Is 2016 the Year for Customer-Focused IT?

Woman with Crystal Ball

Maybe it’s a sign.

Although I haven’t made New Year’s predictions in the past, this year I took part in a panel discussion with Jeremy Berriault, Steve Tendon, Kim Pries, hosted by Tom Cagley for his SPaMCast podcast (it should be posted this weekend, I’ll link to it when it does). As Tom described it in the show notes for Sunday’s episode, we “…prognosticated a bit on the topics that will motivate software development and process improvement in 2016”. One of the things I mentioned, more as a wish than a prediction, was for more customer-centricity in IT.

Then, one of the first tweets I read this morning is:

The gist of the article Christian referenced was that IT needs to apply the same principles to enterprise and software as a service (SaaS) applications that DevOps brings to custom-developed applications. The aim being to “…become faster, more nimble, and more flexible and responsive to the demands of business managers”.

The Customer-centricity tag has been applied to a lot of posts on this blog, going back to the earliest days. In my opinion, removing the divide between IT and the organization it serves is the most critical issue for IT today. Without bridging this gap, it’s unlikely that progress will be made on other issues that might come to mind first, such as information security and shadow IT. A siloed IT organization that fails to focus on meeting the needs of its customers is unlikely to be seen as a source for innovation. It’s more likely to be seen as an obstacle to be worked around.

If 2016 isn’t the year for customer-focused IT, I wonder just what kind of year it will be for IT?

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4 thoughts on “Is 2016 the Year for Customer-Focused IT?

  1. Hi Gene,

    I don’t think we’re that far apart on this, but I do think there is a caveat here with what you write: To think that the purpose of (internal) IT is to serve “customers” is in my view wrong as far as any development is concerned (whether it’s pure application developement or process development). To me, success requires that you think of IT as “business development” where the purpose is to drive business improvement through a range of tools/methods that are anchored in the IT space. Obviously IT operations is a slightly different matter, but the same basic principle of value creation would apply.

    The danger to me of the “customer”-thinking is two-fold: One is that it implies (at least to some people) that the customer knows what he/she needs – which definitely isn’t the case when you talk to the average business leader about new IT capabilities. The other danger is that the “customer focus” tends to translate into “the customer is always right” thinking which isn’t right when you’re internal IT and you are on the same P&L as the relevant business unit. This way of thinking invariably causes you to end up in situations where someone has to spend a dollar because you saved a quarter somewhere else and when you are on the same P&L that doesn’t really work in the long run.

    The purpose of “IT development” is really to “develop the business through IT” and for the sake of clarity I think the term “customer” should be reserved for external customers 🙂

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    • A lot of the disagreement will come down to difference in the way we define “customer”. In my opinion, customers can be internal or external. In most cases, in-house IT directly serves internal customers and by doing so indirectly serves external customers. Feel free to substitute the word “client” if that helps.

      As to the dangers you listed, I will concede that those are possible, but no more possible and certainly no more detrimental than the danger of being disconnected from the business. Taking the attitude that “the customer is always right” and “the customer knows what they need” is an example of doing the job poorly. Neither a doctor nor a lawyer who operated under those assumptions would be in practice very long. The same applies for most other jobs – customer satisfaction may be very important, but there’s always a limit and the limits tend to work to the advantage of both parties.

      I’ve had the opportunity to work in a shop where the in-house IT was just another provider that the business unit could choose (albeit a provider with an advantage, should we choose to make use of it, in terms of forming a relationship with our client). The business units experienced a much higher level of satisfaction with us (same staff, just a change in relationship) and it was an absolutely wonderful work atmosphere.

      Regarding the P&L and business units, that’s actually an argument for this type of arrangement. Organizations already have mechanisms in place to allot resources to different business units according to goals, strategy, etc. Why would you carve out IT and have it independently set goals and strategy and hope they align with the rest of the business? That’s the biggest problem with the traditional way of managing IT in my opinion.

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