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22 September 2009

Do you know what business you are in?

By Andrew Clifford

We are so obsessed with service and business focus that we forget the special role that we have within business.

"Service is our business"

I saw this slogan on the side of a car wash company van. It is a fine sentiment, and often repeated. Giving good service is a vital part of any endeavour.

But there is a bit of a lie in the slogan. I suspect that their business is actually something to do with car washing.

In IT, it is not just the term "service" that confuses us. We use the term "business focus" in a similar, vague, way.

I have two concerns.

First, terms like "service" and "business focus" are not precise, and different people interpret them in different ways. For one person business focus might mean making a land-grab to lead business change projects, to another it might mean publishing weekly help desk statistics.

Second, these sentiments can cover up vagueness about what our role really is. We can seem truly business-focussed, and give great service, but completely abandon the role that we should be taking.

I will give some examples.

I once knew an IT service department that had a business focus initiative. There was a poster and slogan competition. But I certainly had no idea what they meant by "focussing on the business". The job of an IT services department is to deliver IT reliably, at low cost, and at low risk. Doing that job well is surely business focussed. Working with your business colleagues to understand their needs and constraints is part of that, but you must never forget what you role in the business is.

I see the same problem in project management. Project management has become a political game: making alliances, managing expectations, getting close to the business customer. Fine, but at the end of the day your job is to tease out valuable requirements for IT and to deliver IT solutions that meet those requirements. In the name of business focus we have shifted toward business change projects, but taken our eyes off the underlying IT delivery. Rather than defining manageable IT projects, we embark on woefully unrealistic business-IT change projects that are doomed to failure.

How do doctors work? Building good relationships with your patients, listening to their needs, is important. But your job as a doctor is to diagnose and treat disease. Sometimes this involves giving bad news, or suggesting unpleasant courses of action, or changing courses of action that are not working, or telling the patient that you do not know what is going on. Any doctor who shied away from this would be abandoning their calling. But in the name of "service" we constantly hide reality from our business colleagues.

I am not suggesting that we should abandon the ideas of service and business focus. But these have to be pursued in a context in which we have a very clear idea of the contribution that we are called to make. Our role is to advise on IT and deliver IT solutions. If we forget that, no amount of service and business focus can redeem us.

Next: Living wills

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