Tuesday, 6 April 2010

ITIL: Sweet F.A.?

Here's a hypothesis: many in IT are lazy about areas of work that do not involve their principal area of interest. In other words, technologists' core interest in their work is proportional to how technological that work is. Amongst the real tech-heads that I know, point and click IT is anathema. For many of these individuals, command-line operation, configuration and installation is enjoyable and demonstrates true expertise. Yes it requires thinking through at every step, but this is considered an intellectual challenge and therefore fun. Yet for other activities such as service support processes and governance, the same individuals simply do what is necessary to acheive the standard required of them.

Here's a second related hypothesis: As these techies grow older and are promoted, perhaps these instincts remain. The individuals will still be deeply concerned about the technology that the organisation delivers but will experience a temptation to take shortcuts when it comes to delivering the other stuff required by the organisation. To paraphrase George Orwell: 'Technology good - other stuff important but boring'. In such a mindset, shortcutting may become rife. By shortcutting, I mean the equivalent of point and click for aspects of the working environment. Need to create a support structure? Point and click on ITIL. Need to improve processes? Point and click at 6 Sigma. I'm not making judgments here - human information processing has natural limits and we all use cognitive shortcuts of one type or another to help us navigate the world in an efficient manner.

Thus the real techies are willing to go to the nth degree to deeply understand the technology and to innovate. These are the people who have performed the paradigm-free thinking that has recently delivered NoSQL, and earlier created technologies such as PERL and Linux. In the ten years between 1995 and 2005 technologists from myriad organisations took internet technology from HTML 2.0 to Ajax. Away from hardware & software, ITIL recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. In that time the OGC have worked hard to improve the framework. However the passive adoption of this tool by technology organisations and the slow development of the framework has been in marked contrast to the way in which they use and adapt available technologies. To return to my hypotheses, IT people are lazy about non-technology and are not motivated to perform independent thinking on the same scale as they do with the technology.

There are some exceptions and here I need to mention the IT Skeptic once again. Furthermore in the comments attached to my last blog entry Carol Hibbard asked why IT people need a framework to "define common-sense business acumen" and perhaps herein lies the answer. People in IT don't want to do the equivalent of a command-line installation of their support structure. They want to point and click, and that's why they love (or perhaps loved?) ITIL. It was the shortcut, the silver bullet which could be used to organise the non-technological, service facing aspects of the organisation. Keep in mind that I do like ITIL, but like many in the industry I have realised / am realising that there's much more to great service than just ITIL. There's some low-level, formatting and command line stuff that also needs to be dealt with.

With this realisation in mind, if I was starting a new service management company, I'd draw on complexity theory. I'd hire the best, create a great new culture, and allow staff lots of autonomy within that to create their own structures. Sure the people there would use ITIL, but they'll probably draw on other stuff too: sociotechnical systems theory, social network analysis, service climate studies, ACT for the stressful times.
The point is is, there's no framework for "great". The people in this organisation would have to think things through in some detail. But they'd create something that works for the organisation, and not imposed from outside. To be fair ITIL always insisted that we shouldn't mould the organisation to the shape of ITIL, rather we should do things the other way around. This however was lost in the sound of all the shortcutting and accreditation.

What I'm trying to say is that the monopoly of ideas on how how to run a good service organisation did not begin and end in the UK Office of Government Commerce between 1989 and 2009. There were successful companies before ITIL and there will be others afterwards (for those of us that do not believe that ITIL will last forever). So therefore I'm proposing myself Framework Agnostic (F.A.). I'm a huge fan of ITIL in the same way that I'm a fan of Albert Cherns' Nine Principles Of Socio-Technical Design or Edwin Locke's Goal Setting Theory of Work Motivation. I don't believe that any one of these contains the complete specification for delivering great service in any organisation, but they are each important. ITIL is technology-specific but (certainly in V3) steps on the toes of organisational science.

I concede that techies may not wish to get too involved in the organisational/process stuff, but those of us who are educated in, or motivated to study these areas should help disseminate the message that no one book (or set of books), theory, framework or approach is likely to have the monopoly on right. Furthermore, like our technology-focused colleagues we should continue challenging, extending and integrating approaches in the continual pursuit of better. We can do this on a local level in our organisations or on a macro level (the whole ITSM debate that I hope this blog is contributing to). It is framework agnosticism and not fundamentalism that will help us to do that.


  1. Wounded I am, deeply wounded.

    There are three kinds of IT people, the techies with their toys, the process geeks with their flowcharts, and the people-managers with their Gantt charts or culture-change.

    To lump me in the first category, even as an exception to the rule, is deeply offensive. I loath technology. I drove a 1974 Holden Kingswood until 2002 http://www.itskeptic.org/windows-vista-sick-slug#comment-4134. My laptop is a 20th Century Toshiba Portege, my PDA/phone is a 2004 HTC Alpine, and my desktop a 2005 Dell running XP. My non-techie credentials are impeccable. I'll thank you not to associate me with such company in future.

    Second, autonomy = anarchy, which makes for a great Sex Pistols song but sucks in most other contexts. letting IT people loose to create an organisation will result in Lord of the Flies - don't do it. Most of them can't manage a lunch order let alone a business unit, regardless of which of the three categories they fall into.

    Third, this industry will one day employ people with some semblance of balance across people/process/technology, and we'll drive all the pure techno-geeks into repairing telecom systems where they belong.

  2. Hi Skep,

    Reasonable point. To be honest I never really took you for a geek, simply one of those 'IT People' (I'm sure I read somewhere that you've a vendor background). Never mind, you've put the record straight above.

    Autonomy is a different matter, and on this I'm afraid that I will have to disagree with you. Autonomy is associated with a whole raft of valuable outcomes (innovation, receptivity to change, motivation, job satisfaction, well-being). You are right in one respect, autonomy can lead to chaos/anarchy if it isn't understood or used correctly. To sound like a stuck record, it starts with selection, but there are other things too.

    Eric Schmidt and Google understand how to use autonomy. They do all the other stuff first, then they're able to ensure that 20% of the time of their employees is ringfenced outside of management control. Autonomy. I'm sure you are aware that innovations such as Google Mail, Google News and others were born within this 20% time.

    Check out Gerald Fairtlough's The Three Ways Of Getting Things Done (http://bit.ly/dtlsYZ) or listen to Ricardo Semler talking at MIT about 'Leading by omission' (http://bit.ly/9n9ahc) for an overview of the benefits of autonomy in commercial contexts. It's where contemporary thinking is at.