When was the last time that a representative from your company’s IT department spent an hour sitting down next to you and observed you while you were doing your work… for no other purpose than to learn about your needs and work habits so that IT can  provide you with better service, a better environment, and better application support?

Before you answer, I’d like to point you to a discussion on these pages that triggered me to think about this question: 

Daniel Feller authored a piece  which talked about the desire of users to install and manage their own applications in a virtual desktop environment. Dan gives several reasons that detail why letting users install their own apps in a virtual desktop is a bad idea in his opinion.

Brian Madden responded to some of Dan’s points and stated that the flexibility and feel of control associated with user installed apps is critical to user adaptation of virtualized desktop environments. Therefore, Brian suggests providing each user with two desktops – one tightly managed by IT with approved applications; the other one more free-reeling to allow for any tool, utility, or app installed by a user. There are arguments for both sides and the common trade-off between user flexibility, IT’s management capabilities, and cost must be considered during virtual desktop implementation projects.

So far, the virtual desktop discussion focused on increasing security through centralization and reducing desktop support and operating costs. Those are benefits primarily to IT. What about the users though? What’s in it for them?

I spent several years in healthcare information systems, where the most valuable users (doctors and nurses, but especially doctors) are often the most reluctant to change their workflows towards the use of a computer and away from the voice recorder and paper notes that someone else has to decipher. How do you get these users to accept and embrace an electronic medical record (EMR) system? You have to state the benefit to them and let them experience them first hand! In this example  it means fewer patient deaths and complications due to missing or incorrect patient data and overall better patient outcomes. This appeals directly to some of the main reasons why these users are in their chosen field in the first place. Post implementation surveys among doctors and clinicians was overwhelmingly positive  once a doctor realized that she had the patients medical history at her fingertips and was more efficient in documenting her care.

Successful EMR implementation were all characterized by a fundamental shift in thinking in IT. Away with the old “this is not supported” argument of IT and away with the strict segregation of IT responsibilities between network, OS, servers, virtualized servers, databases, applications,  cross-system interfaces, storage, and “Citrix”.  Our customer IT teams and we (the EMR software vendor) spent countless hours on the hospital floors, in emergency admission departments and in the operating room – simply to observe our users and provide the best possible products and the highest quality implementations to them. Our customer IT teams almost became experts in clinical documentation. On a side note, I am glad I wasn’t on the OR team – I might have tossed my cookies…

Just like EMR implementations, virtual desktops have the potential of being disruptive and enabling at the same time. There is a fine line between providing a desktop from anywhere and excessively restricting capabilities. Successful implementations rely on strong leadership from the CIO down. Many EMR implementations include the Chief Medical Officer, CIO, Nursing representatives and traditional IT roles. By the same token, the virtual desktop initiatives must be guided by principles of including key user representatives and an IT organization that truly understands user needs. This should be understood at this point among many readers of industry commentary on desktop virtualization. However,  I still see many large organizations who make implementation decisions driven by their own organizational structure and  technical drivers (sometimes even politics). Of course, IT must enforce license compliance and protect environments from the hazards of poorly written software, but that imperative doesn’t have to make it more complicated for users.

Back to the discussion between Dan and Brian:  I tend to agree with Dan – one virtual desktop image – centrally managed by a capable, agile, and results driven IT organization.  I simply don’t want to switch between desktops for different tasks and I don’t think I should have to. Instead, users who want their own apps demonstrate the business case (a personal preference of one browser over the other probably won’t cut it) and an IT organization who understands their users’ core requirements verifies the business need and provides the required app. Done. Simple.  

Going back to the opening question: When was the last time IT came to you? If you’re in IT management or if you’re a CIO – when was the last time you spent some proactive time with your users and learned about their work?