Douglas Adams obviously knew what makes an IT shop tick. In Life, the Universe, and Everything, he identified the Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP) field, which renders some things not so much invisible as unnoticeable. For a while, the imminent collapse of the Greek economy was an SEP, until it became too big to ignore.
IT departments are littered with SEPs because they make the whole tangled mess the average beleaguered IT manager has to deal with more workable. The politically astute sometimes call them “knowledge domains”, or “fields of expertise”, otherwise known as silos.
IT services are supposed to be joined up so that business managers can understand them. They enable a business department to process a certain number of customer bookings every hour, for example, regardless of how many different systems have to collude at the back end.
Ignorance is bliss
SEP fields get in the way of that. They enable the database admin to ignore the networking team and the network manager to ignore the information security officer.
When the business manager complains that the system is too slow, making it difficult to cross-sell products to customers on the phone, an SEP causes the owner of the Linux-based customer relationship management system to say it is working fine and it must be the fault of the order database. Or the network. Or some other problem.
Sadly, a customer can also become an SEP, unless the company is influential enough to haul someone higher up into the frame.
Eric Marks, chief executive of consulting firm Agile Path, calls this “the culture of no”.
Failing to eradicate this culture makes it impossible to offer internal business customers a premium level of service.
“Amazon and Google don’t have an army of service operatives monitoring their farms,” says Graeme Swan, a partner at consultancy Ernst & Young.
“They basically smashed as much infrastructure as they possibly could into warehouses, and then just assumed that capacity would be there.
“Now, clients are telling them they want a premium service”
“Now, clients are telling them they want a premium service. They are worried that they have no way of monitoring it or tweaking it. So there is no premium service.”
You can buy as much premium support as you like (although some question how well it works). Premium performance streams? Not so much.
Tell it to the telcos
Perhaps this is one area where telcos could finally earn a dollar. For years they have focused on providing infrastructure, clinging grimly to low-margin business while content providers pick up more lucrative revenue streams.
Now they could actually use their experience to show the new generation of service providers how it is done, says Jeff Cotrupe, global programme director at Frost & Sullivan practice Stratecast,.
“Especially in the context of mobile marketing, people are turning back to the operators, and asking them how to provide a better quality of service. The operators are saying ‘we’ve been dealing with this for decades’,” he says.
But you are not Amazon and you just want to eliminate the SEP fields to make your users happy. How do you do it?
Ashish Gupta, EMEA vice-president at IT services firm HCL, says he creates a series of service management layers for customers, each designed for different roles.
“So instead of trying to get all the data in different types of format, if you just convert that into a web-based server interface you give the customer the ability to customise it based on the company's needs,” he says.
Find the carrot
This works for an outsourcing firm that is charging its clients based on, say, how many orders the outsourced system books on their behalf. Internal IT departments also need an incentive, and Swan suggests service credits, in which an end-to-end service costs different amounts.
“I think this might be a commercial structure, rather than a technical one,” he says. “It isn’t going to be a socialist state any more. If you want a certain service, you will be able to to pay for it. That then causes technical issues – which is the bit we haven’t cracked and I don’t believe anyone has.”
Companies that want to offer multiple levels of service to their users, and charge accordingly, will face cultural challenges as well as technical ones. Getting everyone to accept that they are all working together on the same problem, and taking ownership of any issues that arise, will probably be the biggest obstacle of all. ®