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Service Management – A whole thing that just works is often better than perfect pieces

service management

Service Management – Old isn’t always out of date

Things have always changed, but for human society the rate of change over the past 40 years has been an exponential zoom into the unknown and the unpredicted. You would presume, therefore, that anything we learned more than a few years back is no longer valid. Is this true of Service Management?

Of course that is often true: there is a vast range of things I still remember, that are no longer right or simply just not useful. Here is just a random sample of the useless things I still know about:

  • Pounds, shillings and pence (LSD) and therefore my 12 times table
  • Changing gears on a car without synchromesh why you need to double declutch and how to do it
  • Loading 35mm film onto a spiral in total darkness and getting it into the developing tank.

In fact, I suspect that most of the people I work with don’t even know what those are or why they mattered. And there is neither reason they should, nor reason to find out now. And I certainly don’t miss any of them.

What I find much more surprising is how many experiences and hard earned lessons from my early years in work are just as relevant today as they ever were. Maybe that is one of the benefits of my being much more interested and involved in the service management part of ITSM, never having been that immersed in things IT. Seems people last longer than technology now – an illustration in itself of times changing. A complete reversal for example of the great European cathedrals that took many generations to build so the initial architects never saw their genius realised.

So, in this fast moving, disposable knowledge age, what is worth hanging on to? Well actually quite a lot because, while what people and companies want will change over the years, the inability of many suppliers to find out what that is before trying to deliver it seems perennial.

Just to pick one service management example, I still lean heavily on lessons learned at University – maybe a few came from attending labs or lectures, but more came from being part of Glasgow University Student Television in the 1970s.

The technology in TV has changed out of any recognition: how you make it has changed quite a bit, but why you do it has changed much less.

Priorities and pragmatism

The key life lesson I still carry from my student TV days is one of pragmatism and realism. We were all young and idealistic back then, so scripts and running orders were initiated from a vision of perfection: perfect production, word-perfect delivery, perfectly framed shots and seamless editing. The reality was that we had the studio from 7pm until 10pm on Thursday evening to record a programme of about 40 minutes to go out on Friday Lunchtime. It was a hard stop at 10pm because the University-employed technician locked up the building when his overtime ended. But even worse, in those days the bars closed at 10pm, so if we were not wrapped and out the door by 21:50 we didn’t get a drink afterwards!

What all that meant was this: despite the evening starting with our perfect vision, practical success meant something completed to put out on Friday. A few wonderful scenes and big gaps didn’t deliver. So we all learned the importance of delivering something – albeit flawed and looking somewhat amateurish – above aiming for perfection. Turns out, when we went and watched with our viewers they didn’t mind that we looked like the amateurs we were. Laughing at us was all part of the entertainment. Having TV about themselves and their interests and local concerns was way more important than it being BBC quality.

We had a reunion last year – 32 years after our student hands-on TV making days. A reunion kindly hosted by the current members of Glasgow University Student Television – part of their 50th Anniversary celebrations. Ironically the current students have the inverse ongoing problem generated by the cheap, available and high-quality technology now available to them. Because they now post stuff for students to watch on demand rather than have a weekly show – without the deadline pressures we had – they hang on way too long and spent more time than they should getting it right and not actually releasing as much as they might wish they had.

So pragmatism is both a then and a now thing. Of course what is acceptable changes, but there are so many situations, untouched by progress, where customers need something on time, not fancy. And where good enough really is good enough. It sounds easy to focus on what the customers will do with it rather than what you see as possible. But it is actually very hard, because we spend our lives immersed in what we do, and with an awareness of what is – or what we feel should be – possible.

Use the tools to do the job you need to do

OK, so ‘modern’ approaches like Agile, DevOps and the rest help us understand practical importance and try to make us deliver rather than just plan. But don’t think any of this is a new idea, it is still service management. They – and more – can be useful tools to help us do what is actually needed by the people we are doing it for. But nothing is more valuable than finding that out to begin with. As I said, going out and sitting with our audience was probably our most important factor driving our comprehension of how we should go about our work.

I’ll finish this chapter of my musings with another TV illustration, one I have used in many presentations. Despite much evidence as to its theoretical impossibility, teleportation is massively popular in TV science fiction. The reason is pragmatic and obvious: it is very cheap. All you need to do is make the screen shimmer a bit, fade people out and hey-presto Kirk and Spock are on the planet. The geek-approved correct approach involves modelled shuttlecraft, stop motion filming and considerable time and expense – but doesn’t add to the story at all. You see the same in vampire slaying by Buffy and her friends, a shimmery screen and a pile of dust. Cheap and quick and letting you get on with what matters in the story. Good enough is actually the best solution here.

Are we seeing any of this in Service management today?

Actually, I think we are seeing aspects of this. Some of this attitude is reflected in the attraction of things ‘lite’ – and that is now a sought after addition to frameworks like ITIL and software. An approach that is broad but simplified and delivers real, but limited, benefits is often exactly what’s needed to get started. Like us just starting out in TV, you need to get something done and some value delivered quickly. It also gives you a foundation to build on. Some of my student friends went on to deliver programmes much nearer perfection in careers in broadcast television. Many starting with ‘ITIL lite’ or a cut down version of software go on to use much more and graduate to more sophistication.

The challenge then is establishing – and maintaining – knowledge of what really is good enough. Getting that right is still a rare and special thing; but it is not a new idea. Rather it as old as the folk tales of kings in peasant clothing finding surprising truths about their kingdom by actually talking to their subjects.

Once you – or that king – gets back and starts though, you might be surprised how quickly you need to go and find out again.


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