IT help desk, and then service desk, teams have long been mesmerized by the advertised benefits of the latest service desk or IT service management (ITSM) tool, showcased to bring order to the chaotic mess in IT departments and to improve the relationships with colleagues wanting assistance.

These ITSM tools are a welcome part of the solution to IT department’s issues but, just as which pencil Stephen King uses to write his bestseller books is not the primary factor in his success as an author, the success of your IT department shouldn’t be anchored to the tools you use or on the volume of your policy documents.

ITSM is primarily about people

As Troy DuMoulin, of the Pink Elephant ITSM training and consultancy company, puts it:

Decades of experience teach us that ITSM programs are really people-change initiatives, but that they are frequently mistaken for ITSM tool implementations or process documentation projects.”

Hence the high churn rate of ITSM tools in IT departments, and the constant “low maturity” ascribed to the ITSM processes in those departments.

But it’s seldom the tool that’s the problem, as competing ITSM tool vendors will want you to believe. The true problem of ambitious ITSM initiatives is in underestimating the challenge of achieving sticky user adoption.

Using the simple shopping cart as an example

Back in 1937, grocer Sylvan Goldman observed that his customers would buy more goods from his store, if only they could carry more goods than fit in a wire basket. He said: ‘‘They [customers] had a tendency to stop shopping when the baskets became too full or too heavy.’’ So, with help from a carpenter, they built the first shopping cart. However, when presented with this new tool, shoppers rejected it. Men thought that it undermined their muscular strength, while women told him “I’ve pushed my last baby buggy.”

But Goldman knew that the tool (the shopping cart) wasn’t the real issue. He instead worked on the user adoption part of the change, the people issue, and hired fake shoppers to use the shopping cart around the store. The trick worked, and the initial customer objections faded.

And back to ITSM…

Today, ITSM tool implementers naively expect users’ adoption to be a by-product of the tool implementation, a user manual, or initial training plans. They assume that they can force people to abandon the old ITSM tool, or email, and to actively do everything needed in the new tool.

This may hold true initially, but all too often the initial excitement for the new tool, and consultant-drawn ITIL diagrams, eventually dies out. Often hand-in-hand with changes in management or in “strategic objectives.”

The tools mindset

Technical professionals in IT departments have distinctive skill sets and terminology, different from those in the rest of the organization. And the failure to appreciate this cultural difference can lead some IT managers to put too much stock in the power of new prescriptive policies, processes, and tools to paper over the underlying people issues.

As business author Jim Collins puts it:

“The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline—a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people.”

The ITIL service management best practice framework has, since 1989, been used by IT departments trying to “mature” towards its documented industry best practices. And, hand-in-hand with ITIL, vendors of ITIL-based ITSM tools have also flourished. Plus, there have of course been other approaches to managing IT such as COBIT, Lean, Agile, and DevOps; and, while these and ITSM tools are very welcome, ITSM professionals need to remember that changing people’s behavior is the real challenge for service management, not introducing the latest ITSM tool.

Ultimately, people, not tools, make an organization successful. And the same is true for any ITSM organization.

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