Monday, 17 March 2014

Are your customers an alibi for what you don’t do?

In a recent meeting between the operations and IT departments of a large company, the operations department asked for a software solution to compare the competing offers of electricity suppliers. In response, IT's 'agile development' team asked for a fully documented requirements document - knowing full-well that it was a nearly impossible request. The operations people are busy running the company and have little experience writing software specs, and their original request was formulated as "let's work together to identify the options that are available to us". The meeting did not end well.

In theory, support departments serve and enable business users - their customers. In reality, long seen as cost-centers operating under ever-shrinking budgets, the support departments of some companies have developed an endogenous culture and a "can't do" attitude. Instead of seeking survival through innovation and service quality, a siege mentality has set in, where the walls are so many impregnable processes that stymie the barbarians at the gates (the business users).

  The endogenous culture results from the low status of support functions (cost-center) and the misguided belief that their function is indispensable independently of the level of service (i.e.: everyone needs a paycheck, so HR is irreplaceable). This monopoly situation breeds contempt for business users who, in turn, complain bitterly about the quality of service and lack of innovation. Without positive external feedback, the support function justifies its existence internally. 

The can't do attitude is a way to preserve power: who needs a border guard if the border is always open? Business users who propose new or innovative services are systematically turned away at the fortress' gates and derided for their insolence, naiveté, or lack of expertise. 

This opposition between "business" and "support" results in significant waste of time, goodwill, and energy, particularly as organizations grow in size. Instead of being the oil that greases the proverbial wheels, support departments become so many grains of sand that slow and frustrate the entire system. This is particularly true of formerly heroic IT departments. Their  relevance has diminished as their roles have been downgraded from developing mission-critical applications to maintaining the once-innovative in-house applications deployed in their glory days.   

Instead of looking for ways to improve and of reaching out in a constructive manner to business users, these support departments tend enter a spiral that justifies their self-image as victims of their customers rather than as sources of innovation. In this way, the customers become the very excuse for not improving, for not doing. The business users are blamed for :  
  • not being able to spell out their needs in a complete (and irrationally exhaustive) manner   
  • when they can surmount the obstacles of the requirements phase, having unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved, and how quickly it can be done 
  • wanting unattainable ROIs (or even having the gall to try to calculate one)    
  • when new services or products are delivered - sometimes very late - not being happy with them and not using them 'properly' or to their 'full potential'  

Breaking the siege can be difficult, since it threatens the survival of those who control the processes. Sounding the trumpets to bring down the walls (unilaterally decreeing change) cannot yield results because the besieged are most often a necessary part of the organization, if not in their current state. A Trojan horse (political maneuvers) can break a stalemate, but it must be followed by quick and decisive transformation towards a desirable new state. The best solution, often long in the making, is a negotiated surrender with a guarantee of safe passage to this desirable target state.

In other words, once the siege is broken, the besieged must be given a shot at redemption, not massacred. This redemption takes the form of a transformation towards a bright and mutually beneficial future, one in which the incentives of the support functions are aligned with those of the business units. Mutual trust and understanding are key elements of this shared future:   
  • trust that business requests will be considered seriously and quickly  
  • trust that business units will stop trying to asphyxiate, denigrate, or circumvent support departments  
  • understanding of the legitimate legal/technical concerns raised by support experts 
  • understanding of the daily reality of business users and the services they effectively need  
Overcoming the endogenous culture and the "can't do" attitude are the first but necessary steps in a long reconciliation process towards the revival of the support services an organization deserves, and whose conclusion is more efficiency for all. 

No comments:

Post a Comment