy Editor? You'll do that with a mouse and keyboard. But scrolling through web pages? Reach out and touch.

The reality is that users are pushing technology in the workplace — and out of it. The Olympics has done more to advance flexible and remote working than a decade of IT pilot projects.

Connect to your VPN and wait for an upgrade to load? They'll just put the files in a cloud service so they can get some work done. If you really want to improve things for them, take the time you'd spend making a custom AD template to block the tutorial animation and use it to try out setting up VPN-less DirectAccess on Windows Server 2012.

They want phones and tablets and touchscreens and slim notebooks with good battery life. They're used to picking up new tools and interfaces, many of which come with an introductory tutorial.

If they don't already love their iPad and their Air too much to switch, they'll be keen to at least try a Windows RT tablet and if they like it they'll bring it to work, and if they know that not being able to join the domain means there's less the IT department can do to turn off all the tools and features they like on their new computer, they'll be happy about that. They'd like the IT team to make their lives easier and if they can't do that, to at least get out of their way.

Group Policy is enormously powerful. As with any other great power, it comes with great responsibility. The role of the IT team is to use that power to keep company information secure and company employees productive.

See something new in Windows 8? If your first impulse is to look for a way to turn it off, be aware that you're training your users to work around you.

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