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10 questions with Ian Clayton: Viewing IT service management from the outside in

Ian Clayton believes customer satisfaction levels should be at the heart of every IT decision -- and he's spent more than three decades finding ways to make that happen.

Ian Clayton got his start at Ross Perot's EDS-International alongside some of the employees involved in the Iranian rescue mission back in 1979 (remember On Wings of Eagles?). He has since done consulting for clients around the world, ranging from Caterpillar and American Express to Australia Telecomm. He describes himself as both a rescuer of failed service management projects and an expert in ITSM triage.

Ian was born in London, but has worked most of his 35 years as an expatriate IT professional and service management aficionado here in the United States. He helped cofound itSMF-USA in 1996 and commissioned the first instructor for a class offered by a U.S. business. More recently, he has become a leading voice in managing information systems as services. His first book, The Guide to USMBOK (Universal Service Management Body of Knowledge), is drawn from his broad range of client experience and certifications in service management, LEAN, and ITIL v2 and v3, at both the expert and instructor levels. His next book, titled Outside In Service Management, is due out this summer.

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1. Jeff: From reading some of the things you've written about lately, it looks like your fundamental premise is that companies need to stop being myopic in the way they do service management and start seeing things "from the outside in." What kind of changes does this translate into for your clients? Ian: It ensures customer interest in the form of successful customer outcomes and provides that piece being pursued by the proponents of business and IT alignment. It seems to be a genetic trait for people in IT to think the opposite way: inside out. As technology specialists, our focus is naturally on what kind of work we are doing and how to do it, rather than asking the two critical questions: why the work is being done and for whom.

Customer satisfaction levels should be at the heart of every IT decision. When I hear people using buzzwords like "process improvement," "best practice," and "capability maturity model," it's a red flag to me that they may be using inside-out thinking. What I want to do is put the customer back in the service management equation. It's not just service management with the emphasis on service; it's customer service management that's focused on the customer. That's the short answer.

2. Jeff: When you throw this out as a proposal for a fundamentally different approach to the service management picture, what kind of response do you generally get? Ian: At first, it's a bucket of cold water. Then it turns into a breath of fresh air. The big realization is that along with being better, viewing things from the customer perspective is also simpler. When the realization kicks in of how far some of the plans and initiatives have drifted from actually serving the customer, it can be quite a shock, and it leads to a dramatic shift in thinking. The next thing is holding the funeral for the "field of dreams" initiative, where if we build it, the benefit will come. At that point, people start to think about how making the necessary changes will directly affect what they do, and that brings us around to the "why" question. 3. Jeff: Last week, an executive at a large company told me the biggest difference he sees in technology right now is the rapidity of change and the uncertainty and paralysis it can foster. Is that the common denominator with tech-centric companies for the foreseeable future? Ian: Technology does seem to be changing at an amazing speed, but I also see a general willingness in society to accept and invite change, even when things happen literally overnight. For example, a game-changer like the iPad means we all need to rethink user interfaces, which brings us back to outside-in thinking. The players like Apple and Google keep reminding us that customer interactions need to be co-designed with the customer. The cloud has already seeded business decisions with "value-on-demand," and IT has really become the invisible hand.

Try doing a Google search on "311 service request." A government agency I've been working with came to me and said, "We need a service catalog like this one." I asked them what it is their customers want. They said they didn't know. They had no idea where to begin their service catalog journey, or that the process needed to be service request driven. If the catalog is the focus, it will create a barrier rather than a bridge. It pushes the customer away from the conversation. What the customers want is a service that does the same thing they are accustomed to when they call up and order a pizza or do online banking. Hello, I've got a dead animal here in my driveway. Here's the cross-street. I don't want to even give you my name. That's what I call the three S rule, "select, select, submit," and if the ATM I normally go to suddenly gets overly complex or redundant, I'll go to the next closest ATM. That's the mindset we in IT need to be ready to respond to.

4. Jeff: What about viewing this economy as a catalyst -- is there a way to take a Rahm Emanuel approach and not waste the crisis? Ian: Economics is a perpetual catalyst, and it's just become even more so lately. I've lived through a few downturns, but none like this. At the same time, we've never been more connected as a society, which underscores the mandate to spend wisely. IT projects and initiatives have become much more visible and transparent and are still viewed by many as a discretionary expense. The IT department is like your teenager who keeps coming back the next day for another five dollars. The language of concepts like "service portfolio management," for example, is an indicator of where the emphases are regarding IT investment. Outcomes and costs are the value equation. If you can't connect the costs of what you're doing to value, stop. 5. Jeff: Cloud computing addresses issues like idle capacity and cutting maintenance expense in trade for new capabilities. What kinds of similarities do you see between the cloud in IT and the automation boom in production operations 30 years ago? Ian: They're both disruptive technologies that have compressed decision timelines. The business has been screaming for more flexible delivery options for as long as I can remember. Outsourcing this seems too extreme, punting complete responsibility to a third party, especially when it means exporting domestic jobs. The cloud seems to be a perfect compromise to address the bottom line by moving what you can. There's still some friction with security, complex custom applications, and concerns with continuity, but business decisions are being forced to consider cloud factors like subscriptions, on-demand, and federation of technologies. 6. Jeff: Several years ago, you were a key player in bringing ITIL to the United States via itSMF-USA, but it seems you've adopted a more skeptical posture toward some of its positions. What's changed? Ian: In spite of the part I played in itSMF and my ongoing involvement with ITIL over the years, I've really shifted my focus to helping customers be successful with technology and protecting their investments. ITIL is an excellent resource, but it needs careful interpretation and adaptation to each customer's unique blueprint based on their service management system and service provider organization needs. Frankly, I still believe we are too often led by the vendors, and the consultants, and framework evangelists. Many of them are lacking in the depth of experience to deal with the economic climate we're in. ITIL has been extremely valuable in getting the service management conversation started -- very successfully in fact. But it has to continue to put the customer first to be able to create real value. ITIL is but one contribution to a service management solution, and there are many lessons to be learned from the non-IT resources. I feel the work remains inside-out biased and is therefore failing the customer. 7. Jeff: When it comes to the marketing of business technology, is there a time when you believe marketing should steer its customers or is it always reactive? Ian: Henry Ford is quoted as once saying, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, 'faster horses.'" Good technology marketing should both lure prospects in with shiny objects and encourage their responsiveness and innovation. Like a seasoned archaeologist, a marketer has to start with the research to uncover market interests, then segment them into meaningful groups and develop a product-centric strategy around business outcomes. We all need to be involved in the marketing process. It's long overdue that these kinds of skills are recognized and become a part of the collective service management strategy. 8. Jeff: What are some of the metrics you recommend? Are there some areas that need more attention than you see them getting? Ian: Metrics should always come back to customer satisfaction in one form or another. These are the outcomes that add reality to "quality of service" discussions. I wrote an article recently about my experience measuring uptime from the customer's perspective. I asked the customers to record the times they couldn't get their work done. As it turned out, the results were dramatically different from the IT organization's reports to the business.

An excellent place to start the discussion is by asking whether more time is spent on internal issues, processes, and conflicts rather than on customer needs and perceptions. In the end, the customer will use metrics that speak to the value equation I mentioned earlier. The cloud promises similar benefits for the traditional service management initiative. I see the cloud as a huge indicator that traditional methods are failing the customer, and professionals need to adjust immediately. For example, in the context of ITIL, the cloud puts pressure on the experts to explain the relevance and application of the ITIL guidance. With a new project, I may not know the success indicators going in. To start with, it may be just to "have a successful workshop." Once the ball gets rolling and I can see what the end-users are looking at, we can work them out from there.

9. Jeff: Do you see the factors we've been talking about creating a convergence in IT right now? Ian: There are definitely points of light coming together. The economic pressure is the reality check, and there's a growing need for on-demand services. Ironically, best practices have sometimes been an obstacle to delivering things the way the customer wants to buy them. A best practice is Henry Ford saying, "You can have any color you want as long as it's black." IT has had this stiff-arm they could apply: "Well, it's not that straightforward -- it's not that easy." Now they have someone else saying, "We can manage that in the cloud in 24 to 48 hours," and at a subscription-based price. That has freed up business to a new way of thinking and new options. The IT department is being forced to do service management properly, to support business activities with information systems as a service.

Arnold Schwarzenegger made an announcement recently about our economic troubles not being over, and that it's going to get worse, and it came down like a hammer. Now business has to make the tough decisions. Do they fire the teacher, the janitor, or the IT guy? What is disappointing is when the IT guy doesn't even come in second. Why do they value the cleaning guy over IT? Because they know what janitors do. The customer may see things as important that you don't agree with. Well, frankly, tough. We're so connected and have all this capability now that is independent of IT. The cloud is going to separate those who farm the technology from those who manage the customer relationship.

10. Jeff: As a final observation, what differences do you see in the way IT is managed here in the U.S. from the way it's managed in the rest of the world? Ian: I think the U.S. has always been a little more liberal. The Constitution is based on "we the people." The states have the sovereignty, and they have given the federal government certain rights and control. Business is kind of like the states, and IT is like the federal government. Outside the U.S., gravity works in the other direction in terms of the federal government's involvement. Also, there's less time allowed for a project or initiative to make a difference here in the States, and it's more subject to review and reprioritization. C-level management in the U.S .doesn't buy acronyms. They buy results linked to shareholder value.

I'm working on this new book called Outside-In Service Management, and I show a continuum of getting from inside-out to outside-in thinking. What I've found is that the key words you hear people talking about in IT will fall somewhere along this spectrum. We need to stop changing the name every time we hit a bump in the road, but whether you call it "IT service management" or "business service management," putting the customer first is what really turns things around and puts the life back into it. The customer is the one paying the rent, and we need to bring in a brown bag and some post-it notes, and find out what it's like to be in his shoes.

Most people are busy with the work that's in front of them. When there's a knock on the door, and someone asks, "What are you working on?" there's this concern about what to say. Should I tell them? Because what if I'm not working on the right thing? The way to tell if it's the right thing is to ask for whom the work you're doing is important. It's got to be something that is important to the customer or a stakeholder. If people are encouraged just to focus on what the work is and how it is to be done, and don't worry about the why, I think they're being misdirected. When people ask and then answer the why questions, I feel I've been successful.


Ian Clayton is a consultant, writer, and speaker, has six children, and lives with his wife, Delynn, in San Diego. You can reach him at ian@servicemanagement101.com or @ianclayton.

About

Jeff Cerny has written interviews with top technology leaders for TechRepublic since 2008. He is also the author of Ten Breakable Habits to Creating a Remarkable Presentation.

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I have followed TR for years. Because you are talking with Ian Clayton, maybe you would like to finally address why you dropped "User Support" from your blog. I miss those articles! Chris