I read two completely unrelated things yesterday that made me think of how, in our efforts to become efficient, we have lost something very important along the way — relationships.  

First, I was reading Jenn Steele’s “Leading Geeks” blog where she was commenting on the lack of communication between Geeks and Users.  Then, on the way home, there was a sentence in the book I’m reading (Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness) that spoke of how one of the characters and Death were on a “nodding relationship.”  
The issues that Jenn mention in her post between end-user and “Geek” seem to result from a general lack of communication between the two parties.  That made me realize that in our quest to centralize, compartmentalize, and to get more from less, we’ve somehow lost our “nodding relationships” with those that help us.
Here’s a quick example:
  • Quick – say the name of the person that answered the IT Help Desk phone the last time you had a problem.
  • Now – say the name of the IT person that used to drop by your office to install hardware, or upgrade software, or check to see if things were running properly.

Having experience working both as the IT guy (aka “Geek”) and the End-User (aka – “loose nut between the chair and keyboard”), I understand the reasons of why we are where we are today.  In the same respect, I also have a keen understanding of what the savings in time and money have also cost in the ability to better understand what are the real problems that the end user is experiencing.   

Over the years, we have worked very hard at creating a situation where tasks are “automated,” “performed in the background,” “seamless” and “invisible” to the end user.  We’ve done this to minimize the amount of time the technology is unavailable to the end user, in order to keep the end user as efficient as possible, too.  However, this has had a side-effect of also causing the people performing these tasks to also become “automated,” “in the background,” and “invisible” to the end user (and vise-versa in a limit way.)   
Don’t get me wrong, there are lots and lots of things that should be invisible to the end-user.  My complaint is that the pendulum has swung so far to the “automated” and “invisible” side, that we have taken the human portion with it.  In my view this results in  two major flaws:
1.  The Columbo Effect –  There have been many times, both as a techie and as a user, where in the process of solving one problem, another problem is unearthed.  You know… you’re about to walk out of the room when the other person says, “Oh, just one more question.”  Granted, most of the time, this means more work, but there were many occasions where that “one more question” lead to proactively solving major issues before they became major issues.
2.  The Chilling Effect – Because we’ve so separated the user from the techie, we’ve created a situation where most users find it too difficult to ask for help on what they consider “minor issues.”  Or, we’ve created a situation where we’ve inadvertently promoted “work-arounds” that the end user is taking to solve the problem on their own.  Granted, a lot of the time, these work-arounds cause little to no harm, but every once in a while, you have some creative user that finds a way to shut down a shared resource because their work around had unintended effects.
I had a professor in college that used to say that “Computers are the dumbest thing on campus, because they only do exactly what you tell them to do.”  In a way, we are using this same approach with those that support our technology.  We call in, we say what our problem is, we are asked a few questions, a “ticket” is created, someone works on the problem from an undisclosed bunker somewhere, and then we are emailed that the problem is solved or sent to a higher-level of support.  Somewhere down the line we are issued an email that says the problem is solved unless we email them back and say it isn’t.  All automated, efficient and clean.  No nodding necessary.
Doug Cornelius commented on Jenn Steele’s blog that web 2.0, and some transparency tools would help bring back in the nodding relationship.  I think he’s onto something there.  Bring back the “Geek” into the process, even if it is virtually.  I’m pretty sure I can find a nodding emoticon to send a virtual nod to my far away Geek.