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Administrators as Teachers

E-mail administrators are not just high-tech postal janitors, although it sometimes must feel that way to them and you. A big part of their job has always been to support users, which, like it or not, often means teaching users as well. As the E-mail administrator's job becomes more complex, so does the end user's, and this growing craziness shifts more emphasis to the administrator's teaching skills on top of everything else.

Users need to be made aware of E-mail-borne worms and viruses, and taught not to open suspicious attachments—along with how to recognize what's suspicious and what isn't. They need to know what to do with any spam that happens to slip past the filters, and how to report it. They need to know why spam is a serious problem, and why buying spam-advertised products and services is a bad idea. They need to understand "phishing" schemes, so that they can spot them on their own when these scams inevitably arrive in the inbox.

All of these "best practices" for using E-mail are vital nowadays, with all the E-mail-borne hazards we face. In a world where it takes only one careless mistake by one user to spell disaster for a company's network and/or reputation, no business can afford to do without some user education. And yet, E-mail administrators are expected to take on this new duty on top of becoming security and content-processing experts—without additional time, staff, training, or other resources.

Throwing the administrator increasingly into the role of educator has led to some interesting problems. Perhaps the biggest mistake E-mail administrators make when dealing with users is underestimating them. Many IT personnel talk down to their users, treating them like four-year-olds who can't do anything properly. Get a group of administrators together and you can always start a conversation with, "I've got this user who's so stupid..." This may be a byproduct of the fact that these administrators are often more comfortable around machines than around real human beings; they were more than likely hired for their technical expertise more than their interpersonal skills. So how is this person supposed to leap into teaching without at least some sort of guidance?

Among other things, teachers need patience and high expectations for their students to live up to. Administrators who hold their users to low expectations will invariably find that their users don't aim any higher. Those who act like godlike wizards and treat users as simple fools who can't be trusted, create users who will never try to do anything on their own. The moment these users find themselves outside their comfort zone, they'll page the administrator for help, not wanting to "break anything." This setup makes more work for the administrator, naturally, and doesn't encourage users to learn anything or develop new skills. By all means, provide your users with the help they need, but never forget your obligation as a teacher—you're there to help them learn, so they can eventually do things on their own.


One option is to take some of the teaching burden from the E-mail administrator's shoulders, if for no other reason than so she can spend her time making sure all the filters and connections are running smoothly. Many organizations have technical writers on staff. These specialists can be the perfect go-betweens, learning from the E-mail administrators and then generating the initial instructional documentation or day classes used to help get people up to speed on E-mail issues. Then the administrator can use the company's or ISP's web site to keep people up to date on the latest issues.

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