Pruning the Branches

One of mycustomers is a branch office for a company that is embracing the Internet andits promise for low-cost virtual private networking (VPN) to connectgeographically disparate branches to headquarters.

A regionalmanager and sales reps staff this particular office. These guys care aboutmoving product, following up with customers, and getting expense reports doneon time. They want to know about their contacts, their appointments, and who isbuying what products and when. They don’t care about computers, networks, orthe wonders of the Internet. They don’t want to know how computers work andthey don’t want to learn the intricacies of Windows.

Typical ofmany branch office situations, the corporate IT department is half way acrossthe country -- everyone is half way across the country from Minnesota -- andthe satellite office connects to its company VPN over a DSL Internet connectionsupplied as part of the office space lease.

From thecorporate IT perspective, the implementation works reasonably well and thewhole thing is a success. From the end user perspective, the implementation isfailing and the whole thing is a disaster.

It allmakes a fascinating case study because the perceptions of the same set of factsfrom the two different points of view are radically different.

The peoplein the remote office feel like their company essentially abandoned them. Theyare physically far away from headquarters, far away from the real companyaction, and far away from any support. Since they no longer have anyadministrative staff other than a shared receptionist in the office space, theycompletely depend on technology to run their office. From the perspective ofthe remote office, the technology is not reliable.

Problems,they say, are everywhere. For example, the VPN frequently drops for no apparentreason and nobody can fix it because the underlying Internet connections atboth ends are stable. From a corporate IT perspective, this isn’t a big deal --the end users can simply reconnect. From the end user perspective, it’s ahassle because this problem interferes with access to corporate e-mail andother applications, and eats into time they could be selling.

Even simpletasks, such as submitting expense reports, create friction. In one case, awell-meaning person from the corporate IT Department put together an Excelspreadsheet formatted according to the accounting department's wishes and sentit to the remote offices. This set off a chain of events that eventuallyexploded into hard feelings all around. The people in the remote office havelittle or no computer literacy training and didn’t know how to use thespreadsheet. Corporate IT couldn’t understand why the users had a hard timewith this nifty tool they worked hard to put together. After all, doesn’teveryone know how to use spreadsheets? Before long, each side was mad at theother side as misunderstandings and miscommunications multiplied.

Thiscompany uses an application called RemoteWare to deliver various sales reportsto its remote offices. As a cost saving measure, they’re not upgrading. Theversion in place was designed for OS/2 and will not work over a VPN connection.This means that to get the latest sales reports, the folks in the Minnesotaoffice must use RemoteWare to dial into corporate and download the reports.Even though they share a connection to the Internet, they must spend money onlong distance calls get reports.

Thisproblem was further complicated when RemoteWare broke. After some initialtroubleshooting, headquarters decided the problem was not worth fixing. Surely,some other reasonable method exists to send these reports to the remote salesoffices. From the corporate IT perspective, it’s a minor, low-priority issue.But to the sales office, it’s a major problem because they need these reportsto operate. They now use Federal Express to get paper copies of the salesreports at $10 to $20 per delivery.

Lessons --you bet.

First,communication and empathy are absolutely vital. Everyone in the corporate ITdepartment should spend some time in one of these satellite offices to learnfirst hand what the end users do and how they use technology. This alone couldspawn enough innovation to more than pay for the increased travel expense.

Second, itis not realistic to completely replace administrative functions with technologyand expect everyone and all systems to immediately run smoothly. Any such planshould include lots of training and lots of initial handholding.

Finally,any such change requires strong leadership from the top. The technical issuesare all solvable if this company decides it wants to solve them. Somebody,somewhere, needs to step up and lead the effort. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is chieftechnology officer of Infrasupport Etc. Inc. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at