Power to the customer

Despite the fact that we have made huge steps forward in the science of providing information technology services, the level of satisfaction in most companies has not noticeably improved in recent years. In my experience most IT professionals are well trained and have a deep desire to please their business users. On the other side, business users want nothing more than to effectively use technology to drive competitive advantage. So why have the two sides not been able to work this out?

Based on some successful experiences with the use of IT in business, I suggest that there are three models for this relationship: the Benevolent Model, the Monopoly Model, and the Balanced Trading Behaviour Model. Our best hope for success lies with the third approach.

Benevolent Model: This model is not as prevalent as it used to be and for that we should be thankful. The basic premise is that business users have needs and the IT department has the wherewithal to meet those needs. And so, in the manner of Mother Theresa, IT provides what it thinks would be best for the impoverished business users and then waits for their heartfelt appreciation. It’s often a long wait. The problem with charity is that it is always done on a ‘best efforts’ basis with relatively low expectations – you don’t get caviar at the soup kitchen. It also emphasizes short-term treatment of symptoms over the kind of deep structural change that brings about long-term prosperity. The Benevolent Model relies heavily on the IT department’s sense of duty and mission, while letting the business users avoid responsibility for solving their problems. Project failed? What did you expect? Fire the CIO and start the cycle again.

Monopoly Model: Most companies have figured out that the Benevolent Model does not work. They have countered it by imposing business discipline on the IT supply side, which we can call the Monopoly Model. Basically, this means telling IT, “Stop running like a charity and start running like a business”. Understand your customers. Understand your products. Manage your (internal) markets and start acting like “IT Incorporated”. Here the risk is that one becomes overly fixated on chargebacks and allocation models, at the expense of the other qualities that make for an effective internal business. But done correctly, the Monopoly Model can create a tightly focused internal service business that accounts for many of the successful IT organizations we see today. So why do some yet fail?

While the Monopoly Model brings discipline to the IT supply side, this only solves half of the problem. What’s the point of telling IT to become customer focused when business users don’t act like customers? Those may sound like fighting words, but the reality is that while many IT shops have evolved out of the Benevolent Model, their customers continue to line up like the street urchin Oliver Twist, only occasionally finding the courage to say, “Please sir, I want more.”

Balanced Trading Behaviour Model: One of the big-box home improvement stores uses the slogan, “You can build it. We can help.” In a nutshell, this summarizes the ideal relationship between business users and their IT departments. The customer takes a high level of responsibility. It’s his dream. It’s his project. And IT can bring expertise, knowledge and experience to help bring it to fruition. Successful IT projects require sophisticated and engaged customers who take responsibility for the outcome. While the Monopoly Model challenges IT to become more like a business, the Balanced Trading Behaviour Model takes it a step further and challenges business users to become more like savvy customers. An interesting outcome is that the concept of an ‘IT Project’ disappears and all we have left are ‘Business Projects’.

In the open marketplace both sellers and buyers get stronger and better because they understand their mutual interdependence. They sharpen each other like steel on steel and, yes, sometimes the sparks fly. The Balanced Trading Behaviour Model applies these concepts to the internal economy of IT and its customers. It represents our best hope for driving genuine business value from information technology.

Jack B. Ott is CIO and SVP, Information Technology for insurance firm Allianz Canada. Based in Toronto, he can be reached at jott@allianz.ca.

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