I met up with an old colleague recently who I worked with when we were both IT Project Managers for a large blue-chip corporation. Our conversation got me thinking about how often the opinions of end-users in IT projects are dismissed as of little importance or, worse, ignored completely. The stakeholders, senior management, project manager, suppliers and vendors all have a voice in IT projects – they can articulate their needs and requirements and their opinions are duly noted and acted on because of their importance within the organisation and within the project hierarchy.
And yet it is the end-user who will be using a new software system on a daily basis. It is the end-user who knows and understands the data in the legacy system, who knows how to work around problems with the current system and understands how to get their job done quickly and efficiently. So why don't more project managers take more notice of the comments and concerns of this important group?
Is it that the group itself does not believe their opinions carry any weight and, therefore, do not speak up when given the opportunity to do so. Is it that they are never fully involved in the project and so don't have the opportunity to speak up? Whatever the reasons might be, don't ignore users' concerns and comments throughout the project. In my experience it is often the user who can identify a potential problem before it happens.
If it is proving difficult to get feedback from the everyday user of a system then it is in the interests of the project manager to elicit that information by the best means possible. There are many approaches to obtaining feedback from users. Informal brainstorming sessions, formal meetings and questionnaires all may work well for different projects and different individuals. The best project management training courses will suggest other ideas for gleaning the information you need to ensure the new system delivered can actually be used effectively from day one and hence make your project a success.
I have personally found that cultivating a good personal relationship with key users is the best way to do this. Talk to them informally and on a personal level about their concerns – perhaps at a casual lunch or over coffee. Find out what their day-to-day tasks are now (on the existing system) and understand what they do. I have often shadowed a key user for their typical working day – it can be hugely revealing and throw up information that is almost impossible to find out in a more formal session.
So involve key users from the outset of the project. This is particularly important if a legacy system is being replaced with new technology or software to ensure the wealth of information in the existing database is not lost through incorrect handling. Data conversion can be a huge stumbling block if not done properly – I know of new IT systems that have been implemented without the full suite of data required for the users to perform their jobs. These are new IT systems that looked good, went live on time, had all the required features but the databases were incomplete so the systems were effectively useless. This sort of project will always have a poor reputation even if the problems with the data are quickly rectified.
I have also found that in many IT projects the most resistant user to the new technology can become the greatest advocate given the right involvement, training, encouragement and a good deal of hand-holding. The benefits of this effort on the part of the project manager are enormous. The chances of a highly successful project are much greater, the "reputation" of the software is immediately a good one, as soon as it goes live. And we all know it is much easier to get people to accept a few faults in an otherwise good system than to rescue the reputation of a system that starts off badly.
So learn from previous project problems and failures, take the advice of more experienced project managers and ensure you attend one of the professional project management courses available but never ignore the comments and concerns of the end-users in IT projects. You do so at your peril.