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Rethinking IT as a service experience



Alan Young and Alisa Thompson

Cloud Computing Journal

30 September 2013

Inside the worlds’ companies and government departments, IT organisations have traditionally focused on delivering to internal customers. This has created an environment where IT is expected to align the services it delivers with age-old business processes that have evolved over years of operation, and is focussed on efficiency.  Delivering innovation and new ideas has become fraught with unnecessary complexity and internal politics, and strategically IT remains a back-office function. 

Meanwhile, in the outside world, things have changed. IT is now front of house, delivering to consumers via online and mobile apps, whose expectations are higher. IT is part of the customer relationship, and as a result, it is expected to deliver its service promise and for problems not to occur. Social media has meant that when there are problems, they occur publicly. In the time it can take to raise a trouble ticket on a service management system, a consumer problem can surge on Twitter and reach thousands, damaging an organisation’s reputation. At the same time, organisations now have access to more information about their customers and services than ever before, which provides huge potential for transforming their services. 

As a result, IT is moving from being a back office overhead to the front office where it is a means of creating value. At the same time, it is being expected to provide much higher levels of service and meet more flexible requirements, and deliver all of this for a lot less.

As consultants, we are seeing an increased interest in companies rethinking their IT and designing it around the service experience; that is IT designed and delivered for the benefit of external customers. This is more than just being responsive; it is about taking responsibility for the delivery of service.

As you might expect, this shift is taking place in organisations that rely on fast-moving technology to deliver their services to consumers. These include technology organisations, mobile telecoms, utilities, and financial services. However, we are also seeing similar signs of change in companies which sell to businesses as well as forward-thinking government departments.

When we talk to people about designing IT organisations in a digital environment, the following themes recur:

Designing IT operations around service

There have been great strides in making IT organise itself around the concept of “services”, in the sense of the services to underpin existing business processes. There are many advantages to this way of thinking, as service levels allow us to organise coherently and manage costs. At the same time, this thinking is fundamentally based on IT as an overhead.

Consumers, on the other hand, only know one service level: “do I like it?” When IT is key to delivering the service the customer receives, surely this should mean changing attitudes, behaviours and competencies to focus on service? And by service, we don’t mean service levels.  After all, when was the last time you were quoted SLAs when you booked a holiday or hotel room? 

Of course, there is much more to service experience than simply delivering great customer service. Organisations need to make a step change in how they design and deploy their services. We can all name organisations with a reputation for offering world class services, from Apple and Amazon, to Disney and John Lewis. Organisations like these will put as much effort into the design of their services as they do to the products that underpin that service. 

They understand that how their customers feel about their services, i.e. their experience of using those services, is just as important as what they deliver. By taking an outside in approach and understanding what really matters to their customers, it is possible to revolutionise services.

In any environment, great service people are proud of their ability to solve customers’ problems and make customers feel great. If you know an IT service manager, try asking them if they’re proud of what they do. I’m willing to wager that although they may want to be proud of the service they provide, they’re not right now.

Knowingly delivering service

IT managers typically know where they’re not delivering. Ask any big organisation about their IT services and they will probably talk about incidents and problems, change and configuration management. These processes all start from the premise of IT services as risky and expensive things that break a lot. IT is too often focussed on the avoidance of problems, which is not helped by a hero culture that puts more emphasis on getting that critical service back up and running, rather than questioning the fundamental design of that service.

IT organisations know a lot less about how the business as a whole is delivering IT. We are seeing a growing emphasis on managing end-to-end processes from an IT viewpoint, and in particular in understanding where services are actually being delivered, rather than not delivered. In some organisations, this has meant the introduction of process monitoring and providing service performance information to manage the experience at points where IT services impact external customers. In other organisations, particularly with processes that span multiple suppliers, this has been about introducing stronger governance and decision-making to manage end to end processes.

In today’s digital world, we are seeing more and more organisations turning to IT to solve business problems. This means IT organisations need to get better at understanding where services are being delivered to customers, and where they are not. In some organisations, this has meant the introduction of process monitoring and providing service performance information to manage the experience at points where IT services impact external customers. Increasingly, IT organisations are able to alert the business of potentially damaging service problems through applying predictive analytics to monitoring information.

Getting service right first time

When companies launch new products and services, consumers are less inclined to be forgiving because services are new. Expectations are that services will work first time and be simple to use. For IT, where services are often more complicated and involve more suppliers and partners, far more effort must be put into the design and launch of services. Getting service right first time has traditionally played second fiddle to day-to-day operations – but in the world of service experience, both are equally important. Just ask Richard Williamson, the manager of Apple’s Map division, who was running the maps services when iOS 6.0 came out. As consumers found errors in the mapping data, and compared the new service unfavourably with Google Maps, he found himself very publicly without a job. At the same time, Apple lost several billion dollars from its market capitalisation, and re-arranged its top team.

So, in the new world of technology services, and service experience, consumers expect services to work first time. At the same time, IT services are typically being delivered by more than one organisation, often including multiple outsourced contracts. The sourcing community often talks about the need for “service integration” as a layer of process and governance to make multi-sourced services work, which is true. Just as true, but less often mentioned, is the need for a much stronger emphasis on service design across all parties involved. IT organisations are increasingly responsible for both.

Earning the right to deliver great service

IT operations is a tough field where in many executives’ eyes, you’re only as good or as bad as your last outage. Or to put it another way, IT should be seen and not heard. 

Perhaps the hardest challenge in moving to a new model is IT earning the right to have a voice. Our clients tell us that earning that voice can come from two sources. Firstly, IT, and indeed organisations as a whole, need to be really clear on where IT makes a difference to external rather than internal customers. Where it doesn’t make a difference, IT needs to be ruthlessly simplified and standardised. This of course fits well with the external pressures on cost reduction, and in these troubled times, it is easy to make the case for cost reductions. At the same time, standardisation shines a light on some of the most deeply entrenched views within IT organisations themselves. As soon as IT is held against a benchmark of external value, talented people will be at risk of realising that they’re not adding value. Whilst addressing this will help IT address its cost base, it’s not necessarily a positive experience.

At the same time as standardisation and cost reduction, IT needs to make a difference visibly to service and take responsibility for what is delivered to customers. This is perhaps the biggest change – just taking ownership. As one of our clients from mobile telecommunications put it:

“Earning the right to deliver great service is also about earning the right to be recognised for being more than a responsive org. It’s about changing people’s attitudes that you are around just to fix stuff. You are also a custodian of service.”

Moving to service experience

In the move to a world where IT provides the service experience, there is much to change. IT leaders need to make themselves relevant to external customers by understanding where they deliver value and cut away activity where this isn’t the case. They need to build a vision where IT takes ownership for delivering service, and has a culture of responsiveness. They need to change the way that IT services are designed and deployed to guarantee service.

Any one of these changes is significant and difficult, and instinctively, we know that Rome wasn’t built in a day. At least, that’s the way it was back when Rome was built. Today, in the modern world of technology, the rules are different, and large parts of Rome are built every day. The time to move is now.

Alan Young and Alisa Thompson are experts in IT transformation at PA Consulting Group 

You can read the article online here.

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