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Is Self-Service Creating Acceptance of Average?

By Hank Barnes | March 17, 2015 | 0 Comments


I’ve been on vacation this week with some think time (and a lot of cough time–vacationing with your worst cold in years is note ideal) and one of the ideas in my head right now is wondering about the downside of the self-service world we live in today, particularly from a technology/application standpoint.

Before technology was pervasive and not everyone had ready access to computing devices, the world was more specialized.  For example, my first job after college was with a large government contractor.  When we needed to do research, we went to the corporate library.  There, a trained librarian would effectively interview me for the information I was looking for, then using databases of the time they’d conduct sophisticated searches and provide me with some outstanding information.   I always trusted that information and wondering if I could have found it on my own.

Today, you open a browser, search google or other sites, and hope for the best.   I’d posit that most people have had little to no training in how to search effectively.  We are on our own.


Sometimes you find what you want, sometimes you don’t, but it is easy and cheap to just try again and again.   A key question remains – you may end up finding what you think you want, but did you find what you really need?   Is there something out there that is important, for your context, that you are missing?   Did you find information that is inaccurate?  It is really hard to tell.

This isn’t an issue for just search.  Whether using your smartphone or most apps (maybe some well designed, basically single function mobile apps are an exception), it is highly likely that most users only access (and understand) a small fraction of the features.  What more could be done if you had a deeper understanding?

Beyond that, think about something as common as Excel.  With it, and other tools, we can all do analysis.  But if we don’t have a good statistical background, is our analysis flawed?  To me, this is why data scientists are so important.  We need some experts to go beyond what we can do for ourselves.  Average is not always good enough.  This is not about being a power-user?  It is about having the experience and expertise outside of the technology to use the technology to its fullest.

Does this mean that self-service is a bad thing?  No, but I do think more time should be spent figuring out when true experts are needed.  And recognizing that means we have to accommodate that in planning.  Whether it is paying for advanced, in-context training so people can do more with what they already have or being clear on when something needs to be passed on to experts for deeper analysis (with the associated impacts on time and costs), we have to get better at this.

This is true everywhere.  At Gartner, we do a lot of surveys.  We have a research team and stat geeks (said with pride) who figure out stuff that I could never do on my own (I don’t have the education level in statistics that they do).  For example, we continue to refine work around an advanced view of what we call Enterprise Personalities.  This is done not simply by how people answered specific questions—but it is driven by the combination of answers to these questions and a bunch of testing to validate the findings.  It’s complex stuff and as we refine it, the value to the market could be very, very high.  But we have to make sure it is right.  This is not for the casual excel user to determine using basic pivot tables.

To close, here are some suggestions/ideas for how to make sure that we don’t settle for average at the wrong times:

  1. Continue to embrace self-service capabilities, but recognize that the limitations are often driven by your own personal limits–your education, training, experience.
  2. Think about the situation and the impact of what you are doing and determine if real expert assistance is needed.
  3. Corporations need to provide those experts, like the research librarian of the past, and make it easy to use them.   This is not a complex, IT project where you spend months doing requirements gathering, etc.  Nor is it agile.  It is simply an expert who can interview you, look at what you have done, and take it to the next level.  (Hmm, might be an “as a service” opportunity in this—if you can help businesses understand what they are missing).
  4. Remember that this is not just about better training (although that would be nice).  This is not necessarily how to use more of a product–it is how to use it more effectively  (and that is based on you as much as the product).

What do you think?  Has self-service driven some less than ideal (I don’t want to say bad) decisions?   Are we accepting average as we enable everyone to be generalists and value specialists less?

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

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