Who is Your Customer?

business-IT Alignment

Language is important

Seemingly innocent questions can provide revealing answers. Just think about asking somebody in an IT department “Who is your customer?”. More often than not, the response will point to one or more business departments that the IT department supports. This positions the IT department as the business’ order-taker. The business demands; the IT department supplies. This is reinforced not only by the use of service catalogues and service level agreements, but also by the language that people use.

Talking about business-IT alignment implies that the business and IT are separate entities and will remain separate entities, just less distantly separated. Calling the business your customer puts you in a subservient position and this impedes you from being taking seriously as the business’ partner. Unless, of course, you feel happier as a service provider who can point to the business when things go wrong: “But that’s what you told us to do…”.

Stand alongside the business

The more enlightened response to the customer question is to refer to the enterprise’s customers. This immediately places you on the right side of the table: alongside the business, not opposite them. You start thinking about the business as co-workers, with whom you work closely to achieve business goals. The language changes. You find yourself talking about how “we” are going to use IT to realize better, cheaper or different business. You find yourself being less defensive about why something “won’t work” and explaining the limitations and concerns. With these cards on the table, everybody can work towards a realistic solution.

Co-creation of value

Of course there will always be organizational politics and blame games, but a collaborative approach reduces the “them and us” mentality. A pre-requisite for this way of co-creating value is that you know what you’re talking about. Not only from a technical perspective but that you also understand the business context.

It is surprisingly easy to get this understanding – just ask your business partner about his or her work. More often than not, people like to share the ins and outs of what they do, including their own limitations and concerns. And when people show their vulnerability, you sense that there is trust in the relationship.

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Mark Smalley

Mark Smalley

Mark Smalley is a writer, speaker, trainer, consultant and bridge builder at Smalley.IT. Also known as The IT Paradigmologist. He helps people discover where they are and to visualize where they want to be. His main area of interest is the management of IT systems and services. Mark is a contributor to bodies of knowledge such as ASL, BiSL, BRM, COBIT, DevOps, IT4IT, ITIL, VeriSM and XLA. He has spoken at hundreds of events in more than thirty countries.