Why CIOs shouldn’t choose the dark side


Focusing on the customer perspective of the IT services we deliver isn’t easy. Having the experience of being on “the other side” gives a very different view than what we might imagine it to be.

 A case in point is a small stand-alone organization just coming out of start-up mode now having to integrate its IT into the parent company’s IT infrastructure. The small organization (we’ll call them Smallco) had started green field and was running its own IT shop on the latest releases of all of the office products: Office 2010, OCS with full VOIP phone-email-calendar-IM-mobile integration, the newest SharePoint, etc. It also had some Macintoshes, and even a few iPads and iPhones. Help desk response to desk-side was often minutes, excepting coffee breaks. Further, Smallco permitted staff open Internet access (barring only porn/gambling/et al), and, for users with special needs, they were given administrative rights to add software to their desktops. What did the parent IT organization support? Not the current releases, no on-site desktop support, YouTube and Facebook access was blocked, and POTS telephony. To ease the transition, the parent’s CIO committed to support Smallco’s variations in product releases from its standard offerings and to the higher level of desk side service.   

So far, very good. The CIO did the right thing, being sensitive and responsive to his customer’s needs. He didn’t hide behind his standard catalogue and play the “lowest common denominator for the lowest price per seat” card.  Instead, he was flexible, recognizing that to bring his new customer on, he had to make changes, many of which – support of newer releases, VOIP – are things he knew he was going to do at some point in the future anyway. The changes for faster response time were nothing more than updating a few knowledge records in the help desk dispatch (first level) system. As for any things he couldn’t take on, Smallco’s IT group could continue to support them until he could.

Unfortunately, this is not a win-win success story. The CIO has committed the cardinal sin of IT management: setting up his team for failure. Having committed his organization to deliver services that were not part of its standard knowledge base and processes, he then failed to follow through with the changes for his organization to be successful.  Because he viewed the changes as technical and minor, he didn’t see that he was committing to operating a different style of business, minimizing or missing the process implications and the cultural changes that would be needed to make them operational. The operational requirements made the integration of Smallco a much larger project than some technical activities and minor adjustments to existing process.  Not seeing that Smallco wasn’t a technical migration, but a change of how day-to-day operations are conducted, no change program was set up to coordinate the process changes and staff communications necessary to operationalize them. Without a program, strong leadership, and review of processes to understand what was actually needed to meet the business requirements, any “specials” to meet Smallco’s needs will be temporary. The organization will continue to operate business-as-usual. Smallco will be unhappy with their service and express their unhappiness to the front-line staff and their immediate back-ups. As a result, Smallco will be viewed as being an overly demanding and unrealistic customer, further complicating the relationship. The CIO took the view that the square peg could be whittled to fit in the round hole. Smallco expected that the parent IT’s shop was squaring a round hole to fit their needs.

As I write this, Smallco’s transition is still in its early days of operation. Some glitches remain, but overall service is going reasonably well. No major crises have happened and the boss’ iPhone hasn’t needed service yet. But all is not well. In Smallco, the feeling is one of impending doom. The IT staff have polished their resumes and are actively networking. They see the effort they invested into building Smallco a good IT infrastructure as wasted and they know their end users won’t be happy with waiting 4 hours for desktop service when they were used to a few minutes. As soon as they can find new jobs, they’ll be gone. Working for the parent IT organization is not an option as months of frustration dealing with the parent’s working level staff convinced them that the message to do things differently didn’t trickle down and no changes are in place. It’s easy to predict that the staff that will be the first to go are the same ones the parent’s CIO is counting on for supporting the one-of applications he can’t. 

You’re that CIO of the parent company. What would you do differently next time? If this were a “how to” article on best practices, the answer would be to set-up a change management program, designate a senior leader to roll out a change program and get the message out that there will be a new way to do business. The change program would include skills upgrade for staff as needed, and resources to review, change, and train on the processes to embed them into day-to-day operations. But there is another, darker option: don’t do anything differently. Promise change, but deliver only what your people already do as business as usual. While this ignores the needs of Smallco (the few), it is the practical answer for the good of all (stretching your limited IT budget across the entire corporation). Taking this option assumes the you’re very politically astute, and know that force fitting Smallco into your existing infrastructure will only create a small amount of political damage. Smallco will just have to accept a different service, after all what’s wrong with Office 2003, XP, and IE6? 

One risk of taking this approach (or as one CIO called it “choosing the dark side”) is that you’d better be right about Smallco’s lack of political clout, because your job is on the line if you’re not. Unfortunately, that isn’t your biggest risk. The real damage is to your credibility. Word will get around that what you promised is not what you delivered – bad news travels both fast and far. Secondly, is that your staff get the message that customer needs can be safely ignored in favour of enforcing the standard process, whether it makes sense or not. They‘ve now learned that change is only a talking point to be ignored. Is that the lesson they need to prepare them to embrace the changes that your organization needs to make to survive?


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