‘Man in the Middle’ or ‘Solution Provider’?

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When I was a kid, I sometimes played a rousing game of “man in the middle”.  Are you familiar with that game?   One person stands between two other people, trying to catch a ball that is being tossed between the two outside people.  When the “man in the middle” runs toward one of the people on the end, that person tosses the ball over the “man in the middle” to the opposite person.  The “man in the middle” then runs over to the opposite person, who in turn, tosses the ball back.  Back and forth, back and forth the ball would go…the game would be over if the “man in the middle” ever caught the ball.  Or if was time for dinner.  Hey, kids have to eat.

If you stop and think about it, doesn’t the “man in the middle” game describe what happens with some IT organizations?  See if this sounds familiar:

Each year, IT puts together a budget for the next fiscal year.  The budget discusses staffing, new projects, maintenance costs, capital and operating expenditures, and the like.  After much gnashing of teeth and some back-and-forth, a budget is agreed between senior management and IT.  IT then runs into the next fiscal year and begins work according to its agreed budget.  At some point during the year, invariably, an end-user calls the Service Desk with a question regarding the new smartphone they bought, but are having trouble with…or that new tablet that can’t seem to access the corporate intranet.  “See new technology, love new technology, got to have new technology”—we all like the new technology….aren’t we all end-users in that regard?  But wait, IT doesn’t have the wherewithal to provide support for that new smartphone—it is not the corporate standard, and providing support for that particular smartphone wasn’t in the budget that was approved by senior management.  So maybe IT says “sorry, we don’t support that.”   So what if IT makes one end-user upset… it’s just one user.

But sometimes that shiny new smartphone belongs to one of those senior managers, who by the way,  approved that IT budget….then what does IT do?   IT might say, “We’re really not supposed to do this, but for you…” and proceed to help with the new smartphone….ignoring other (budget approved) work.  Or IT might say, “Yes, of course we can help with that”, again, ignoring other (budget approved) work.  Then before you know it, one call turns into ten calls, turns into a whole lot of work that was unplanned and unbudgeted, at the expense of projects and activities that were in the approved IT budget.   Next thing you know, it’s time to start budget planning for the next year, and there are some projects in this year’s budget that didn’t get done….and some embarrassing answers to some pointed questions.

IT just played the “man in the middle” game.  Senior managers approved a budget.  End-users wanted the new stuff that wasn’t in the approved budget.  IT got caught in the middle.

Perhaps the scenario above is a bit extreme, but I hope you can see my point.   IT often gets put in the middle between making end-users happy—even with things that IT could do but isn’t supposed to be doing – and the expectations of the senior management that funds IT.  The bottom line is that IT simply cannot afford to play “man in the middle”.   And while “man in the middle” may have been fun to play when we were kids, IT can never win at this game—even if we “catch the ball”.  Someone is not going to be happy.  And IT doesn’t help its reputation or establish itself as a solution partner to the business.

So what can IT do to stop playing the “man in the middle” and become “solution provider”?

  • Define Services and publish a Service Catalog

The Service Catalog represents the set of services that available for deployment and have been agreed with the customer – likely senior management.  Having a published service catalog sets expectations by describing what services and outcomes IT delivers and supports.

  • Produce and publish performance reports

How many calls to the Service Desk were for ‘unsupported’ technology?  How much work effort was involved with these calls?  Having this information and understanding the impact on the organization enables IT to have a fact-based conversation with senior management about the issue.

  • Become an expert on the business of the business

Understand what drives your company – beyond just revenue and profits.  Who are the company’s customers?  What are the business drivers for the company?  How does IT contribute to the success of the business?  Being an expert on the business of the business enables IT to talk – in business terms – about the business impact of non-supported technology.  Being an expert on the business of the business further enhances IT’s ability to articulate how an existing service may satisfy the end-user need for such technology.

  • Ask questions

Perhaps there is a good reason to expand services or support to include that new device.  Probe a bit deeper – ask questions and find out how providing this additional support benefits the business.  Perhaps this idea will enable new business opportunities, reduce costs, or have some other business benefit.   If there is a good, legitimate reason (other than “I want the new shiny toy”), then ask the requester to partner with you to develop and present a business case for the suggested solution to management for decision.

Playing “man in the middle” is a game that requires a lot of energy and drains resources and morale in IT organizations.   Changing the game from “man in the middle” to “solution partner” is a win for both IT and the business.

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