Is IT Part of the Business, Or Just a Supplier?
May 20, 2011
Matthew Burrows
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I hear lots of debate about whether IT 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". Much smirking would doubtless result at the notion of quantifying the cost to the business if HR was down for 2 hours!

And if Finance disappeared for a week, the beans would still be there to count when they returned. IT, on the other hand, is a critical business function; any outage is a disaster. Of course the CIO should have a seat on the Board. How can anyone possibly view IT as merely a "service"? IT, 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 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?

Many organizations push back on the "IT as a Service Provider" idea and want a peer-to-peer relationship with their business colleagues, with IT being seen alongside the other business units all focused on the goals, services and products which the business as a whole delivers to its customers.

Make a Decision, Take a Position

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

Regardless of whether you are an internal IT department, or an outsource managed service provider, it could be argued that you are all "Service Providers" in a generic sense, because you deliver services. I don't think 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. Making it feel like a relationship between a customer and a supplier can lead to focus purely on the services delivered across that particular customer/supplier line, which can 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 their external customers and stakeholders.

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 who want 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 which are centered on their customers and shareholders.

There is 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 that? 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 or job.

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 the 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 there is 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 are actually an external 3rd party organization delivering services), I believe the relationship will be stronger if you can put what you do in the same context - how it 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 are always referring to the external customers which you and your colleagues serve as part of your wider company view.

Don't forget that you do deliver services to your colleagues to help them do their jobs, and it's good practice to define what you deliver, measure how well you deliver it, and constantly strive to improve.

About Matthew Burrows

Matthew Burrows is President of ISM and Managing Director at BSMimpact, as well as a regular blogger on BSMdigest's The BSM Blog. BSMimpact is a UK-based boutique consulting firm specializing in Business Service Management and Transformation. The company's impressive client list includes O2, British Airways, IBM, HP/Compaq, Centrica (British Gas), Vodafone, BMC, BT, Unilever, Virgin Mobile, and more. Burrows also serves as a Council Member for the SFIA Foundation, Lead for the Global priSM Advisory Committee, President of the Institute of IT Service Management, and a Management Board Member for itSMF UK.

Related Links:


Institute of IT Service Management

SFIA Foundation

The priSM Institute


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