by Ade McCormack

Beyond service as a process

Mar 16, 20125 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Several years ago I wrote a piece on service in this column. I alluded to the lessons we could learn by adopting some of the practices used by the medical industry in terms of bedside manner.

Things have moved on. Service desk staff are increasingly calling users by their real name rather than their ticket number.

I would like to take the service theme forward now by focusing on the front line IT staff, including you the CIO.

You are unlikely to be delivering a user-pleasing IT service if your service desk staff are:

– Unhappy – Irritating the users

Keep in mind that a five star hotel with a one star reception is a one star hotel in the eyes of the customer. So service desk staff define the service you deliver and thus define your effectiveness as a leader.

Let’s look at each of these in turn. A recent Harvard Business Review edition was dedicated to the subject of happiness.

So it would appear that this theme has migrated from a self-help new age cosmic ordering service classification to one that sits squarely in mainstream business.

Of course anything that impacts business will impact IT. However I suspect that it will be a while before the curricula for ITIL and Prince will be extended to embrace happiness.

HBR made a strong case for the correlation between happiness and productivity. And in any case it would be very difficult to mount an argument that made the case that happiness in service desk function personnel is highly undesirable.

The first question is then how do we make people happy. There are a number of factors to improving one’s happiness.

The principal one mentioned was helping other people, which if I am not mistaken is the role of the service desk. Another important factor was autonomy.

So perhaps there are ways in which you can loosen the leash in terms of scripts, procedures and processes such that the staff can have some control over how they address user issues.

This of course flies in the face of IT service management and any other factory/industrial business models, but the rules of the digital economy are different and we in the IT industry are supposed to be the ‘digital kings’, so we need to set an example.

I suspect the task-focused management style many CIOs developed during their project manager years has left an imprint; one that now colours every aspect of the IT function.

It would be wrong to criticise a task oriented/industrial approach as this was an important phase in professionalising the IT industry. However I believe we need to move on up the value/service stack.

Focusing on the well being of IT staff (happiness and competence) is the next phase in our growth.

Onto the subject of use irritation – many would say that this is a user problem and outside of the service menu/catalogue specification.

Technically true perhaps but still not a smart perspective.

Two important tenets to keep in mind:

– Users do not seek to be irritated, so their condition must have been triggered in some way – Users pay our salaries

The sooner IT staff see the correlation between their economic survival and the happiness of the users the sooner the IT function will move from necessary evil supplier to trusted and indispensable partner.

We all have blind spots in respect of our personalities. You believe you are a wonderful delegator, your staff see you as dumping. You offer advice on the proposed architecture, your staff see you as micromanaging.

I believe I am writing a piece to help the industry raise its game, you think why doesn’t he keep his half-baked opinions to himself.

Feeback It’s only when we are told, and told by people we trust, that we realise that we have an interpersonal or emotional intelligence problem.

We as an industry are not known for our interpersonal skills, but we are known for our intellectual intelligence. And it’s probably our intellectual intelligence that does not allows us to countenance that we have an emotional intelligence improvement opportunity.

So what can we do to help the service desk guys identify and address their capacity for user irritation?

Marshall Goldsmith, a very respected leadership guru, in his book What got you here, wont get you there advises that the solution is in seeking feedback.

This will help both the IT staff and users. In that the former will become more self aware and the latter will have had the opportunity to vent their pent up frustration.

Feedforward The next step is for the IT staff to ask the users for advice on how they should modify their behaviour (feedforward). And most importantly the IT staff need to demonstrate that they have taken the advice on board and are genuinely grateful for the users’ input.

This of course seems unimaginable.

It would be as astounding as two warring factions simply ceasing hostilities and having a chat only to discover that all these deaths were the result of some minor misunderstandings.

For many IT functions it’s a war out there, and the users are on the other side. Until a truce is reached, CIOs can forget about their boardroom aspirations.

So action is needed now. Your front line staff need to put down their weapons, remove the service desk sand bags and barbed wire with a view to actively pursue reconciliation with their clients.

Ade McCormack is a Financial Times columnist, speaker and adviser on the digital economy (