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Information Technology: What Business Are You In?

By | February 24, 2015 in Service Desk

Information technology, service desk, help desk - what's your business?

Think Nike is in the athletic shoes and apparel business? Not on your life.

“Nike sells shoes but it’s not in the shoe-selling business. It’s in the business of selling emotion and aspiration. Nike sells achievement, Nike sells perseverance and Nike sells Victory.“ (

If you ask most IT people what business they're in, their answer will invariably focus on “technology”.  But are we actually in the technology business, or something more fundamental (like enabling business outcomes)?

Fatal Attraction

If you asked White Star Line in 1910 what business they were in, they would say the transatlantic shipping business. It was an industry engaged in a fierce competition for bigger and faster ships – deeply reflecting their focus on shipping (with a lesser focus on moving people).

Every organization must answer The First Question of Innovation: What Business Are You Really In?

Both in its design and its operation, White Star Line’s Titanic was intended to demonstrate dominance and superiority in the competition for bigger and faster ships — a focus that turned out to be both misguided and fatal. Had they foreseen the arrival of air travel and its wholesale takeover of transatlantic shipping, they may have made other choices and still be in business today.

That's Entertainment

Harvard Business School lecturer Theodore Levitt coined the phrase Marketing Myopia to describe the failure of organizations in defining their mission too narrowly.

Had Hollywood stuck to its roots in celluloid film technology, it would have been kicked to the curb in the coming domination of television and digital entertainment.

But Hollywood knows its business well: Entertainment (not film!)

Risky Business

IT Service Management is about enabling business outcomes. This is our business. We are very strong  in the use of technology, but our business is enhancing business performance and removing barriers. The measure of our performance is the degree to which we enable business to achieving their goals.

Steve Jobs stands out as perhaps the best example of a geeky technologist turned visionary leader. He didn't see technology as an end in itself, but was gifted with the ability to see what technology could enable.

Too often we spend more time debating the merits of one operating system versus another, than trying to understand what our customers need servers to do.

Have you ever reported 100% server uptime when the customer was dead in the water? Imagine how your customers feel when you report network round trip times are “well within SLA range”, when they are experiencing significant “network delays”.

It's not that technology components and their efficient operation aren't important. They are the very foundation upon which business services are based. But, just as Hollywood isn't in the film business, IT isn't in the technology business.

IT is in the business of enabling business outcomes.

Dances with Wolves

In order to help the business achieve its goals, we have to know and understand them. Get in their space; walk a mile (or two) in their shoes.

It never ceases to amaze me how little we seem to know about the workings of the businesses we serve. We need to get out there and engage our customers.

If we leave Relationship Management exclusively to those with the title, we're excusing ourselves from our very reason for existing. Get invited to business staff meeting. Listen to their plans and challenges. Understand their struggles and concerns.

You Can't Handle the Truth

As you engage your customers, ask the tough questions. But, be ready to hear the truth, in all its splendor.

  • What is the biggest challenge you face?
  • What's changed in the last year in your business, and what changes do you see in the year ahead?
  • What IT services do you use the most and what do they do for you?
  • What IT services to you use the least, and why?
  • What would you like to see more of from IT (and less?)
  • Can you show me how you use your IT services?
  • If IT and technology weren't a barrier, what would you do differently?
  • What technologies are your competitors using?

IT Service Management aims to maximize business value from IT, enabling the achievement of business goals. In our business, we use technology, but our real business is enabling business outcomes.

Focus more on what business outcomes can be enabled by technology and less on the technology itself.  Get to know your customers in their native habitat, and measure your success by the outcomes you enable.

What business are you in?

Like this article? You may also like:
The Service Desk and Relationship Management: All You Need Is Love.

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Greg Sanker

About Greg Sanker

Greg is an IT Service Management blogger, speaker, and practitioner with decades of global IT experience ranging from Fortune 10 tech giant to public sector. He lives in the Pacific Northwest (USA), where stunning natural beauty and high tech form a unique lifestyle. In his spare time, Greg hikes, bikes, and plays a bit of blues guitar. He blogs about Excellence in IT Service Management at

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