IT services – actually all services – look different to those supplying them and those receiving them. This separation of perspective is not at all trivial: on the one hand, there’s the customer who judges a service received based on how well it supports their work or life, and on the other hand, those working on the service delivery focus wholly on its means of production, delivery, and maintenance. I believe that having awareness and empathy towards each others’ perspectives leads to real improvements to the service.
In businesses today, with the ongoing move towards outsourcing, multi-sourcing, offshoring, and the like, the logical and physical separation of customer and supplier seems to be growing. So perhaps that makes this a good time to look at how much extended knowledge of the ‘other side’ is useful, and how much is just a source of distraction. While we’re at it, I’ll give my recommendations on how I think organizations can get that balance right.
From the customer perspective, the service is all about the use that can be gained from it. Success is about good answers to questions like:
Effective use of a service is absolutely possible with minimal understanding of how it works. Think about the car you drive. How well you understand the engine, transmission, etc. makes very little difference to how useful it is to you. You judge it by where it can take you, its comfort, ease-of-use, and of course – its cost. Getting too excited about the mechanical aspects of the car can get distracting. Too much focus by the customer on how something works can prevent objective decisions relating to whether it does something you are willing to pay for.
From inside the supplier organization, of course, that same service has a very different look and feel. There needs to be detailed knowledge of the component parts: hardware, software, dependent contracts, costs, priorities, operational skills, and more.
In the IT service management (ITSM) industry, this heads-down focus means you’re working solely on how a service works, making sure to keep it going consistently without interruptions. This approach inevitably means taking for granted that the service does what it should and therefore you’d be striving only to make it do what it does faster, cheaper, safer, and/or greener – depending on what management’s communicated priorities might be.
One thing that thousands of years of engineering has taught us is that sympathetic use of technology prolongs the life and increases the usefulness of services. If we think again about the car analogy, knowledge of how a clutch works applied to driving techniques can make the journey smoother and significantly improve the average life of the clutch. This logic carries over to the ITSM world where using things sympathetically extends the mean time between failures (MTBF) metric – for example, some awareness of how data is structured helps to phrase queries and make searches run faster.
Looking the other way is probably even more important. Those who are building and maintaining a service (like software, hardware, and network engineers, among others) are much more likely to build a service that delights the customers if they have insight into what the customer needs to do, and therefore insight into how they will use the service. Of course this is accepted and essential in service design – how could you build a product without knowing what it is for? But most of a service’s life is during the ‘live use and improvement’ phase, and often this is where the service provider staff is less aware of the end use of the service, which is what drives satisfaction with that particular service.
Squaring this particular circle shouldn’t be that difficult, although it is getting harder, for the reasons mentioned before – increasing separation between customer and service provider. For years, ITSM has used the term ‘end to end’ to mean the whole stretch of a service from the processor to the user. Modern innovations – like cloud and multi-sourcing – effectively lengthen that end-to-end spread for a service, while making it more complicated too.
What might have been delivered 20 years ago by taking the IT support team on a tour around the factory or office, today might need to be replaced by targeted awareness of how end users located 10,000 kilometers away actually spend their working time. But without that awareness, there is the ever-present danger that IT staff will be striving hard to improve aspects of a service that aren’t the ones that matter to the customer.
It isn’t that hard to find out if the levels of awareness – in both directions – are there. A good service manager will be asking some key questions:
Do your service managers see the need for both perspectives, and the importance of their role in seeing, appreciating, and documenting both views?