After over 10 years of discussions, I still hear lots of debate about whether the IT department should be in a customer/supplier relationship (often described as being a service provider) or seen as an integral part of the business along with their colleagues in other departments.

The “integral part” camp are keen to point out that you won’t hear other functions such as HR, Marketing, or Finance having the same debate about their position, and talking about “business alignment.” And much smirking would doubtless result at the notion of quantifying the cost to the business if HR was down for two hours! And if Finance disappeared for a week, the beans would still be there (to be counted) when they returned.

IT, on the other hand, is a critical business function; with any significant outage is a disaster. Of course, the CIO should have a seat on the Board and how can anyone possibly view IT as merely a “service”? Marketing, HR, and Finance could all be labeled as business services but if any function should expect to transcend that tag and stand peer-to-peer with the operational part of business, then it’s us.

So why does the question persist? Is IT the victim of an injustice or maybe just super-bad at PR?

Make a decision, take a position

I think I understand why there are different views on this, and why it’s important to decide which position you take.

Regardless of whether you’re an internal IT department, or an outsourced managed service provider, it could be argued that you’re all “service providers” in a generic sense, because you deliver services. I don’t think that the main issue is about whether we are service providers; it’s more about terminology and the psychological impact it has on the people providing service, those consuming the services, and the other stakeholders who have an interest in the services.

And making it feel like a relationship between a customer and a supplier can lead to the focus on the services delivered across that particular customer/supplier line. Which can then reduce the amount of thought on how these services support the objectives of the “customer” organization, the delivery of services/products, and the customer experience to external customers and stakeholders.

The impact of good practice

Maybe ISO/IEC20000 can be seen to reinforce the customer/supplier model because of its language, but this doesn’t make it any less relevant to an internal IT department that wants to be seen as colleagues working alongside Marketing, Sales, Customer Support, Finance, HR, and all the other departments. United on a core set of business objectives that are centered on customers and shareholders.

There’s definitely a need to understand where you sit in the operating model, and how you’re viewed by others. However, the potentially unifying concept here is that we should all be striving for, what I call a “customer-centric service-orientated” culture and operating model. What do I mean by this? I mean that for most companies, the customers they deliver services and/or products to are critical – without these customers there would be no revenue and therefore no company nor job.

How often are people blinkered to the commercial reality of work?

This is probably extremely obvious to all, but I’m amazed how often we get distracted from this context. Does the Database Administrator really understand the impact on the external customers, their experience, and the revenue impact when a database stops working? I’m not saying that we can afford the overhead of everyone in a technology function constantly doing this translation between the technical world and the wider business context, but I think we all need to at least acknowledge and understand that there’s a wider context which is critically important for us all.

Even if you do want a customer/supplier relationship, which might be totally appropriate for your circumstances (maybe you’re actually an external third-party organization delivering services), I believe that the relationship will be stronger if you can put what you do in the same context. This is how it (what you do) helps deliver to the customers at the end of the chain, supporting the delivery of those products or services to an acceptable quality and agreed cost.

So, my suggestion is that we ignore the words that don’t match with how we want our relationship to feel and the behavior we want to see. If you want to be seen as an integral part of the business, then maybe stop using the term “customer” to refer to your colleagues in the other departments and business units. And stop talking about “business alignment”. You can always agree with them that when you use the word “customer” you’re always referring to the external customers (which you and your colleagues serve as part of your wider company view).

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Managing Director at

Matthew Burrows currently serves on the SFIA Council, is Chair of the itSMF International Ethics Review Board, and contributes to the Service Management industry and the development of best practice – including as Design Authority for SFIA.

He is Director and Principal Consultant of BSMimpact, an ISO/IEC 20000 qualified consultant and auditor, and SFIA Accredited Consultant, specialising in implementing pragmatic business service management solutions rather than just theoretical consulting. He has considerable practical and operational experience of Service Management.

Matthew’s authoring credits include SFIA (Skills Framework for the Information Age), Service Management, Portfolio and Programme Management methodologies, white papers, books, articles and publications.

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Peter Gatcum
Peter Gatcum

I agree with your suggestion. It’s important for everyone to understand who the customer is.
Surely, it is fundamental to any Digital Transformation programme that IT be fully integrated into the business.

Ben van Ackooy
Ben van Ackooy

Hi Matthew. “IT, on the other hand, is a critical business function”. With all due respect, but that goes for every link in the business chain. Or let me put it more clear, if HT doesn’t do its job then no people are working at the organization, if Sales is not getting in any orders than IT has nothing to do, if the facilitating department is off line for a few days then lights go out in the buildings, supply trucks won’t drive (in time). In other words, IT may play an important role on a technical level, but from… Read more »