There is a saying, "Say what you mean, and mean what you say." Words are important. They are the basis of com-munication between people. Without a clear, precise definition of the words we use and clear names to label things, we can have a "failure to communicate," as was so poignantly expressed in the movie "Cool Hand Luke."

The names we use to label things reveal insights about who we are, how we view the world and even what we value. Names in some cultures are so important that they are sacred. In ancient Judaism, the name of God was so sacred it was not pronounced. When the Hebrew vowel pointings were added to the written Hebraic scriptures by scholars known as Masoretes after the 5th century A.D., they gave no vowel pointings for God's name. No one today is actually sure of its pronunciation. The name of God is so important to many of today's Jews that it cannot be thrown away – documents containing the name of God must be buried properly. The New York Times committed a faux pas in November 1999 when it inadvertently printed the name, causing synagogues to try to collect the pages for burial.

To Native Americans, names of people were not just labels. They were carefully chosen to illustrate an important characteristic of the person. The name stood for the person. In some religions, such as Islam, one changes his or her name to represent the conversion to Islam.

Data Names and Information Quality

The names of things (entity types) the enterprise must know about and the facts (attributes) the enterprise must know about those things are important. They are the basis for business communications. Data definition quality constitutes the first of the three components of information quality. The other two are data content quality and data presentation quality. Without intuitive data names and clear, concise and complete data definitions, the enterprise will flounder in information scrap and rework caused by a failure to communicate.

The names we use for roles indicate the relative importance of the individuals who play those roles as well as the nature of their work. In the military, the rank of a person indicates their status in the chain of command. In business, the names of the roles or job positions indicate the nature of the relationship of a person and those with whom they interact. When a customer calls to place an order, does it matter whether the person taking it is an order clerk or a customer satisfaction representative? Some may not think so, but I believe it does. Names can communicate subtle and powerful messages, both to the incumbent as well as to those with whom they interact. Consider the synonyms "vendor" and "supplier." The label "vendor" conveys the role of someone who sells something. But we develop strategic partnerships with "suppliers."

The names we use to refer to the roles people play with respect to information and information systems are revealing. The name "user" is one of the most pervasive and omnipresent words in the language of the information technology (IT) industry, but no other industry so pervasively refers to its customers as users. What does it say about us when we call business people who perform the real work of the enterprise users? Does it convey:

  • You are not as important as I am.
  • My job is special and yours is not.
  • I do not consider you to be my business partner.
  • I have more responsibility than you, for you are not a customer.
  • You merely "use" the applications or data I develop, so take it (application system) or leave it.

I am writing this column in my office in the sky (on an airplane). No one has ever called me an "airplane user." I'm at least a passenger, if not a customer of using the airline service to get me to my customer. The person at the controls of this aircraft is not an "aircraft user," but a "pilot." When I check in to my hotel this evening, I will be their "guest," not a "hotel room user." In a couple of weeks from this writing, I will have some minor surgery on my knee. (Some people have "tennis elbow." I have a malady I call "travel knee," torn cartilage caused by lugging too much luggage up and down too many flights of steps.) My doctor calls me a "patient" (one of my doctors calls me "the English patient"), not a "surgery user." And the person performing the procedure is my "doctor," not a "surgical implement user." Has any organization ever named the database containing its customers the "User Database?"
We must rethink this label as a name used to refer to the people who perform the real work of the enterprise. In an era in which we seek to exploit information technology for business intelligence, knowledge management and customer relationship management, the term "user" is inappropriate. How can IT promote tools for customer relationship management and have guidelines for managing user expectations in its applications development methodology?

Even if we do not mean it when we use the term "user," it connotes:

  • Someone who has an addiction to some harmful substance or has no control over something that others have control over.
  • Someone who is not empowered or who does not have a choice.
  • Someone who does not have much importance in a relationship.
  • Someone I do not have to care about because they simply use what we develop.
  • Someone who is inferior to another in a relationship.

In many – if not most – organizations, the relationship between the information systems group and the rest of the enterprise is uncomfortable at best, and sometimes downright hostile with severe animosity and distrust. The working relationships are so ineffective that a new class of professional has emerged. That role is relationship management consultant, whose objective is to try to help the business and IT work together more effectively! What an indictment and evidence of our failure to accomplish Deming's Point 9 of quality, "Break down the barriers between staff areas." Point 9 of information quality is, "Break down the barriers between IT and the business areas." If we view others as users, we can delude ourselves into believing that we do not need to implement Point 9. But if we view others as customers, it demands that we treat them as important people.
The use of the term "user" is not the cause of these relationship problems, but it is a symptom of the brokenness of the IT/non-IT business relationship. None of us wants to work with people who label us with a name that implies a superiority/inferiority relationship. Can we blame the business for not wanting to spend time with information professionals who do not care to treat them as customers and partners?

This is a problem that information professionals, especially those in leadership positions, must address with a sense of urgency.

What is the correct name for those who use information and information technology? Almost anything other than "user."

Peter Drucker coined the term "knowledge worker" in the 1950s when he foresaw the real impact of computers on society and work. If we had "workers" in the industrial age, do we not have "knowledge workers" in the information age?

With respect to information, "information consumers" or "information customers" are those who use information. Those who create and maintain information are "information producers."

The relationship between IT and the business areas must be one of a partnership if IT is to develop applications and databases that truly meet the information customers' expectations.

Mandate for the IT Industry

The practice of quality demands the concept of "customer." A person may be a "user" of products and services; but when addressing quality requirements and expectations, it is always "customers" who we must satisfy and delight. The customer – not the product – is the most important element in quality. Total quality management (TQM) is "Consistently meeting customer [not user] expectations." Deming clearly states that Point 1 of quality, "create constancy of purpose for quality," means "the obligation to the customer [not user] never ceases."

If we believe in information quality, then there is no room in our vocabulary for the term "user" to refer to those people who require information to perform their work and who depend on information systems to support their processes. I recognize that not all readers of this believe in information quality. Some do not believe because they do not understand that quality information and systems actually reduce costs while increasing profits and customer satisfaction. Others do not believe in information quality because they simply do not care about those who must live with the consequences of their work products.

This is a call and a mandate for those of you who do care.

If you are an information professional, please rethink the labels you use to refer to business personnel. Who are they to you? Do you desire to help them solve their business problems, increase their effectiveness in accomplishing enterprise objectives and in delighting their customers? Are they "users" who must use what you develop for them? Or, are they information customers, knowledge workers and business partners who you want to help make successful?

If you are a supplier of information technology, software or services, please rethink the labels you use to refer to the consumers of your products and services. Who are they to you? Do you desire to help them solve their technical and business problems, increase their effectiveness in accomplishing enterprise objectives and in delighting their business partners? Are they "users" who must use your "solution?" Or, are they customers who have requirements you must understand and meet, and business partners who you want to help make successful?

Simply substituting the words "knowledge worker," "information consumer" or "customer," "business partner" or whatever term you choose is insufficient. We must change our behavior and treat others as customers and partners. But if we start thinking of others as customers and partners, we are sure to start changing our behavior.

An IT professional once challenged me with the question: What's wrong with the word "user?" My question is: What is right with the word "user?"

What do you think? Send your comments to Larry.English@infoimpact.com or through his Web site at www.infoimpact.com.

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