Technology in the enterprise

This morning’s New York Times has an IDG ComputerWorld article by Brian Fonseca called Corporate IT Almost Ready for Online Backup. It’s a straightforward piece that talks about how more IT groups are looking at off-site, hosted backup strategies to handle the rapid growth in data they are seeing as their pesky users create so darned much information. Last year, I started experimenting with Amazon’s S3 and Mozy, and one of my big tech goals for 2008 is to take better advantage of that service.

I comment on this because I just had an experience with corporate information systems that reminds me how large the gulf can be between press releases and IDG articles and actual life in the trenches, especially in a firm that isn’t very progressive with its technology.

At work, I have email alerts configured with the company’s job board so that job descriptions of interest are emailed to me, and I see them right away. Jobs are only posted for one week, so it is key to see them rapidly before the deadline passes. I receive email from these alerts all the time, and so I believed the alerts were working and stopped checking the web site. (For the record, the site uses Manpower, Inc.‘s TeamRewards software.) Last week, a job was posted on our corporate HR system that I have been hoping to see for eight months. Friday at lunch a colleague asked if I had applied for the position, as he thought it was a good fit for my skills and experience. My reply to him was, “what job?” It turns out the email alert system had not triggered for this posting and I’d only learned about it by happenstance, with just hours before the deadline.

Needless to say, I completed an application rapidly, and time will tell if this goes anywhere, but I was curious about the alerts and so I carefully checked my Gmail account to see how I could have missed such a vital thing. Several minutes of careful searching made it clear that I had not missed anything – there was no record of that job at all. Hoping to help others avoid the same fate, I emailed the woman in our HR group who is in charge of the job board about my experience.

To her credit, she did reply to me yesterday. Her first reply was simply that a technician was looking into the matter. Fine. I asked to be notified of what the tech learned so that I would know when it was safe to resume trusting the alerts. She called me this time with two points to share – first off, I needed to realize that sometimes technology does not work, and secondly, a great tip for keeping up with the web site is to check the web site.

Yes, you read that right.

I think everyone who has ever spent any time with a computer knows that sometimes technology does not work. As true as that statement is, it is not a sufficient response to a bug report. It is a starting point. It did not work, and further review and experimentation will reveal why, and then it will be fixed and then, at least in this one regard, the technology will work. I tried to suggest that if I went to the web site itself looking for something, and the site failed to display something that it should, that the response sometimes technology does not work would be clearly unacceptable, but the HR woman saw no parallel in my example. The web site, she said, always works. It’s technology, I countered, so at some point it will not, according to your own observation. Not the same, she said, end of story.

Moving on to her second point, the idea that my bug report could be addressed with the suggestion that I check the web site is also laughable. Clearly the failed search agent taught me I need to check the web site, but the bug report was designed to alert them of a problem so they could fix it. Checking the web site is a workaround, but it is not a solution. Amazing.

So the next time you read about the rosy future of IT in the workplace, remember that IT can be administered by people with voodoo conceptions of how technology works, and whose idea of a solution to a broken service is simply not using that service. That’s annoying when the service is a search agent email, but it will be far less trivial when the service at issue is the firm’s off-site, hosted backup in the wake of some horrendous disaster.

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