Long-time reader William Yohman points out a non-technical pitfall common to many end-user-developed IT applications:

“I developed dozens of applications, templates and procedures that were ‘the next best thing.’ I then trained the other users in my work center on their use (and how it would save them time) only to find out the momentum died when I left. These are intelligent, highly technical people who chose to go back to their previous frustration instead of continuing to use a product that was easy to use and saved them time. Why? Because no matter how good or how easy it was, it was easier to go back to the way they had done it a thousands times before. The reality is that ‘organizational memory’ only lasts until the alpha geek leaves the work center.”

Many end-user-developed applications fade away once their developer departs, no matter how good or useful they are. One reason is the difference between grassroots programming efforts and full-blown projects. The latter include training and business change management tasks that make sure the new system is institutionalized. They include establishment of a business sponsor who owns the change and is accountable for its success. And, when the new system comes in, the company “burns the boats” as it were — there is no way to go back to the old way of doing things.

Successful projects, that is, give end-users leadership, support, and an absence of alternatives.

With an end-user-developed application, all they get is support, and once the developer moves on, that’s gone too. There’s nobody to make additional modifications, answer questions, or help ensure that those using the application do so as intended instead of developing workarounds that pollute the data. Unless IT agrees to take on the job of support, use of the application grinds to a halt.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some of these applications are more conveniences than essential tools. They make life easier for awhile, but in the end the inconvenience of maintaining them outweighs their benefit.

Interestingly, the opposite can happen as well. As several readers have related, IT can develop a professionally engineered replacement for an “Access tangle” only to find that end-users refuse to abandon the application they’re familiar with, regardless of its limitations and inconveniences.

Sometimes, even well-accepted grassroots applications die; other times they stubbornly live on, even when IT provides superior replacements. What’s to do, other than shrug our shoulders and ponder the unpredictability of our fellow human beings?


First of all, whenever you’re responsible for implementing a new system, make sure to find out what home-grown applications are currently in use. Learn everything you can about them, and in particular, find out who their authors are.

Add those authors to your project team, either as full participants, or at least as subject-matter experts. Doing so will have two salutary effects. The first: By definition the authors are influential in the end-user community, so making them champions for the new system will increase acceptance. Second: By definition as well, the authors understand how to design a system end-users will embrace. Having them on the team (and paying attention to their ideas) will improve the design.

There’s one more benefit to including these folks on your project team. When the project is finished and the new system is in production, it’s just as important to turn off the home-grown applications it replaces as it is to decommission any large legacy applications the new system subsumes. The legacy systems, of course, are within the project team’s jurisdiction, so unplugging them is just another set of tasks on the project plan (“just” being a relative term, of course).

The home-grown ones are another story. If the project team shuts them down it might be considered an intrusion. If, on the other hand, the authors shut them down, it’s a powerful message to the end-users that the replacement system really is a better alternative.

Who better to burn the boats after all, than the shipwright who made them?