j.ello on IT Part 5: Gardening with a Flamethrower.


Mistaking good values for good values -

There are a few themes that I’ll go back to over and over again. Here is one:

“Your IT is a reflection of your organization’s values.”

That’s a good thing, right? You organization values the work it does, those it employs and those it serves, so if your IT is following suit, that’s a great thing, right? In fact, it may be the opposite. Rarely does an organization actually value good IT as a means of success, which is why we just aren’t realizing the potential.

Let’s start with the common premise that IT is about customer service.

Most businesses understand that IT can be a really great thing, transforming not only how you do what you do, but expanding what you can do, reducing the labor to do it or increasing quality. But that just not what happens when we add an IT group to our organization. Instead of putting its muscle toward building a better business model, it generally spends most of its time helping people do mail merges. An important task, to be sure, but when your primary function becomes simple “service” and your coworkers become “customers”, we no longer talk about process improvement, long range vision, or innovation. Instead, we talk about “customer service” as a primary measure of IT performance. When the conversation switches to Customer Service, the bean counters are satisfied. True services are easy to comprehend, manage, staff, and define expectations for… therefore, even easier to pay someone else to do, preferably overseas, for pennies on the dollar.

Now, don’t get me wrong, customer service is a valuable aspect of all kinds of work; there is no shortage of lessons that can be learned from customer service done right or wrong. But reducing IT to a “service” is the business failure that makes outsourcing seem attractive.

Smart CIO’s, and in fact smart CEO’s, know that IT is part of the division of labor for the business. It’s a colleague relationship, a team-based operation focused on making computing advantageous, even profitable for the organization.

Everything looks like a nail -

It’s easier to see the distinction noted above in the academic IT environment. Universities contain true customers, the students, and several types of colleagues, including the faculty and staff (though some faculty shrug the word “colleague”). With few exceptions, however, you’ll find that academia organizes IT as a service organization, where everyone is a customer. Not because that’s best, but because it meshes with academic values, one of which is the open availability of all resources. That’s a positive value, but has implications that inhibits the IT group from having any real “strategic” value for the institution beyond keeping the hard drives spinning. Putting IT in the Service role makes it a passive constituent of an environment where computing isn’t just a necessary component, but the key to moving the whole institution to new levels.

Keep in mind that these are really, really, smart people, and there’s a lot of thought that goes into building and rebuilding IT in academia. In all businesses, however, there are organizational realities that are tough to overcome.

“Service providers, as a rule, don’t particularly care if you received what you needed, rather, that you believe you got what you wanted.”

Every organization has a set of values. Those values influence all aspects of the organization, particularly those which are not well represented, understood, or integrated into the function of the business. At the same time, where something is misunderstood, the closest “understandable” model will be substituted. IT is seldom well represented as a strategic resource – even when that is the intention… and as such it seldom rises beyond that separate, passive, service organization awkwardly shoehorned into a corporate structure. Make no mistake, this is a management problem… a pervasive management problem that permeates the industry, whose ultimate expression of failure can be summed up in one word: Outsourcing (a topic for another article).

Universities, of course, don’t go extinct because the IT is so-so, or awful, or even outsourced. Other kinds of businesses, more sensitive to competition, may very well pay the price of bad IT with the bank role – but IT is seldom to blame because remember, IT is a reflection of the organization’s values.

Some relationships are more productive -

So, why shouldn’t internal IT groups be considered “service organizations”?

As a customer, the relationship you have with an electric company is entirely different than the relationship you have with, say, a gardener. Both provide service to you, but the model is different. Everyone knows what to expect from the electric company. You want the electric on, all the time. You want to pay as little as possible, and you don’t want any lip. It doesn’t take a lot of research to know, accurately, whether your electric company is good or bad. With a gardener, however, it’s not quite that simple. They may share your taste, they may not. You may like them, personally, trust them, but they don’t stand out as a gardener. They may be the most innovative gardener out there, and you may even like their work, but your lack of comprehension of the skills involved may have you saying “Why don’t I just pay someone else less to do this?”. A lot of people can claim to be a gardener, and you probably don’t know the difference. You may not notice the gradual decline of your landscape due to a poor gardener because you may simply have no idea what you should be expecting, and you may not want to take a chance with someone else.

From the Service provider’s perspective, the relationship with a customer is adversarial by nature. A provider defines the service, the customer pays for such service, and theoretically they make adjustments based on your measurements of the customer’s satisfaction. The idea is to charge as much as possible, minimize the expenses and do the least amount of work, while keeping the customer’s confidence.

Service providers, as a rule, don’t particularly care if you received what you needed, rather, that you believe you got what you wanted. Burn that sentence into your head.

Like IT, there’s no way to really “measure” gardening, most of the values are arbitrary. But experience does teach at least one valuable lesson – If you try to buy gardening services like you buy electric services, you are guaranteed a crappy garden.

How to lose with Customer Service -

So you create an IT group, and you tell them to service the other employees. The other employees call and ask for service. Only, you don’t charge them because, well, you’d be charging yourself. You also don’t have any explicit service agreement because, well, why would you limit yourself on a service you own? So the users can, technically, ask for anything, and do, whether the requests are valid or not. When IT says no, they become unhappy. But you value customer service, so you measure customer satisfaction, which is a measure of the customer’s belief that they received what they wanted. The only problem is, the customers are employees, and what they want isn’t necessarily what they need, or in the best interest of the business.

In an organization like this, in fact, the more satisfied the customers, the more likely it is that your IT group is mired in work with no strategic value. Your other employees are not IT professionals… so why put them in the role of creating work for the IT group?

To make matters worse, what happens when, for example, a sales employee does have a reasonable, strategic idea that requires change on the part of the IT group? Few, if any, organizations have an “institutionalized” way to assure such recommendations are considered – leaving few options but complaints or negative campaigning.

The moral of the story – Don’t garden with a flamethrower

Most businesses (…maybe not gardeners) would benefit from the strategic integration of, and perpetual evolution of, computing resources as a means to corporate success. Yet, that is not the measuring stick by which IT is judged nor IT leadership is hired. Introducing the adversarial Customer Service relationship internally is precisely what leads to the marginalization of IT as a whole. This is the core misunderstanding from which failure in IT flows. This is also the misconception that makes outsourcing seem like a reasonable option.

It’s not good enough for the organization to have “positive” values, it has to have “strategic” values.

“But j.ello, we spend a lot of money on IT, our CIO is a VP, we have committee on top of committee… what could we possibly be doing better? How can you possibly structure an IT group in any other way than as a service?”

It starts with hiring. We’ll talk about that next time.

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[...] on the other hand, is a reflection of how the business approaches process management.  Your IT reflects the values of your organization… so if you want less bureaucratic IT, hire less bureaucratic Senior Execs. That’s a business [...]