How Changing IT Culture Could Save Our Industry
As IT professionals, we love talking about team culture, and for good reason. If your team spends their day fixing problems for a living, a great team culture can make all the difference.
But what about the culture of our industry as a whole? How do we treat our talent, relate to our customers, and leverage new technology to evolve? I have plenty of opinions about this, but don’t worry, none of those will be in this article.
Instead, I want to share the insights and ideas my company learned after conducting three informal focus groups.
To keep it customer-centric, our first group was composed of workers who did not work in IT but relied on IT service delivery to do their jobs. The second group consisted of IT workers who provided end-user-facing enterprise IT support. Finally, we brought together a small group IT thought leaders and visionaries from enterprise IT orgs, director level and above. No managed service providers were included, but we hope to conduct that focus group one day. All groups were refreshingly diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, and geography.
Each discussion started off with the question of whether or not human-powered IT service as we know it would or should survive the current technological revolution, or if AI, more technical end users, and better designed software would eliminate the need for human IT service delivery altogether. From there, the conversations were open ended, and they could take it in any direction they desired.
It got real, it got philosophical, and at times it got emotional. The result was an inspiring, motivating take on IT culture, past, present, and future, as seen by our end users, our workers, and our leaders. The following is what they told us.
For an industry whose name literally has the word in it, our relationship with “technology” leaves a lot to be desired. Sure, we have chatbots, but our AI and machine learning game is far behind that of other industries. You would think IT would be the first department in a company to leverage new technologies like machine learning or augmented reality. On the contrary, most IT orgs don't even automate the rudiments of IT service like password resets, provisioning, and onboarding, much less leverage bleeding edge technologies to innovate. Our budgets are all about RTB (run the business), not R&D. Not only are we slow to approve and deploy new tech to the business (a massive pain point from our non-IT cohort), our own internal tools and processes are often so clunky that our workers are too busy with manual tasks to experiment with, test, or deploy innovative tools.
When talking to the non-IT group, it was clear that while we’ve certainly improved how diverse and personable our industry is perceived to be, the perception of IT by end users at most companies is that the IT team is not a driver for innovation or excellence at the company. The phrase “necessary evil” came up more than once. Everyone in the end-user group reported that, although the support teams at their companies were usually friendly, the experience of “going to IT” with an issue still had negative connotations. Participants reported having low expectations for help and felt that very often the IT staff seemed powerless to fix complex problems or address edge cases.
Upon learning of this feedback, IT leaders agreed, noting that although there are absolutely IT service delivery teams out there who provide world class service, these orgs are very few and far between, the exception rather than the rule. I can attest that my company has collected feedback from tens of thousands of end users who echo the sentiment of our focus group. Conclusion: an important truth to accept is that regardless of how we think we’re doing as an industry, “excellence” is rarely an adjective used by the people we support to describe the IT culture at their company.
The discussion with the front-line IT workers was perhaps the most eye-opening session of the three. The technicians reported feeling underutilized, overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated, both by management and the end users they support. Most actually loved their profession and had no plans to leave IT, but said that the current culture of heavy processes, lack of automation, and being held to metrics that didn’t reflect customer experience, all added up to an almost depressing existence at times.
A particularly emotional conversation developed when one technician opened up about how he was over the moon when he got his first IT job, only to realize that at his (Fortune 100) company, IT was seen as “second class citizens,” a term that was used more than once in that group. You could see the frustration in his eyes as he described thinking IT was a dream career and coming to work every day with a head full of ideas and technical knowledge he could never put to use, instead spending most days performing busy work that should be automated. Others echoed this sentiment adding that they’re rarely given time to learn, research, or experiment with exciting new technology that other teams at the company were using, even when they had the knowledge and expertise to provide so much more value.
The technician group seemed painfully aware of the “rough reputation” alluded to by the group of non-IT workers, and the fact that they felt powerless to change the way things were done just added insult to injury.
While the picture the first two groups painted of IT culture sounded pretty bleak, there also surfaced a very real sense of opportunity. In short, while IT has been slow to evolve in the past, it seems our industry has been gifted with a massive opportunity in 2020 to get with the times and not just survive but help drive this ongoing technological revolution.
While the way we engage with technology, our customers, and even our own workers obviously needs some work, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to get clobbered. As one leader put it, this new normal after COVID-19, with all of the tragedy and pain that it has caused, is also providing one “last free exit,” so to speak, from the path IT has been on for the past 30 years. The same technical revolution that threatens the usefulness of IT service delivery is also providing us with a very real opportunity to evolve and lead the way for the organizations we support.
An example that our leadership cohort agreed on was low code and no code platforms. All of us in the leadership group saw massive opportunities with low code platforms to, for a fraction of the price of your other internal tools, build amazing, bespoke enterprise apps that connect to all your siloed data sources and empower even non-technical workers to create custom apps and use data to make decisions. This was referred to as “apps as a service,” or “data as a service,” and it was agreed that this is much more 2020 sounding than “password resets as a service.”
One executive pointed out that you could also build IT apps on this kind of platform that could work more efficiently, freeing up headcount to form an R&D team, something all the IT leaders agreed was an awesome and necessary role on any IT team who wants to thrive in the 2020s.
One CIO saw the massive change to work culture that has taken place over the past few months as not an opportunity so much as a “forcing function.” Companies are now forced to be more efficient, and IT teams who can provide that in a big way could be the competitive advantage that keeps their company in business.
Lack of automation was a major technician complaint, and one executive pointed out that many IT orgs may now be “forced to do the right thing,” and will have no choice but to automate onboarding, offboarding, provisioning, password resets, and more, just to survive.
As to where the headcount would come to make automation happen, the leaders came up with a practical, if controversial answer. Without mentioning any product specifically, our group of leaders lamented that certain platforms are so bulky that they require several dedicated headcount to administer, customize, and manage. As headcount is pulled for other projects, automation in this case, teams will be forced to simplify and downsize their tools. The group predicted a wave of migrations to the newer generation of simpler cloud solutions that are easier to administer, with less features but a better UX for both IT and end users.
Finally, to better understand what IT looks like if we evolved our culture beyond the “ITIL 80s” as one CIO called it, our leaders answered the obvious next question. “What does next-gen IT look like?” Here’s what they had to say.
One member of the leadership group had a particularly inspiring take on the services enterprise IT should offer going forward. Her vision was to not be seen as troubleshooters or access provisioners. Also, noticeably absent from her vision was IT orgs serving as gatekeepers who approve or deny requests for new tools from the business. Instead of being fixers and approvers, she argued, what if we were builders and innovators?
She went on to paint a picture where instead of teams coming to IT to ask for tools, IT has an R&D team (noticing a theme here?) that is already fully up to speed on the latest technology for every department and brings tools and ideas to the business, not the other way around.
She excited the rest of the group when she described her vision of onboarding new hires during the pandemic using augmented reality (AR) that put remote new hires together in the same virtual building. She also revisited the “data as a service” idea, adding to it “AR as a service,” “AI as a service.” I wanted to stand up and applaud. Now that is the kind of IT department that anyone would love being a part of.
Call to Action
If our end users, workers, and leaders are to be believed, the IT culture we’ve known will not survive in the 2020s. Fortunately, we have not been taken out yet. Though on a human level we are faced with tragedy and economic disaster, those of us lucky enough to still have our jobs are also gifted with the rare opportunity to evolve our culture to save our industry. This pandemic is a forcing function for innovation. It will be up to us whether IT provides the competitive advantage that helps our companies survive or provides headcount as our roles become obsolete.