Leave the “IT” in “ITSM”

A recurring idea in IT management discussions is that we need to lose the “IT” (“Information Technology”) in “IT Service Management.” Or maybe just the “T” or just the “I” – I’ve heard all variations. The argument goes something like this:

“The IT label is killing us! They think we’re a bunch of geeks that don’t understand The Business! They are outsourcing us! They don’t understand us! We’re just a cost center! We have to kill the IT label and then they will think we are a Strategic Partner!”

That, in a nutshell, is the argument I’ve been hearing for years. I have some concerns. I think it is a negation of our fundamental identity as computing professionals.

First, if we are doing “service management” without the “IT” then I wonder how we differentiate from the broader services sector: health, beauty, food, automobile repair, and so on. Or how, in the case of large internal IT functions, we don’t confuse ourselves with our business partners. “Payroll Services” as a function rolling up to an EVP of HR is emphatically NOT owned by IT.

If I am an IT manager running a payroll application, I am not the person who actually owns the payroll service in terms of its people and business processes. That ownership rests with my partner on the “business” side, and I am skeptical such organizational boundaries will soon (if ever) disappear.

I was recently at a conference where some were saying, “There’s no IT, only The Business.” Consider the following analogs:

  • There is no Law, only The Business
  • There is no Finance, only The Business
  • There is no HR, only The Business
  • There is no Product Development, only The Business
  • There is no Marketing, only The Business
  • There is no Sales, only The Business
  • There is no Operations, only The Business
  • There is no Distribution, only The Business

Why is IT special? When did it magically transcend and become undifferentiated? And be careful what you wish for…

Consider the meme that “IT doesn’t understand The Business.” Let’s look at this with some detachment. The argument essentially is saying that, because IT is a component function of the enterprise, it does not encompass nor easily comprehend the entire enterprise as a system. This, of course, is often true.

It can also be equally true for Marketing, Sales, Product Development, Operations, Logistics, HR, Finance, Audit, and Legal. A corporate lawyer who obstructs a key contract for weeks over trivial concerns also does not recognize the enterprise as a system. HR departments are notorious for not understanding what “the business really needs” and get almost as much grief as IT in the mainstream business press. And don’t get me started on Sales vs. Marketing vs. Product Development vs. Operations. Just go read The Goal and Goldratt’s other novels. Many are guilty of myopia in the business world, and IT does not need to crucify itself.

Really, only the CEO has the big picture. Any functional area has its own specialized language, reinforcing its particular concerns. I recall the time I was the only IT guy trapped in a room with some financial analysts trying to understand the nuances of Activity Based Costing. At the end of the meeting, I said, “You realize you are all a bunch of geeks who speak a language nobody understands, right?” They laughed, because some of them had said the same of me.

I recently read where people are often surprised that Toyota still has functional areas. That’s right, for all its orientation towards value streams, those streams still flow across concentrated functional centers of expertise. And what is our fundamental expertise in Information Technology? It starts with the question: What is IT?

To answer this question, all you need do is read Gleick’s recent The Information. Review his  accessible history of Babbage, Turing, Shannon, Von Neumann and the rest. What they established was a technology of information, that is:

Technology (from the Greek tekhne “art, skill, craft, method, system”)

applied to

Information (from the Latin informacionem, “outline, concept, idea” or informare “to shape, form, train, instruct, educate”)

Thus, how ideas and concepts (in the form of data) are systematically produced, stored, manipulated, and presented. How information can beget information, as first understood by Ada Lovelace with her invention of the algorithm. The potentials and limits of information processing and transmission, as explained by Alan Turing and Claude Shannon. The practical implementation thereof, as envisioned by Von Neumann. And the applications in cryptography, ballistics, aeronautics, insurance, census, and many other areas that immediately followed in the footsteps of these giants.

Does IT require specialized technique? Craft? Training? Yes. What’s wrong with that? Where would we be as a society without deep specialization? It’s how we get things done.

But what about the business relevance?

Any functional area that does not seek to understand the entire enterprise as a system is a potential cancer. IT is not unique in this. But we don’t solve the problem by denying our identity. We solve the problem instead by having clarity in what our expertise, our tekhne, can do to benefit the enterprise, and engaging in a never-ending quest for dialog and broader understanding. And, while the “outside-in” dialog may start with the business’s objectives, our response to that dialog must ultimately reflect our area of expertise. That’s why we were invited to the table in the first place. Let’s build on that, rather than trying to hide it.

The need for IT will persist, regardless of sourcing or organizational structure. The technique, the craft, the method of information. It’s been a huge benefit to the world. Let’s neither forget it nor be ashamed of it.

It’s been seven decades now since computing theory was combined with electronics into the automated electronic computing machine. Yet, as IT professionals, the achievements of those 19th and early 20th century geniuses still inform our everyday life. And if we forget that, we will indeed no longer be doing IT. Nor will we have a secure place in our business, though we and it are “freed” from the “distraction” of IT.

In fact, we’ll be nothing more than superstitious supplicants. We’ll be a cargo cult, beholden to those IT providers who HAVE sustained a fundamental connection to the wellsprings of computing and its accelerating evolution. And ultimately, we will be their irrelevant puppets.

“Be yourself.” Advice that applies to an industry, as well as the individual.

Republished with permission of Charlie Betz from his blog.


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