Removing Barriers Between IT and the Business in the Age of the Customer

Did you ever play the telephone game as a child? Also known as “Chinese whispers,” this is a game in which, per Wikipedia, “one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group.” Since “errors typically accumulate in the retellings,” a starting sentence like “My mom wears brown shoes” can end up as “Mary’s dad has big feet.”

The Telephone Game - Fun for Kids, Not for ITAs a children’s game, such accumulated errors—whether due to misunderstanding, faulty recollection, “erroneous corrections” or even deliberate modifications—can be amusing. But in business and IT, failing to understand customer needs due to bias or errors on the part of information intermediaries can lead to serious issues.

A recent CIO Magazine article, Up-and-Coming IT Leaders Focus on Business Customers, noted that as “technology plays a vital role in keeping customers happy,” companies need to turn “away from an IT-centric view to a customer-centric view” of service delivery—a position previously articulated by Eveline Oehrlich, VP, research director at Forrester Research in her discussion of the “age of the customer.”

According to Nick Sewell, director of IT programs for Western Union Business Solutions, “The distance between us and the customer is traditionally far too big. It’s immense. You might have a guy doing coding or testing who will take his requirements or direction from a project manager who might work with a business analyst who works with a product person who works with a salesperson who talks to the customer. There are five or six steps between the person providing us with the real need and the person actually delivering that… you have to cut all those steps out and have as much direct contact with the customer as possible.”

Two additional challenges, the CIO article notes, are that IT teams “must deliver applications that work for all types of mobile phones, tablets, desktops and laptops,” and which are simple and intuitive enough to use that they require little (or better yet, no) user training.

Forward-thinking CIOs are asking their IT teams to ask questions like “How will the technology help? What will the experience be like for the user? How can we give them the best experience?,” when developing new business apps.

All spot-on observations. But two additional points should be considered.

First, while the CIO article focuses on external customers, most if not all of the same factors apply to the internal customers for IT and business services, primarily employees (though also potentially suppliers and partners).

While there may not be as many layers between the “guy doing coding” and the business user within an organization as external customers, it’s still not uncommon to have supervisors, functional business managers, project managers, and business analysts as information intermediaries.

Connecting IT professionals more directly with end users, taking advantage of enterprise social tools like Chatter or Yammer, can result in applications that more closely match user needs.

Better yet, give business managers tools to build their own processes, with only minimal IT assistance. This is part of the enterprise request management (ERM) approach, as noted here previously:

“IT is in an ideal position, however, to help other functional groups adapt to these changing expectations, for example by extending the concept of IT service catalogs across the enterprise, to HR, facilities, finance, and other shared services groups. The tools used should empower business process managers in any part of the organization to design and optimize their own processes, with minimal assistance from IT.”

As noted by our Bill Harter and Matt Howe in their presentation at the 2014 KEG event, a key benefit of the ERM approach is that it leverages existing departmental applications, but gives managers a way to business process workflows and intuitive user interfaces to those systems. Such capabilities should ideally be shared as tools for the business functions, not just IT: “It doesn’t have to be an ‘IT solution’ that HR uses. Make it an HR solution that IT supports.”

Second, while listening directly to users is helpful, thinking creatively about that input and anticipating future needs (part of the Kinetic Data approach) is even more valuable. In addition to the questions above regarding technology and the user experience, IT teams need to ask: “once users can do function A, what else are they likely to want?”

The late Steve Jobs was a master of this. No one specifically asked for an iPhone, but customers were asking for things like mobile internet access, a simpler way to listen to music on the go, portable GPS systems…and Apple combined these capabilities—and much, much more—into one sleek device.

Most of us aren’t Steve Jobs of course, but by listening directly to users and understanding their needs well enough to be able to anticipate the functions B and C that are likely to follow delivery of capability A, IT professionals can play the “telephone game” more like Apple—and less like a circle of kids.

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