IT doesn’t have Customers

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“Business – IT Alignment.”   “The business is IT’s customer.”

When I started my personal ITSM journey, these were a couple of the early concepts to which I was introduced.  When I first heard these concepts, they made a lot of sense.   In a lot of ways, these concepts still make sense.

“Business – IT Alignment”.  What this means is:

  • IT must align to the business. IT must serve the business, not itself.
  • New technology and software are cool. But technology and software have no value unless it supports, delivers, or enables a business outcome in the most effective and efficient way.

“The business is IT’s customer”.   What this means is:

  • To deliver effective solutions for the business in the most effective and efficient way, IT has to improve how it works with the business. We need to get better at gathering requirements, get better at getting beyond the ‘what’ the business needs and understanding the ‘why’ the business needs it.
  • We must work much closer with the business and get out from behind the ‘closed door’ that characterizes many IT organizations.
  • Don’t do IT just for “IT’s sake”.

I get the ‘why’ behind the two concepts.  The culture of IT organizations needed to–in some cases, still need to–change.  The collective IT culture must “mind shift” from looking at itself as collections of “my component” to “our service”.

So fast forward….to the Pink 15 ITSM Conference in February, where I listened to a presentation from Dr. George Westerman.  Dr. Westerman is the author of the book “The Real Business of IT: How CIOs Create and Communicate Value”.1

Dr. Westerman’s presentation opened my thinking to what this new culture must be about.  Dr. Westerman made a few points (and I’m paraphrasing) that jarred my thinking:

  • The business is not IT’s customer.
  • IT does not have customers.
  • IT is part of the business.
  • The “customer” of the business is outside of the organization.

Whoa.  I came away from Dr. Westerman’s presentation realizing that the culture of IT needs to evolve even further.  In a lot of ways, the concepts of “Business-IT Alignment” and “the business is IT’s customer” are becoming obstacles of IT’s own doing.

I had to learn more.  Immediately following Dr. Westerman’s session, I purchased and downloaded his book onto my iPad.    The Las Vegas-to-Chicago leg of my flight home provided me with the opportunity to nearly read  the entire book.

One of the things Dr. Westerman discussed in his book was this idea of a ‘value trap’.  He defined a ‘value trap’ as “practices that seem to be good ones, but actually  prevent IT from delivering and communicating value”.  An example of such a value trap is the use of the term “customer” by IT when referring to the business.  While this may appear to be a good idea, Dr. Westerman argues that it actually inserts a wedge between IT and the business it serves.

If we as IT are to avoid this value trap, that means we need to change our perspective and take on new roles as a progressive IT organization.  What are these new roles?

  • Integrator — Identify and synthesize services and solutions to the organization to deliver outcomes that the business needs, drive efficiencies, and eliminate waste.
  • Partner — Go where your business colleagues are. Learn what they do.  Understand where challenges exist and how IT can be used to overcome those challenges.
  • Innovator — Identify and promote opportunities for using technology, software, processes, and methodologies in creative, value-generating ways.
  • Leader – Don’t wait to be asked how IT can be leveraged or exploited for business success. Proactively develop solution proposals and the business cases needed to sell the proposal to decision-makers in the business.
  • Service Broker – We are more inter-connected with our suppliers than ever before, and that trend will only continue to grow. Recognize skill gaps within IT and leverage areas of external expertise to deliver solutions that the business needs.

This represents a significant paradigm shift for many IT organizations. This may not be easy.  But I believe that its doing and learning from the hard stuff that makes us better, both as IT organizations and as individuals.   The important thing is that we start making the paradigm shift.

What can we as IT professionals do today to start the paradigm shift?

  • You’ve heard this one from me before. Become an expert on the business of the business. Understand what drives your company—beyond just revenue and profits.  Does your company take pride in its culture, its place as a good corporate citizen, or its history?  Is your company more entrepreneurial in nature?  Figure out what your company values, and then determine how IT can support or enable the realization of that value.
  • Drop the ‘geek speak’ when you are with business colleagues outside of the IT organization.   Outside of IT, no one really cares about network utilization, swap rates, and processor speeds.  It’s not that they don’t expect us to know that stuff–they do.  But what they do care about and what they want to have a conversation about is how are you as IT are making their job easier, how are you as IT delivering true business value, how you as IT are making a difference.
  • Talk and think in terms of ‘business value’. It’s not about availability of systems, it’s about providing services with such warranty and utility that enables the business to produce 10,000 widgets per month or handle expected call volumes to the customer care center.

Do we still need to ‘align’?  Yes—from the perspective of ensuring IT strategy aligns and supports business strategy.  But we need to take that thinking even further.  Try this on– there is no such thing as an “IT Strategy” and a “Business Strategy”.  To me, ‘alignment’ now means there is one strategy – the business strategy – of which IT is a significant contributor in its new roles of innovator, partner, integrator, service broker, and leader.

So it’s time to change some of our thinking.  IT doesn’t have customers.  The business does.   IT must start acting like its part of the business, no differently than Marketing, Sales, HR, Logistics and so on.   I believe that our businesses want us to do this; it’s just that they may not know how to ask.  Don’t wait to be asked.  Be an earlier adopter and exhibit the role of the new IT organization.

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1 The Real Business of IT:  How CIOs Create and Communication Value”, Hunter and Westerman.  2009, Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston.

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8 thoughts on “IT doesn’t have Customers”

  1. Well, not new idea to me, still not so common across the IT business. I would agree with general line, with one objection. If we think about “changing thinking” it means currently we do it wrong. If we do it wrong, first we must admit it in front of ourselves. And here comes the rain… Self-esteem of so many people (unfortunatelly including professionals and manager) could not stand it. So, they will jump from one IT world model to another, trying to blame anything else, than own mistakes.

  2. Thanks for your comments, PJ. If you look at this from the perspective of “continual improvement”, I think that we as IT professionals should always be open and willing to “changing our thinking”. It’s not that what we’ve been doing has been wrong, it’s just that it is time for our thinking to evolve. I still believe there is a lot of validity regarding “Business-IT Alignment” and “the business is IT’s customer” thinking. For example, concepts such as IT having a “customer service attitude” and ensuring that all IT activities are related to a value-added business outcome are, in my opinion, just as valid as ever. But just as businesses change and evolve over time, our thinking as IT must change and evolve as well. To that end, we as IT professionals cannot be afraid to make mistakes or admit failures; rather, we should look at this evolution as our opportunity to assert ourselves into the new roles of leader, integrator, service broker, partner, and innovator that our businesses need.

  3. The concept of allighnment IT with business is key to IТСМ theory. But in my opinion, it has always been considered unilaterally, in terms of conscious IT actions to understand and meet the needs of business.
    And the actions of the business in the direction of this alignment are not considered, namely what should the business do to fully exploit the opportunities offered by new IT, increase its computer literacy, and so on. I think this change in business culture will also make a significant contribution to aligning IT with business.

    1. I think the change that needs to happen is business-IT ‘integration’ and not ‘alignment’. The line between “business” and “IT” is blurred at best, and especially in the digital era, integration of IT with the business will be the differentiator between businesses that thrive and businesses that go out of business. This means that IT organizations have to “step-up” their game and take on the new roles of integrator, broker, leader, partner, and innovator for the businesses they serve.

      1. I think it is useful to add two more roles- differentiator and accelerator. Differentiator, in terms of providing the organization with a strategic advantage over its competitors as an organization with a strong, efficient and efficient IT division that implements and manages state-of-the-art information technologies and / or implements a differentiated business strategy for the organization. Accelerator in the context of the introduction of state-of-the-art information systems, an accelerator for providing IT services that enable accelerated delivery of relevant business services, acceleration of business response and adaptation to changing conditions, and accelerator of return on investment in information technology.

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