Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Tomorrow's People: A Sketch of a Post-Mechanistic IT Service Department

'Blue Sky Thinking'. Edale, Peak District. Peter Johnson, 2013
Regular readers of this blog and my followers on social media will be aware that in recent years I've taken to relentlessly critiquing the thinking which dictates the interactions between corporate IT and workers. It's fast becoming my online raison d’etre. That said, I have always, and will continue to acknowledge that much of what is designed and implemented by IT departments is useful, stable and appreciated by employees.

There is a however, however, and it is that IT is ever-evolving. Those of us who work in this area can never rest content on our laurels, safe in the knowledge that 30 years of the Tayloristic-cybernetic paradigm known as ITSM has delivered everything that our audience wants and could ever desire.

It doesn't.

I think it is self-evident that, within corporate IT, the targets are ever-changing. Just when we think we've achieved a goal, we find that it has already morphed into something else.

Get used to enjoying the journey, and not anticipating the destination.

So anyway, I thought; instead of these ever more shrill critiques (which let's face it, everybody's doing these days), and my occasional foray into the densely theoretical and philosophical (see my recent book), how about something practical for folk to get their teeth into?

I concluded that this might be a good idea. Therefore, time to put my cash where my critique is; to put up or shut up; to post my own ideas, which other critics can, in their turn, take their own pot-shots at.

So, here goes. My vision of IT service of the future.

First up, I must acknowledge a debt to Chris Dancy ("world's most connected man"). His regular posts about the 'quantified self' have ingrained themselves into my consciousness somehow, and into technical areas of the speculations which follow. Nevertheless, let us be clear; the most significant influence upon these ramblings is the (dense) theoretical vision which is outlined in my book. It provides a philosophical substrata and an unshakeable gestalt from which to build these ideas of future practice.

Anyway enough waffle. Let's get stuck in.

The service desk. It's what ITSM instructs us to do. Single point of contact and all that. Personally, I view it as process-heavy, top-down, mechanistic, systemic and a whole load of adjectives that I won't bother with right now.

If the service desk worked well and was a much-loved function within corporations (such that people didn't feel the need to parody it – "have you tried turning it off and on again?"), then I wouldn't be writing this. If you really want a rehash of why the service desk, SLAs, continuous service improvement etc., are all a bit silly, see my previous blog entries or read the book (last mention, promise). 

The service desk is ok, it plugs a gap and fills a need. It does a job. It’s like filler in a cracked shower wall; OK, but not great. Great is a newly plastered, tiled and grouted shower wall. Something that gleams and makes people say "Wow!". The filler – and the service desk - isn't that. They offer nothing more than a jaw-clenching basic functionality.

Anyway. Less criticising, more imagining.

'Users' – isn't that a ridiculous term? In the corporate workplace, technology is ubiquitous. It's like food and water these days. 'Users' was a valid term when there were still workers in offices who did  not use technology, but we all do now! It's like calling diners at restaurant 'food and wine users'.  The term 'users' demeans the human workers in organisations and all the things that they are trying to achieve.

Change no 1: Let's think of a better term – people? Humans? Folk? The German for folk is 'volk'. I'm going to call them 'corpvolk'.

It's not a big change or a significant one, but as linguists are fond of telling us, language frames the way in which we think and corporate IT needs to start thinking in different ways.

It also sounds nice and futuristic.

Let's throw in some changes which will please all the tech-heads and vendors looking for something to sell. Don't become too complacent however, I'm going to return to the important, fluffy people stuff in a little while.

Change no 2: I'm going to take the greatest amount of pleasure in consigning the term 'service desk' to the dustbin of corporate history. Forever. Yay!

Change no 3: I'm going to visit the CIO and ask her for a considerable sum of cash. She's a busy lady and will of course say no. She'll have far too many other important issues on the go to listen my ideas in detail, but one night when we've been working late, I'll buy her a couple beers (or maybe champagne if she's that kind of girl). We'll have a bitch about the funny stories and people in the office, and talk about the non-work things that are really important to us (family, travel, music etc.).

At an opportune point, I'll introduce my ideas about a radical new concept of IT service that I want to implement. By the end of the evening she'll share the vision, and even more surprisingly will still agree to it the next day when she's sober.

So with a wedge of budget at my disposal, I'll set about building a new office. It'll be located centrally in the corporate headquarters. It will be circular, and the walls will be made of glass (a fish-bowl, so everyone can see in), and it will be the new home for the worker-facing IT staff.

Naturally the department will also have a shiny new name.

Change no 4: We’ll call ourselves the technical excellence hub. Or maybe even the technical hub of excellence to fuck with the minds of those who are addicted to acronyms; they could hardly shorten it to 'the THE' could they? (Or could they?)

So tech-heads get ready. Here’s your porn.

We'll encourage walk-in visits from the corpvolk. We'll like that. See, we'll be very collaborative. Cosy. There'll be one-to-one seating where issues and ideas can be discussed and shared, and where of course problems (you don't really want to continue calling them incidents do you?) can be offloaded.

Change no 5: There will be four doors at each compass point. To enter the hub, corpvolk will need to swipe their passes. To get out again, they'll need to enter a single digit on a keypad; any digit, from zero to nine. We will, of course, be recording all this. That digit is the satisfaction score and we'll do some cool analysis on all of the data.

The tech continues.

Change no 6: At every desk in the hub, there will be a scan point. Corpvolk visiting an individual will need to scan their passcard at the desk so their visit is registered. This will let us know who has seen who.

Change no 7: No. Single. Point. Of. Contact. This was always more for ease of management than for good customer experience. If I (as corpvolk) have a good relationship with a particular individual in corporate IT, why would I want to speak to anyone else? Go on, make that mental leap. You know it makes sense.

Tech excellence staff will have follow-me numbers so that they can take calls wherever they are seated, and we can of course analyse the quantity and flow of those calls. 

The same goes for email. 
"Email me please! Yes, I work in the tech excellence hub and my address is laurence.montag@newcorp.com".
To please the tech heads we will come over all dystopian and extract the email connectivity metadata (that is, not the contents of the email, but rather who is emailing who).

What are we going to do with all of this collected information?

Change no 8: We're going to build a big, constantly updating, social network map on the intranet. It's a toy of course, but it’s something the CIO will be able to show off to demonstrate at least partial return on that investment (that she might be starting to think is looking riskier by the day).

Our social network will be an alternative to the long-since shredded organisation charts. If I'm corpvolk in, say, the accounts department, I might notice strong links between people in my department and a particular tech excellent (for that is what we'll call them). This particular excellent might be very knowledgeable regarding accounts department issues and requirements. Or alternatively I might choose to speak to someone else: Janine, because we get on and she's funny.

Sure there'll be queues of people waiting to talk to my favourite excellent  at times, and staff might occasionally not be able to get through on the phone, but I’ll let the corpvolk and the excellents handle those issues between them as and when they arise. I certainly am not going to insult anyone's intelligence with call queuing, automated messaging and IVR. Just come down to the hub (the stroll will do you good), or ring someone else. We're humans people, not automata. To paraphrase Prince – "act your age mama, not the number of cores in your central processing unit"

My CIO is getting nervous again. Sure, everyone loved the social network map, but they want to know how all this expenditure is going to contribute to the bottom line. I was going to suggest taking her to the pub, but she's savvy enough not to fall for that again, although I could probably swing it by tempting her with a couple of bottles of vintage Veuve Cliquot.

My response to these questions about what the new department will achieve is clear. All the technology, the hardware, the analytics are just peripheral; the hors d’oeuvre. They are like the plating up of fine cuisine, rather than the actual ingredients and flavours. At this point let me borrow from hip-hop phraseology – I do in actual fact mean flava. The flava – the special thing that makes it work – is no more nor less than the people that we staff the hub with. The excellents. Without them the whole project fails.

So excuse me if I descend into lecture mode for a bit.

They have to be excellent. They need to have a good grounding in all of the everyday corporate office systems and tools (nothing new there of course) so that they can fix and add automation. They also need to be able to communicate effectively with the other parts of the IT department, the less customer-friendly darkened-room types, and the operations people, the ITSM functionaries. For this task they will certainly need to know their change management from their release management, their availability from their reliability. They will not, for one moment, bore the corpvolk with all that stuff.

Related to that last point, they will be excellent networkers, able to strike up relationships with both corpvolk and the hardcore ITSM flunkies throughout the business. They need to get on with the corpvolk in order to understand them and their work, and have good relationships with the tech people in order to get knowledge, favours and access to systems on behalf of the non-IT workers.

To be honest, much of the above might be found on some of the better job descriptions for service desk agents that you'd see on the job boards today. What's the special flava then?

Well, for all five of you who have bought and read my book (oh, did I promise not to mention it again?) you'll know the answer to that one. It's two things, but the one that it’s important to introduce at this point is values. That is, our excellents need to be fiercely driven by service values. They are people for whom providing service to others is a core part of who they are.

The other important value that they will hold to is something around continuously acquiring knowledge. In our technical hub of excellence, the two values will sit harmoniously alongside each other. The service value will drive the excellents to want to help the corpvolk achieve their ends, and the value related to acquiring technical knowledge will provide them with the means, the knowledge and the expertise to do so.

Change no 9a: No recruitment agencies. Sorry. Despite their terrible reputation, I know some really lovely people who work in IT recruitment agencies. I mean everyone's gotta make a living, right? However the model is all wrong. It’s all about simple skill matching and making money. Excellence that way comes not (Yoda becoming I am?). Anyway, I'm sure in time recruitment agencies will adapt to the new world and will resurrect themselves in a new form which will be more suitable to adding value to our post-ITSM corporate IT functions. But in the short term, and to help force that mindset change in the recruitment industry, the rule remains: no recruitment agencies. 

Change no 9b: A brand new recruitment model. Now that we're no longer returning the recruitment agents’ calls we'll need to do something new. Happily a central part of the 'unshakeable gestalt' which I'm working from is about recruitment. It's a values-based thing, assessing potential hires on the basis of their values. Yes sure we'll still do the traditional skills assessment, to see where an individual's knowledge is as of the current time, but partly because IT changes so rapidly, the values assessment will be of considerable importance. And also for the other reasons stated above.

Do you see what I did there? I need to keep the number of changes to 10 so that I can post this on social media as 'the 10 changes that can take corporate IT into the 21st century' or some such guff. That's why we have a 9a and a 9b, which means that I can add a...

Change no 10: No managers. We need the excellents to be innovative and creative. Therefore no boundaries. We'll fashion the department, not as a machine or a cybernetic system but in terms of complexity science (if you're asking what this is all about then you're clearly not one of the 5 who have read my book). We'll trust the excellents to be driven by their values such that they'll use their knowledge and time and passions to deliver brilliant and timely solutions for the corpvolk. The hub staff will be lightly assessed and developed of course, but how that will occur is beyond the scope of this article (but certainly not beyond the wit of man).

The excellents will bring their diverse interests, skills, talents and passions to the job. We may have one who is obsessed with complex statistical analysis, another who is a complexity junkie and believes in the advantages that accrue by allowing chaotic process to develop freely. Another might be a free internet junkie who is passionate about free information and the ending of copyright. Yet another might be a protodancy. That is, someone who believes in the integration of humans and technology. I wouldn't necessarily agree with all these guys and girls, but I'll be certain that they're bringing far more to the organisation than I could if I imposed my ideas and will through a power hierarchy.

So we have the office, we have the tech, and we have the people. What can we offer the corpvolk?

This is the part where the ears of my long-suffering CIO will prick up. I think she's in for a treat, and not just a bottle with a yellow label and a 20th-century date on it.

Corpvolk will certainly not just come to us with trivial issues (e.g. "my computer won't boot"). Of course they will do this, but that will be the dull stuff, the work to get out of the way, not our sole reason for existing (we'd probably palm some of this stuff off to the ITSM rump within the technology department, they like this kind of thing). No, the money maker that we'll be shaking is that the ‘volk will come to us with business issues and ideas, and we'll be helping them to use technology to make these ideas fly: 
"how can we better track the productivity of back office staff?"
In response to that particular question, the excellent might even introduce the requester to ideas about complexity. For example, he might respond with:
"Have you read Professor Stacey's Complexity and Management? I mean, do you  really want to do that?’
Other questions might include:
"How can we simplify the client payment process?" 
Another individual may storm into the hub with urgent demands:
"There must be more services that we can put online to reduce costs?"
Someone else might win our undying love by asking 
"I really love your social network map, can we create one for our customers?"
Some of these will end up as largish managed projects that the ITSM functionaries can leap all over, but many others will simply be intense and agile coding efforts. Other still will require the implementation of what was once referred to as Shadow IT. 
"Oh, so you know SQL?" the excellent would say. "That's cool. We can give you some space on a virtual machine, or hook you up to the Microsoft cloud services. Either way you'll get a SQL instance so that you can store and analyse your data there. The main corporate warehouse will pick it up from your server, and in the longer term we’ll seek to integrate it to the main corporate solution"
"But, yeah, short term we can give you something that works now"
We'll even source and supply contractor resource to sit in the business to implement some of these mini-innovations/proof of concepts/prototypes. We won't use agencies though, but we'd certainly be open to organisations like Contractor Club. Part of the role of the excellents would be to keep the huge bureaucratic  ITSM juggernaut at arms' length until it is clear that what is required really is an expensive centrally supported corporate solution as opposed to a short and swift innovation. Many of the little bits of automation and data analysis that we'll enable will not require such overkill.

It's clear that this all means that elements of the old ITSM functions will still be chugging away in the background (in the same way as in the era of extreme personal computing, there are still mainframes churning away in darkened rooms) - but in both cases it is not these which the corpvolk interact with. The computers they interact with are tablets, laptops, mobiles and PC, and for technology assistance they will interact with the excellents not the inflexible ITSM brontosauri. And, better believe, the excellents will be excellent!

You've read the book (or probably haven't) - the three Lumiere elements  are values, chaos and control. We have no intention of watching the baby gurgle down the plug hole with the dirty bathwater. We need this thing to work. So control (read ITSM etc.) will still exist, except that it will be pushed back to the strictly necessary. This having been achieved, we'd free the customer facing staff to use their values, principles and humanity to create amazing customer experiences. To be honest we won't care if the underlying service providers (those who embody the control paradigm) are our own corporate ITSM chums, cloud providers or third parties. We're all about making ideas fly.

So that's it. An off-the-cuff brain dump of how the unshakeable gestalt (referred to in the b**k as Lumiere) could be applied to technology use in corporations. I need you however, to nota bene that this is not a new model, or new framework or new best practice. It's no more nor less than the application of a school of thought, of a philosophy. There are many other ways in which such thinking could be applied, while still remaining true to the underlying mindset. As @hackofalltrades says, sorry Mr Taylor, you got it wrong, there is no one best way.

Remember that.

And what do you think? Do you like it? If you were my CIO would you sack me or take me out for a congratulatory slap-up? I'm hoping that you'd do the latter.

A word of caution. If you're reading this and getting all excited (the former is doubtful, the latter extremely unlikely), I should warn you that this is just bare bones. Perhaps not even that, more a rough sketch of the shape that the bones might take. Around this sketch there would remain so very much thinking to be done and many problems to be encountered and resolved. Without understanding the gestalt you're likely to end up back at ITSM again, just with some new bells and whistles. The old problems will invariably surface all over again, just in a different form.

What I think I'm trying to say is that if you're gonna borrow from any of this (who am I kidding?) please at least acknowledge me – in part it'll salve my ego. Secondly – and more importantly – read the book (i.e. refer to the theory, understand the gestalt). There are many issues which I highlight there, which for reasons of space cannot be included here. Even if you find my particular style of prose unreadable, then try the excellent Anarchists In The Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people by Liam Barrington-Bush. It's easier reading and shares many of the same themes and conclusions. It's not about method - it's the mindset. I say again, if you try this without the philosophy it's likely to end up looking like ITSM and you’ll be back where you started from. 

The future of service work is coming. We can do it. We homo sapiens love changing paradigms. Look how we went from stone to bronze to iron to steam to the internal combustion engine to the space age to the information age to ITSM, to here, (to infinity, to beyond...)

Let's do it. Let's please our people; the staff, workers, corpvolk, and managers. Instead of hacking them off.

Join me on twitter and we can continue to build.

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