My May column, entitled "The Term 'User' Has No Place in the Information Age," generated the most reader replies of any column or article I have written. The replies have been split almost 50/50 in agreement/disagreement. I wish to share some of the comments and my responses here.

Some representative e-mails in agreement:

Michael wrote: I could not agree more with your points. With your permission, I would like to use your article as a handout for discussion.

Larry's response: Please feel free to make copies for education and dialogue.

Janet wrote: I totally agree about not referring to our customers as "users." Another negative connotation of "user" is that it is someone who uses up something. Data and information cannot be used up or consumed. It doesn't wear out with use. What a resource!

Larry's response: You are correct about what makes information different from every other resource – it is nonconsumable. One caveat: data will be used more and more only if it has quality. Nonquality data will have several negative consequences. It may be used once, causing the knowledge workers to distrust it and not come back. Secondly, if that nonquality data continues to be used, it will continue to cause the processes using it to fail. Thirdly, that nonquality data will require "correction" in order to be trusted, and data correction is much more expensive than the costs to capture and maintain it correctly at its source.

Some representative e-mails in disagreement:

Badali wrote: The articles [you write] are very interesting, particularly the latest ones, but I am unable to appreciate the relevance of articles to data quality.

Larry's response: Thanks, Badali. I wrote the May column precisely because if we believe in data or information quality, the term "user" is inappropriate. The principles of quality management from all true quality management systems confirm that the subjects of quality are "customers," not simply "users." Please reread the section beginning: "Customer" is a central concept and term in quality management in my May column. In this section, I cite seven renowned quality gurus or systems, from Deming to the Baldrige Quality Criteria and how they refer to the subjects of quality products and services as "customers" – not "users."

The goal of quality, whether of manufactured products or of information is to "consistently meet customer needs." For information quality, this means we will focus our attention to meeting the needs of all information "customers" who rely on information to perform their work.

Jim wrote: I found your article about the term "user" to be distressing. Just because a disturbed portion of our population uses drugs doesn't so tarnish the word that we must expunge it from our technical vocabulary.

Larry's response: Thanks, Jim. I believe we should replace the term "user" not because of the drug industry, though I wonder why information technology is the only other industry that embraces the term "user." The real reason is that the term "user" is inconsistent with the reality of the information age. As I described in my May column, the term is an oxymoron when we talk of knowledge management, business intelligence and customer relationship management. (Please reread the "Knowledge Workers" section of my May column.) If you disagree with the term "knowledge worker" as an appropriate label for business personnel, then you are not just disagreeing with me, but also with Peter Drucker, one of the greatest management gurus ever. Since at least 1973, Drucker has referred to business personnel as "knowledge workers" – not "users."

DCerny wrote: [The term] "user" pretty well delineates a person's relationship with something, from the "maker" of it. We are all in user/maker roles interchangeably all day long.

Larry's response: Your point is correct technically. In quality management, however, this mind-set is not acceptable. The terms used in quality are "customer/supplier." In Kaizen, Masaaki Imai writes, "the next process is the customer." The mind-set, if we believe in quality, is not "I make it, so you just use it." The quality mind-set is "You depend on what I make; therefore, what do you need from me in what I make so you can be successful in what you do?"

My question for you is: Do you see yourself as someone who makes things others have to use, or do you see yourself as having customers for whom your goal is to consistently meet their needs?

There were others, but space does not permit their inclusion. I conclude with Mike's comment: I agree! I don't know how much customers object to being called "users," but even if they don't, it certainly wouldn't hurt to have IT professionals make a concerted effort to change their vocabulary to permit a more accurate and less pejorative mind-set toward their customers.

Please continue sending your comments to Larry.English@infoimpact.com.

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