Thursday, 30 October 2014

Freedom Now - Or how to stifle business innovation via corporate IT

For around fifteen years I worked on the other side of that veil of separation that is known in corporate environments as the IT service desk. On the employee side of the service desk you have the ordinary 'business users'. Here be folk who are simply trying to do their jobs: customer service agents, pricing analysts, underwriters, engineers. Their drivers are the usual human things; to get the job done with the minimum of fuss, achieve business goals in order to help with their career ambitions, or keep their jobs, or to go home with the sense of a job well done.

All of this activity above involves (or at least should involve) contributing to the overall business objectives of profit and growth. The customer service agents do this by helping retain customers and to please them such that they recommend the firm to others, pricing analysts help to keep the organisation focused on selling profitable products, underwriters make risk decisions favourable to the bottom line and engineers build the infrastructure that the company's services run upon.

These various workers use tools to help in their travails, and these are myriad. However in the information age they will largely be IT based. This, then brings us to the other side of the curtain;  that shadowy authoritarian world behind the impenetrable boundary of the IT service desk.

Beyond those service desk folk who cheerfully (or sometimes not) take your calls and tell you to turn equipment off and on again (that is a little unfair - sorry!) is the domain of corporate IT. The workers in this area  are also concerned with human things such as getting the job done with the minimum of fuss, achieving business goals, keeping their jobs, going home with the sense of a job well done etc. However, the problem is that the objectives of the IT organisation can often conflict with the goals of the rest of the business.

Let me begin however, by saying that in some cases the goals of IT and the business should diverge. The technicalities of providing stable technological infrastructure are often quite rightly removed from business concerns. As a case in point consider the internet. The internet is used by all manner of enterprises, from local taxi firms to global petrochemical corporations - the internet was not designed with any of these specific industries in mind - it was simply built to be stable and reliable and useful and that's good enough for most.

Therefore all the obtuse technical and process stuff that IT do behind the veil in this respect is valid: operations and change management and availability, for example. These can exist in a bubble which is a little way removed from the business and things will still be cool.

The problem - in my humble opinion - occurs when this technical process-centric approach encroaches on the freedom of the workers on the business side of the curtain to do as they wish with the incredible array of information technology tools that are currently available. You know what I'm getting at: the idea that a user can't have XYZ application because of IT reason P or process reason Q. Or that the user can't download and install utilities from the internet.

Such restrictiveness stems from IT approaches which fail to distinguish the difference between the benefits of stable infrastructure, and the benefits of instability (chaos, complexity) in human action; that is, in the exercise of worker freedom. The outcomes of such freedoms are what I refer to in my book as unknowable futures, and they include radical innovation, creativity, and through these, business advantage.

Therefore, and as I am fond of repeating, IT departments are attempting to apply a mechanistic/systemic approach (which works well with inanimate infrastructure) to people (where it works poorly). As Bob Marshall tweeted recently:

People who don’t understand computers believe they are magic beans.
People who do understand computers know that PEOPLE are the magic beans.

which contains the essence of what I'm trying to say. To put it another way, if your business has a controlled/planned approach to what your people can and can't do (just like everyone else in your industry) then you're probably unlikely to steal the jump on your competitors.

This situation is exacerbated by the fact that this mechanistic/systemic approach to work is not only popular in IT. This means that the business managers who negotiate with, and provide funding to IT departments often give their approval to these restrictive, mechanistic approaches, focusing on cost arguments, or subscribing to the fear of chaos that IT departments are good at promoting. Such business managers are not always cognisant of the effect of these policies.

The net result is that an individual worker - for example pricing analyst - may have a brilliant idea to help the company improve the profitability of its products. However in order to do this she needs access to an enterprise class database system and a statistical package. This would cost the organisation nothing (they have an enterprise licence for the Microsoft SQL Server database stack) and the open source statistics tool R is freely available on the internet.

However, because our worker is not in IT, she is not permitted to own an SQL instance, nor is she permitted to download and install the non-standard application R. With a lot of effort and hassle she might eventually convince the powerful forces within IT to grant her access to the tools she needs. Sadly the likelihood is that she has her day job to do, and the people on the service desk don't really understand her needs (most have never heard of R). Moreover, the IT department process wonks are hidden behind this curtain of obfuscation and, unable to get access to the right people, our would-be innovator just gives up. Or leaves the company.

I don't know how to end this blog. Perhaps I should just re-iterate my view that the service desk in its current form is an anachronism, increasingly outdated, a relic from the days when workers didn't really get IT. Well they do now, and they need a different type of IT service (note process wonks, not IT services).

They need to be trusted, and allowed to innovate. The IT department should remain the gatekeepers of infrastructure, but not of technology. I envisage a role where the service desk are first line enablers or facilitators of the technology that's out there (see this blog). It's a quite different concept, and failing to distinguish this costs businesses in terms of lost opportunities to innovate and progress, probably on a daily basis.

Freedom now.

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