I was going though some of my old mail when I ran across a long email chain with a former client. He asked me some questions about troubles he had getting his IT department to understand WHY ITIL was important. His people liked the idea. They thought it would be handy to know things like when the business could allow them downtime. But on a very fundamental level they just didn’t get that the effort was really about bringing business value to the customer. It frustrated him to no end.

In my letters I referred several times to the curious inversion of prestige which occurs in IT organizations. In many settings, those who have direct contact with the customers (and therefore more direct access to the money which keeps business going) have a higher level of prestige than those who slave away in the home office. Contact is so important that highly paid executives will go out of their way to spend time with the big customers, partially to keep them but also partially to show their connection with an important source of prestige.

In IT, the more contact an individual has with customers the lower his status/honor within his own organization. Customer service reps rank just below project managers when it comes to the respect other IT people given them. Next come desktop technicians and cable layers. Server folks and network operations slip in next, followed by programmers and analysts of various stripes. Network engineers generally sit at the top of the heap, since they almost never contact a customer directly at all.

This is more traditionally seen as a knowledge hierarchy in which more specialised tasks (like interpreting application network traffic patterns) holds a higher value than less specialised tasks (like resolving a customers printer driver problems in an application). This is view does hold some water, especially when we speak directly to technical people. However, it also clings to the idea that IT people are entirely narrow-minded as to what they see as “knowledge” and “problem solving”. I know from practical experience that a skilled hardware tech knows just as much about his area as the best network engineers and a talented UNIX cluster administrator probably has less sophisticated pattern matching skills than an experienced customer service technician.

This inversion helps to explain why IT departments generally have trouble understanding that they exist to deliver business value to the customer. Culturally they reward those who manage to avoid directly dealing with the business. The less business rapport a person has, the less he must interact with the customer on a daily basis, the greater his influence with his peers. This creates a situation in which people with the best of intentions deliberately turn their backs on information which could be of use to them. Those who might know better, who could potentially interject some business reality into an otherwise technical discussion, generally enter into the conversation with lower prestige and therefore less immediate influence.

I wrote my initial analysis of this hierarchy almost a decade ago. I hoped at the time it would change. Unfortunately, it looks like it’s gotten worse. At some point I need to tackle the question of what, if anything, we can do about it.