The internal customer is dead. And it’s about time.
I had the pleasure of facilitating a panel discussion for the local chapter of the Society for Information Management (SIM) last week. On the panel were a CEO, CFO, and three CIOs. One question dealt with the preferred relationship between IT and the rest of the business — should IT be viewed as a supplier, a partner, or an “information utility,” whatever that means?
The panel was unanimous: The business works best when IT operates as an equal partner. “Internal customer” has outlived its usefulness. This is a remarkable transformation: Just five years ago, the notion that IT should view the rest of the business as its customer was pervasive.
IT’s adoption of the internal customer model has always required a degree of schizophrenia. “You’re my customer,” and “You have to adhere to our standards and policies or risk disciplinary action,” are awfully hard to harmonize, as is “We need the authority to stop users from loading whatever software they want on their PCs,” with “Our job is to do more than just satisfy our customers — it’s to delight them.”
The whole thing often smacked of a desire to avoid accountability: When you have internal customers, your role is to process orders. Business acumen is Someone Else’s Problem (SEP).
So is recognizing technology-driven business opportunities. As a nice counterpoint, one panelist described a new strategic initiative — the biggest in his company’s history. It’s a comprehensive redefinition of the company’s business processes, intended to consolidate duplicate efforts among its business units. IT first conceived of the effort, and championed it throughout the company.
Think it’s an inappropriate role for IT to take on? If so, ask yourself this: In a complex business, assembled through a combination of growth and acquisitions, what other organization will be in a position to recognize and champion this kind of opportunity? It’s either IT or accounting, and of the two IT is in a much better position to understand business processes.
In the most effective organizations, change is a collaboration between business and IT at all levels. Business and IT leaders collaborate to provide a shared picture of where the organization is going and how it’s going to get there, and to communicate a strong commitment to the effort, including the investment of money, staff and time. Business and IT middle managers collaborate to add the clarity that comes from knowing how the business really operates, and to provide trained, enthusiastic staff to implement the change, and when the time comes to insist that all employees migrate to the new way of doing business. Business and IT staff collaborate to sweat the details that are the difference between a great-sounding concept and something that works.
There are those who think this means dividing accountability, ensuring failure since no individual is responsible for the success of the program. But then, there are those who think that if everyone just does their job as defined by the company’s organizational chart that the business will somehow succeed. Both views are wrong, and for the same reason: To optimize the whole, designers usually have to sub-optimize the parts.
When the subject is business as usual, viewing your job as optimizing your part of the organizational chart means ignoring the larger needs of the business when the conflict with the needs of your department. When the subject is business change, making just one person accountable means everybody else is only responsible for the tasks assigned to them.
Organizational change does require a business sponsor, with ultimate responsibility for ensuring the program succeeds. That’s vital — the buck has to stop someplace.
Everyone else involved has to consider the success of the whole program to be their responsibility as well. If they don’t, it’s certain you’ll hear the equivalent of the defense contractor’s battle cry:
“Oh … you wanted wings on that airplane?”