I've spent my career in IT in two phases, first providing and managing IT services and then consulting for IT service providers. In the first phase, I bought consulting and attended classes in an attempt to solve the practical problems I had in my work. In my experience, some of the consulting and training was useful and some was a waste of time and money.
In the second phase, I tried to help my customers to solve their problems by offering consulting and training. I was lucky in the start of my consulting career in 1990's. I’d set up and managed an IT help desk and it was obvious that all IT departments and service providers needed one. As there were not many people who had any experience of help desks, I had no difficulties in selling my services.
The Rise and Fall of IT Help Desks
The case with the help desk consulting was pretty simple. The common problem that my customers had was that their customers were not satisfied with IT. And a common complaint was that it was very difficult to contact IT people and it was difficult to find the right person in each situation. The help desk solved the problem and the success was easy to measure as a jump in customer satisfaction numbers.
However, the improvement was not permanent, customers' requirements grew, and in many cases the IT management didn't understand the value of the help desk. They considered the help desk to be less valuable than the technical departments who were maintaining the IT technology. Various attempts to cut costs led to a decrease in customer satisfaction and gave the help desk a bad reputation, as the staff turnover was high and competence levels low.
I learned that a bad manager could easily destroy a great model and that bad managers did not want to hear advice which implicated that they were wrong. I also learned that there were many consultants who supported the bad manager’s ideas.
After some years, the demand for help desk consulting diminished and I was constantly looking for new sources of revenue as a consultant. Some were quite successful, some not. One of my best areas was the measurement of customer satisfaction. While some failed completely, and some are still a bit embarrassing, like team working consulting, which was a hot fad for some years.
During my years in consulting and training, I had successful projects and failed projects. Typically, failure was just waste of time with no results to show. And my best record was in the setting up of help desks. Practically no help desk failed to function and create positive results.
During my years, I saw many cases of toxic consulting and bad management. It’s a common situation that managers are not happy with their results but don't know how to improve. Many of them act like people who want to lose weight. Where, instead of making a change in their eating habits, they go after some new wonder diet.
Managers are eager to hear about new solutions and want to apply them to their organization. Usually these solutions change how the employees do their job, not the way the managers behave. Sometimes these solutions work but often the new model is soon forgotten, and the operation continues as before. Many companies have a history of several improvement projects with forgotten process descriptions lying in their archives.
Management consulting depends on new ideas. Usually someone has a good idea which then spreads around the world. Many consultants and trainers get their business by being active in spreading the new ideas. Generally, this is a good thing, new ideas and solutions spread rapidly round the world, but the downside is that consultants must quickly become experts in fields that they don't know well.
Consultants and New Ideas (and Fads)
In IT service management (ITSM) fads are, and have been, popular. ITSM conferences are an important venue for helping new fads to catch on. Conference organizers want new content, speakers want to be admitted, so any new idea can become popular quickly.
When ideas become very popular, there is a high probability that they become diluted and twisted. New trainers and consultants do not really understand the idea, they just parrot the training materials which they studied themselves just a little time ago. I’ve been sitting in conference sessions where the speaker uses my slides without understanding the point in them. Many frameworks cover huge areas, for example ITIL goes from strategy to development and operations. I don't think there are many ITIL trainers in the world who actually understand all the areas that current version of ITIL covers.
This situation leads us to the toxic situation, where a clueless manager wants a silver bullet to solve their situation and a hungry consultant promises to deliver. Staff are sent on courses where incompetent trainers teach them misunderstood practices as sacred texts. People are forced to follow badly-designed processes or models and any critical talk is suppressed.
In my opinion, the quality of ITSM research has been appalling. Even Universities have resorted to using badly-designed surveys. Typically, there is very little attempt to raise a representative sample, the respondents are often the people who have been in charge of an improvement or implementation project and there is no attempt to obtain responses from the business or users.
The questionnaires then contain impossibly-complicated questions. For example, the consultant designing the question would like to hear whether "The Service Design Principles have been Aligned with Strategic Initiative Objectives." None of the people answering have any clue what the nonsense means but all questions must be answered and there is no "I don't know" option.
Old Fads Continue and New Fads Emerge
It looks like the ITSM world is not changing much. Consultants and trainers push old and new fads on their customers. New models come with no scientific support but with big promises.
Below I offer my opinions on many of the older and new approaches to IT service delivery and support…
ITIL was originally a great new idea, which was a major step in the growing understanding of IT services. It was originally open to use and redevelopment which led to innovation and improvement. Consultants created their training materials, and EXIN and ISEB created exams. Then ITIL became the victim of its own success. The owners appeared to want greater revenues and tried to take a stranglehold of ITIL consulting and training.
The first step was to create a new version of ITIL, the V3 in 2007. In my opinion, the project was a miserable failure. Five companies were hired to each write a book of 500 pages. The five books were uncoordinated and full of page filler. The authors were forced to include the old ITIL with all its flaws within the new ITIL. Then a new edition, ITIL 2011, fixed the most glaring errors but the result was, and is still, a sorry mess.
The consulting and training community had to swallow the new ITIL, otherwise the whole industry would have collapsed. ITIL consultants have a popular mantra: “adapt and adopt.” I’m sure that there are competent consultants, who are able to provide valuable consulting under the ITIL brand by replacing the ITIL content with better advice. I’m also sure that there are many consultants and trainers who cannot recognize the many errors in ITIL practices. It’s very easy to become a certified expert in ITIL. And in some companies one ITIL Foundation certified person can be the local authority in ITSM processes. Here things are done in a specific way because the local experts say it’s what ITIL demands.
ITIL describes a very heavy process structure with a classic waterfall design structure. It describes tools like a process for making strategy and a process for demand management. Many practitioners believe that they need to follow ITIL blindly, "by the book," and have wasted a lot of effort in trying to make ITIL work (or in useless activities which are based on ITIL). Here is one silly example I have experienced:
My last project in the service provider sector in late 1980s was event processing automation. It was a successful project. Then 20 years later ITIL introduced the event management process and the company started processing events manually, which was, and is, a huge waste of time and effort.
Probably the worst shortcoming in ITIL is that it’s very service-provider centric, the processes are about the development and production of services. ITIL assumes that the service provider is highly independent, creating their own strategies and maintaining service portfolios. There’s no real customer service. Users are allowed to report incidents to the service desk and the goal of incident management is to restore service, not the customer.
There is a new book in the ITIL series: ITIL Practitioner. It is quite good. Unfortunately, it does not replace any of the old books although it contradicts them in some ways.
Unlike ITIL, ISO 20000 is an international service management standard. When it came out, it was a refreshing improvement. While it’s based on ITIL, it had many improvements like requirements for management, vendor management, and customer relationship management, which didn't exist in ITIL at the time. Unfortunately, in my opinion, a new version did not improve the standard and bad certification practices diminished the standard’s value. ISO 20000 never became widespread.
Many vendors have tried to create a suite of ITIL-compliant tools. This has been difficult as ITIL is a pretty vague architecture for systems development. IT4IT provides a detailed and specific description of ITSM architecture. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it copies all of ITIL’s errors. It also describes various value streams but there are no customers. A typical example is the Detect to Correct "value stream." It’s a very myopic way of looking at something which is basically customer service.
New technology and tools have enabled new coding methods. And with the applications operated in the cloud, developers did not need to set up new servers physically. It became much easier to release new versions without disrupting current service. Agile coding was much faster than the previous waterfall approach, and instead of formulating exact requirements, customers could see and play with the new application and development continued in small steps.
This approach worked especially well with application developers where the application was the business. They did not operate servers but acquired them from service providers; for them, hardware became code.
Agile is great for application developers, especially for those who create new products for end users. Although it probably will not work so well when there are legacy applications involved, when there are several types of users with different requirements, and when there are regulators involved. For example, a game is easier to develop with agile methods than a transaction service which works between several enterprises and is under governmental control, possibly even under different regulatory entities. For example, consider a money transfer application within EU countries or an airport departures screen, which shows information from a large number of airline information systems.
The agile approach spread to traditional environments, where it created a need for better cooperation between development and operations. Thus, DevOps is often described more as an approach or culture than a framework or practice.
DevOps is a great idea, but many IT organizations have outsourced both application development and IT operations. So, it does not make much sense for an average city administration, paper mill, or fashion house to develop capability for coding and IT operations. These are very specialized areas and any sane company buys them as services. Because most applications that a company needs are common to thousands or millions of companies.
In my opinion, it looks quite silly that the current IT fad is DevOps. There is even training with certification exams for Agile and DevOps. My guess is that 90% of the trainers have never worked in an Agile environment, most likely they’re old ITIL trainers who are trying to find new business and their customers are the companies which have already wasted lots of money trying to “implement ITIL” and failed.
DevOps looks like it’s transforming into some kind of New Age management philosophy or religion. Of course, a competent consultant can use it to enhance change and better cooperation within their clients’ organizations.
There’s been a lot of discussion of creating a better ITIL. VeriSM feels like one attempt. It’s hard to see much original thought in it, though it’s a useful collection of various approaches and ideas.
But, in my opinion, there is one silly flaw in VeriSM – it recommends Net Promoter Score (NPS) as a metric for measuring customer satisfaction. However, NPS is a simplistic metric – it loses data, it’s unstable, and it’s just something invented for people with limited understanding of measurements. More on this can be read here:
- “While the Net Promoter Score has gained popularity among business executives, it has also attracted controversy from academic and market research circles.” ~ Wikipedia
- “The Net Promoter Score (NPS) and the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) are metrics used to predict sales, profit and share price change. We identify problems with the design of both the NPS and the ACSI. In particular, we find that the NPS does not measure negative word of mouth effectively, and we argue that the ACSI is similarly insensitive to dissatisfaction.” ~ International Journal of Market Research
Let’s Talk Solutions
It’s actually easy to avoid fads. Be careful, don't believe what you’re told, require evidence. Don't believe single user stories or bad research. Concentrate on value creation, don't focus on processes and methods.
A good consultant can be quite helpful. Experience helps, often an outsider can see things more clearly and a consultant can discuss matters which the team members would not raise. A good consultant should be able to bring new ideas to the table. Unfortunately, the best consultants are not the best sales people; and many successful consultancies ride on their superior sales capabilities.
Strive for Better Management
The best route to better IT services is improving IT service managers. There’s no silver bullet, and none of the fads will solve your problems. Good management is a skill which is not easy to teach or learn. If it were, we would have a lot less problems in this world. Good management is based on facts but does not ignore emotions. It’s very easy to recognize good management – the team is happy, and the results are usually good.
A good IT service manager understands what their customers need and makes sure that their team has the knowledge, tools, and support to do a great job.
“Here Be Dragons”
A good framework is like a navigational map. And a navigational chart is also a pretty good analogy for a framework. It doesn’t tell you where to go but it offers a lot of information and also marked routes. It’s possible to travel outside the marked routes, but these are safer.
To be able to use the map you need to understand it and to be able to correlate the map with what you see. These abilities won’t make you a successful sailor. You need to manage your boat and your crew and be able to consider the effect of the weather. And you have to know where you want to go.
Current frameworks are as good as medieval charts. They have some value but they’re not much use for practical problems. Your situation in your organization is uncharted waters where the chart makers might have drawn some dragons.
The above are all my opinions based on a long time in the ITSM industry. I’m sure some of the points will resonate while others will not. My aim here is not to offend but to get people thinking about how to improve their organization’s IT service delivery and support capabilities with, and sometimes despite of, the help that’s available.