Imagine, your organisation consists of a great number of departments. Someone called them “business units.” You work in an IT business unit. You view your colleagues as customers and have made all kinds of agreements about your products. You charge a certain amount for working units, all taxes are charged to your customers, you try to keep prices low, you love activity based costing, you make deals about matters like availability, accessibility and performance. You have all neatly laid this down in your Service Level Agreement. You even make sure there are regular customer satisfaction research activities, because the rating has to go up!!
You are all business and professional, at least that is what you think.
At the same time you want to reach for higher goals with you user organisation. You want to use IT in order to reach company goals. You are not just a supplier. You are much more! In order to do so you write strategic documents. Policy documents. You are going to organise the future. You value the relationships you have. You have hired account managers who talk to the user organisation. You want to lead the way. You wish, as they say, be a partner in business.
Now I also have a partner. I am married with children. Or – to avoid all confusion- I am married to a woman and together we have children. I also like a solid relationship with my wife. I want to be the best partner I can be. However there is nothing on paper. I have no set agreements on the number of times I unload the dishwasher, mow the lawn when the grass exceeds 7 centimers (on average). There are zero agreements on my uptime (no matter how tempting that is), performance (dito!) or my accessibility. Nothing has been put in black and white about who picks up the kids from school, our next holiday destination, when Christmas dinner will be attended at the inlaws and when at my folks. I do however know people who have contracts about these matters. It is called co-parenting. For parents who are divorced. And that is exactly my point. You put things in writing as soon as the relationship stops working.
When there is no sense of trust. When the feeling is gone.
IT departments can learn a lot from that. Instead of putting everything on paper in a contract, companies should create a sense of trust and commitment. And that does not mean you do not have to work hard. The opposite is true. A good relation is damned hard work.
Do not lay down matters like accessibility and performance of your service in a Service Level Agreement. What good is it going to do you? That you can show, that it IS good enough? Just tell your organisation that they can trust the fact that all systems will work at all times, that they are fast, and as soon as they fail you will do your utmost to fix them and communicate adequately about it. Organise informal meetings with your users and ask them whether they are satisfied with the accessibility. Do they trust the systems? Does the performance make them feel good? If not, adjust. Much more effective than chasing numbers. And the basis for a partnership!
And there is more to learn. I once saw a presentation by Marcus Banks, who had done research into good, solid relationships. The results were remarkable. In a good relationship the man will give higher marks to his wife than the wife will receive from her friends or even herself. The wife might consider herself grumpy once in a while, the man thinks she is tired once in a while. Vice versa we see the same picture.
The conclusion: delusions are the key to a good relationship
How about your company? Does your IT department have a profound respect for the business? Or do they consider them mess ups? Do they often look with admiration at the bankers/ teachers/ civil servants/ etc….? Or do they grumble about them. I dare to guess the latter is true. This, as I explained before, is not good for the relationship. You have to make sure that the people will appreciate the business. Tell nice stories. Make sure they start to respect the teacher or the insurance agent. Emphasise the good. Emphasise that they are great. Make sure your people think they are much better and more fantastic than they really are. Create a culture of delusions.
That is the way to a partnership in business
And a final word, stop charging taxes internally. Where ever there is a flow of money, even if it is fake Monopoly money, there is a customer – supplier relationship. This creates a culture of inequality. You cannot treat someone like a customer and at the same time propose that this customer will become your partner. The only one who pulled that off was Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
And that was a fairy tale.
Rens van der Vorst is head of IT Innovation at Fontys Applied University.