Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Business - IT relationship is more like a love triangle

I've come across some great articles recently, using the Valentines Day analogy for the relationship between IT and the rest of the business. See "ITIL®’s BRM: How Business Relationship Management Shows the Love" by Julie Montgomery for an excellent example.

Most of these articles, however, either gloss over or skip entirely the reality that there is a third actor in this relationship: the consumer of IT services. To clarify, I mean the employees of the business that consume transactional services provided by internal IT, HR, Facilities, and any other internal service provider organizations. This could be the caller on an incident, the department manager requesting provisioning of accounts for an employee, the business executive sponsor of a large and complex implementation project, etc.

What IT (and other internal service providers) frequently miss is the point that this third actor is a separate and unique entity. We assume that this third player is just an extension of "the business" entity.

An example: you are an IT manager working with the marketing director, who is constantly complaining about an ongoing issue causing marketing folks pain. In your mind, a reasonable workaround exists that, while not perfect, keeps the marketing people productive. You haven't given up on a resolution to the problem, but your team is now almost exclusively focused on a high visibility project sponsored by the COO. When you bring up the complaining marketing director in a staff meeting, you are met with reassuring comments like, "Which one does the business want done? They have to get their priorities straight." This is a common IT complaint. The business can't make up its mind regarding priorities.

This perspective has one serious flaw: It assumes the business and the consumers of IT services are one in the same.

Look at it this way: All three actors are part of the single entity called "the business." We share the same overall mission, bottom line, etc. In terms of the relationship between IT and the rest of the business, however, there are at least three distinct relationships:
  • The relationship between IT and business leadership
  • The relationship between IT and the transactional internal consumer of IT services
  • The relationship between the internal service consumer and business leadership

The idea is that while we share the same big picture goals and objectives, we each have our own goals, objectives, and motivations. To pretend otherwise is, at best, naive.

The IT Skeptic, Rob England, likes to use a parent - child analogy to describe the relationship between business and IT. You could extend that analogy to call the consumers of IT services our "siblings." As such, we are always jockeying for the love and attention of our business parents. I think there is something to this, but if we are to position IT as partners in the business rather than a butler, we need to look further.

Each partner relationship is different. We can't pretend the behaviors that nurture and grow the IT - Business leadership relationship will equally nurture and grow the relationship between IT and internal service consumers.

IT manages two distinct kinds of relationship:
  1. The customer relationship with business leadership. Business leadership is our customer. Business leadership pays IT to provide services. The number one concern is "Are we receiving good value for our investment?"
  2. The consumer relationship with the transactional recipients of the services. Internal users are our consumers. The number one concern here is "Do I have the services I want when I want them?"

The Facebook business model teaches us a lot about the difference between customers and consumers of services. Users of Facebook are clearly not the customers of Facebook. Facebook makes money from advertising, application developers, and third parties to whom Facebook sells all the amazing data it collects on us. Those are their customers. Facebook users are consumers of the Facebook service, but we are definitely not the customer Facebook needs to keep happy. For the business model to work, they just need a sufficient number of people consuming their services in order to generate enough data to satisfy their customers (companies buying the consumer data). Those who complain about Facebook not listening to their customers regarding things like privacy miss the point. Facebook listens to their customers all the time. It's just not us, the consumers of Facebook, that they're listening to. Facebook needs to keep their customers happy, and their consumers just happy enough that they keep consuming the service. They simply don't care if they lose a few angry consumers, as long as the customers continue buying the data being generated.

The internal service provider model is not all that different. We, as internal service providers, need to keep the consumers of our services just happy enough that they don't rise up in revolt against us.

In reality, the business leadership entity probably HAS made up its mind. The high visibility project is the priority.

(That doesn't mean it is the correct priority choice, just a very likely outcome of the given scenario)