Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Power To The People?

OK, I'll admit it. I'm only just now getting up to speed on ITIL V3. Yes, of course I've had a good awareness of it, and understood the 5 elements of the lifecycle and the superior integration with business outcomes that this version describes. However right now I'm starting to dig deeper into the detail. This laggardness is mainly because I now have some free time; last year my head was firmly stuck in academic papers contrasting the various approaches to topics including allocation of function, workplace well-being and power and politics in organisations.

And it's power and politics that I wish to discuss in today's sermon - I mean blog entry. A couple of things are prompting this outpouring. Firstly, I've been struck by how (in the UK at least) a considerable slice of the leaders in the IT domain have very - shall we say - competitive histories. The number of ex-military senior managers is surprising (I've seen ex-officers and even one who graced the special forces). There are also those who have excelled in the sporting domain too: karate champions and all sorts. The other factor which has prompted me to discuss power & politics is the focus on organisational change that I've noticed in ITSM communities recently. Now of course this makes sense, for sometimes these IT programmes that we are service managing are agents for some higher business or organisational change. Furthermore, to develop a service mindset in organisations that have historically been technology-focused requires more than a few encouraging emails from managers. So great; one has no problem at all with the use of organisation change theories being used in our field.

However there has been a great deal of scholarly and other work in this area; and the conclusions are certainly not straightforward. I'm going to be talking about this at the itSMF conference in the UK next month so I won't say too much here, but you've got your Lewinistic Planned Change approach, and the Organizational Development movement (big in the US apparently) that sprung from it. There's also Emergent Change including forms described  from the Processual perspective as well as approaches described by the likes of Kotter and Kanter, for example Long March and Bold Stroke. More? O.K. there's also the Japanese Kaizen methods as well as the good old Tayloristic focus on tasks and procedures. (If any of you have read Burnes, [2000] you realise that much of the above is derived on his excellent analysis of this area).

What I'm trying to say is analysts who haven't studied this area in detail talk about organisation change as if it is straightforward - it's not. The transformation of your organisation may be impelled or impeded by choice of the right or wrong approach for your organisation and circumstances. Moreover (and to get to the point), the one thing that most of the post-Lewinistic researchers of this topic agree on is that power and politics play a considerable role in the change outcomes. Therefore it may be understandable that some implementations of ITSM and the accompanying change programmes still lean towards fixed, pre-determined and systemic forms. Perhaps - and this is pure conjecture - some of these guys with a forces background who are leading ITSM units may possibly prefer hierarchical and more tightly-ordered organisations.

Leaders have the power, thus they control the discourse and resources. Therefore the softer, flexible, autonomous and emergent ITSM that various commentators are advocating (and for that read me) may find fewer advocates amongst these (mainly transactional?) leaders than the Tayloristic forms that in my experience seem to predominate. Don't get me wrong I am not arguing against process frameworks or governance - in fact I am a fervent believer. A lack of direction, goals and standards is a pretty good way to impair performance, as numerous studies show. Moreover, Schwartz's (2000) paper arguing against 'the tyranny of freedom' puts the case eloquently. However the socio-technical theorists that emerged in the aftermath of WWII captured the subtlety of the approach that I lean towards. They suggest that only the minimum and the critical should be specified when designing work. This leaves room for individual decision lattitude.

Those who sign up to the prevailing discourse would probably counter that such an approach means that it is difficult to simplify job roles to such an extent that they could be easily automated or outsourced. The best retort is a Dilbert strip (the references to chickens will be explained there).

Who would you rather have supporting your systems - chickens or intelligent and qualified techs? The writings of these socio-technical theorists and others suggest that these empowered intelligent techs can deal with the unexpected, are more receptive to change and indeed will even drive change from the bottom up. Would you rather have 100 techs feeding their learning into the organisation or just three execs passing on their  wisdom downwards through the chain of command? It may be good wisdom, but will it be as broad and perhaps as innovative as that from the techs?

To be honest, I certainly don't feel that I have all the answers, but to descend into Perl-speak: TMTOWTDI; i.e. ever greater amounts of process and job simplification isn't the only way forward.

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