The IT industry invests heavily in finding better ways to deliver IT services. Yet the business only realises value from IT services when they make effective use of the information that IT services provide. And this is often not the case. But is IT the business’ keeper or does the buck stop when IT services are ‘delivered’?
IT service providers provide IT services
Just look at the IT industry guidance that you find at conferences, in publications and in the blogs on IT Chronicles and you’ll see that the focus is on delivering better IT services. This in itself is unsurprising, because it is more or less how we’ve defined the IT industry: we make and combine hardware, software and data to provide IT services for “users”. Just like the automobile industry provides cars to drivers. We speak a lot about business value and about aligning or converging IT with the business, but when you analyse what we actually do, we give people devices and applications that process data and provide information, and we support them when requested. That’s about it.
Lost business productivity due to poor use
So, what’s wrong with that? Well nothing. The users asked for something and we gave it to them. The IT services are operational and the helpdesk is available. It probably costs more than expected and was delivered late, but that’s not the point. The point is, is the business getting the expected return on its investment in IT? Being provided with the ‘right’ IT services is just one side of the coin. Making good use of the IT services is the other. And this is a concern. Just think about the users in your organisation, or in your customers’ organisation if you’re an external IT service provider. How well do they use the IT services that you provide? There is surprisingly little academic research on the topic but one source1) suggests that between 6-10% of business productivity is lost due to IT issues, half of which is caused by poor use. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s a much more serious issue – just ask a few people what they think about their users…
Effective use of IT services and information
Consider for a moment what “use” entails. You have to know about the functionality of the application, and how to use the various features. You have to understand what the data represents, in other words how the various fields are defined. “Use” also entails knowing when certain functions should be used; for instance, whether invoices should be sent immediately, or on the last day of the month, or on the first day of the month. Or whether it makes good business sense to send an invoice if the customer has an unresolved issue with your products or services. “Use” not only entails understanding the meaning of the data, but also gathering enough data and interpreting it correctly in order to take well-informed decisions. While the IT service provider should be able to help with the functionality and data definitions, the other concerns are clearly out of scope for most helpdesks.
Uncertainty Reduction Technology services
Let’s reframe the discussion. Seeing as a primary function of information is to reduce uncertainty2), let’s call IT services “URT services” – Uncertainty Reduction Technology services. It’s clear that – unless we’re talking about a fully automated system where humans are not involved – people are part of the ‘system’. Uncertainty can only be reduced or resolved by the people who interpret the information. So, it’s not just about an investment in Uncertainty Reduction Technology: it’s about creating an effective combination of Uncertainty Reduction Technology and Uncertainty Reduction Humans.
Just as it’s not a car dealer’s responsibility to ensure that drivers know how to drive, and know where to drive, you can’t expect an IT service provider to ensure that users know how to use IT services in their own business context. It’s self-evident that this has to be addressed, but by whom? The first port of call for a user-in-need is usually a co-worker. An informal question is usually enough to establish that “it’s just me” and to get some tips. A more formalised role is that of the super user – someone who has been assigned with the responsibility of responding to use-related issues. The problem occurs when a user is ‘unconsciously incompetent’ and therefore doesn’t realise that he or she is using IT services inefficiently or ineffectively. Is anybody tasked with proactive user support? Given the significance of information for business, there is clearly a need for ‘super-duper users’ who proactively ensure that Uncertainty Reduction Humans make good use of Uncertainty Reduction Technology.
The bigger business information picture
From an enterprise perspective, it is foolish to invest heavily in IT but to leave users – figuratively and literally – to their own devices. But this is just part of the business’ responsibilities when information is recognised as a significant business asset. Using BiSL® Next’s terminology3) the business is responsible for four domains: governance, strategy, improvement and operation. Together, they are referred to as Business Information Management:
- Governance: the organizational capacity exercised by the board, executive management and IT management to control the formulation, implementation and management of information services, ensuring the required degree of fusion of business and IT. Formal management oversight of how the enterprise is managed in terms of hierarchies, authority, roles and responsibilities
- Strategy: definition of strategic information needs, and direction of service design
- Improvement: analysis, specification, realization, testing and deployment of the information needs of new services and/or improvements to existing services
- Operation: support for those using information services when carrying out their activities within the business processes, for the operational management of the business information services supplier, and for providing and monitoring the operational services.
These responsibilities do not necessarily need to be translated into formal roles and processes, but should at least be considered. As such BiSL Next is a useful checklist to decide whether it’s “IT wise, business foolish”.
- Users left to their own devices – super duper user to the rescue
- IT4IT™ and BiSL® Next – guidance for the digital enterprise
- Dr Alexander J.A.M. van Deursen and Prof. Jan A.G.M. van Dijk, “CTRL ALT DELETE. Lost productivity due to IT problems and inadequate computer skills in the Workplace”, January 2012.
- Claude E. Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication“, Bell System Technical Journal, 27, pp. 379–423 & 623–656, July & October, 1948.
- Brian Johnson, “BiSL® Next – a framework for Business Information Management”, February 2017, (preview)