Seldom a love story: IT and end users

Prioritization must be determined by the business, not an IT staffer who's just trying to do the right thing.

No signToday, the IT department is often a victim of its success. With technology increasingly at the center of business initiatives, there is an insatiable demand for services. And while most IT professionals come to work each day to be productive and add value, more often than not, it’s an uphill battle to keep internal customers happy. Working either harder or smarter hasn’t necessarily produced the customer satisfaction dividend anticipated. Moreover, it has served to increase expectations of what can be provided and it has continued to raise the bar for IT.

Typically, IT will deliver the right thing at the right time (as long as there is leadership support and good requirements), but it can be painful getting there. Internal customers will be happy to get their solution, but they might not be happy in the manner it was done. It’s a perception issue. IT is too often judged almost exclusively on how something was produced rather than what was delivered.

Should IT be chasing kudos or trying to get the job done right?

In the service business, success is often measured by having happy customers. In the marketplace, happy customers are repeat customers. Organizations with internal service departments are not usually subject to these types of competitive pressures. Sure, cost must be managed otherwise a service may be better performed outside the business. But even where cost is higher, organizations continue to enjoy the benefits and pay the premium of keeping many services internal. For example, they can exert maximum control and are not subject to continued contractual interpretations and disputes. With that said, if you’re a captive cost-center, quality customer service has to be driven by something else such as culture, incentives, or vision. In other words: it’s a choice.

If an IT team is delivering quality services and products but still not meeting, say, the speed of service expected, that might be an acceptable trade-off. In other businesses, quality may suffer in place of speed. In project management, there is a maxim known as the triple constraint. That is, changing one of the following: speed, cost, and scope usually results in an impact to the others. In service delivery, the triple constraint is often quality, speed, and customer satisfaction (underlying these is a fourth, the inadequately addressed component of risk.)

It’s a worthy goal to be both a world-class customer service provider and a producer of high quality products and services. It’s possible to manage the service triple constraint without too many trade-offs. But to be that organization requires an important operating principle: IT must rarely be the arbiter of priorities. That role must live squarely outside of IT.

Changing IT from an organization of “no” into an organization of “go”

I’ve seen it repeated throughout my 20-year IT career: internal customers come to the IT team with a need and it’s IT who says it can’t be done. Customers get frustrated and they have a poor view of the IT team. Usually they are saying “no” because of a capacity issue rather than a technical limitation. When IT says no to a customer, what they’re really saying is that something else is more important. That’s IT being an arbiter of priorities.

Yes, it goes back to IT governance, something I’ve discussed as being absolutely essential to business success.

But while IT governance can work as a process at the leadership level, it will fail when the IT team doesn’t have the understanding and the language of the process to support it as it manifests downstream.

When confronted with a priority decision, an IT staffer needs to move arbitration back to the business.

The staffer typically wants to know what to do, not whether they should do it.

Therefore, you must transition your staff from saying “no” to asking questions about priority and capacity. It certainly can be the case that more than one request has priority. If so, it’s now a question of investment. Spend more and you’ll get more resources.

Bottom line: these decisions are made by the business, not by the IT staffer who’s just trying to do the right thing.

Internal end-users and IT may never have a love affair, but if roles are better defined and understood, all parties will be less frustrated, have greater empathy for where they are coming from, and customer satisfaction will be firmly focused on the quality of the product or service being provided.

Photo: Encouraging No-No’s by jurvetson, on Flickr

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  • Joel Bigham

    The single most poignant part of this article for me is that IT actually says “no” to anyone without taking the time to truly understand what the customer wants.

    Customers (internal or external) just want to be heard and have their ideas fairly evaluated. Often IT is saying no because they think the underlying reasons go over the head of the requestor. This is an epidemic and a major setback in putting a better face on IT, which I think should be the goal of any good technologist.

    This doesn’t mean tackling every project just to make people happy, but giving them a fair assessment of their project and the reasons for any underlying prioritization is so important. I feel maybe it’s because technologists in general aren’t good at explaining techie speak in some common language that non-techies can wrap their heads around.

    This topic really hits home with me; it’s something I’ve thought about for years and tried my best to correct from the bottom up.

    Great topic Jonathan … I hope other organizations are taking notes.

  • Devdas Bhagat

    Joe, the problem of It saying no is that the people in IT have gotten burnt trying to get enough funding to get good infrastructure in place.

    When you know that the only way you can offer service is by duct taping a house of cards, and then you need to support it for years, it’s easier to say no and avoid that pain.

    Offer IT a budget sufficient to build good infrastructure and put appropriate automation and controls in place to keep it working, and then see if they respond better. If the business does not see investing in infrastructure as being valuable, then the infrastructure folks will not see value in investing their time and energy back in the business.

    Every business decision today involves IT. The job of the IT department is to make sure other people can work. If other departments cooperate (that includes *learning* how to use their tools), then IT will be happier and won’t say no.