Come on, IT -- loosen up already

Too often, IT processes become straitjackets. Knowing how to adapt is the key to moving your organization forward

Next-generation IT leaders take heed: Everyone hates process. The evidence is all around you. From the help desk to the corner office, employees do their best to subvert even the best-intentioned processes whenever they seem inconvenient.

The solution isn't a process-free IT organization -- that way lies chaos. It's knowing how to bypass your processes when they don't fit the situation, yet not lose control. After all, next-generation IT should be focused on creating value in collaboration with the rest of the business, a mandate that requires both a firm hand and flexibility.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Get Bob Lewis's continuing IT management wisdom in his Advice Line blog and newsletter. | Find out why running IT as a business is a train wreck waiting to happen. ]

IT practices vs. IT processes

Small IT shops rely more on practices than processes, and as I've argued before, organizing some key functions into "practices" is a key component of next-generation IT, even for the biggest IT organizations.

"Process," you'll recall, refers to a way of organizing work that relies on a well-defined sequence of steps that lead to repeatable, predictable results. Sounds good, doesn't it? Sadly, the more organizations rely on well-defined processes, the more rigid, bureaucratic, and overly formal they feel, both to the employees who staff them and to everyone who works with them. They increase overhead, too (aka the cost of keeping the lights on).

"Practices," in contrast, rely much more on individual initiative and creativity. As a result, they feel less formal and more fun. They also, as it happens, increase adaptability and reduce fixed costs.

This doesn't mean practices are superior to processes. It means most people, most of the time, like them better. One look at the traditional help desk shows you all you need to know.

Learning from the help desk
As IT organizations grow, it's something of a tradition that they do everything they can to discourage users from calling their favorite IT analyst when they encounter a tech problem.

First they establish a formal "service desk," (the official, ITIL-approved synonym for "help desk") equipped with incident tracking software to make sure no problem falls into the cracks. Then they define a standard incident management process for analysts to follow, down to the sequence of troubleshooting steps, including the invariable first one: insisting that callers reboot their computers. When the knowledge base of troubleshooting procedures is exhausted, help desk analysts escalate the incident to the proper queue of theoretically interchangeable problem-solvers.

Meanwhile, "favorite analysts" -- those who have established reputations for solving problems quickly -- are instructed to refuse any and all calls for assistance. They may only work on incidents the help desk escalates to them.

When an IT organization institutes this sort of incident-management process, there's only one certainty: Everyone will hate it, for the same reasons everyone hates all business processes. It traps everyone into a one-size-fits-no-one way of dealing with situations, and because the help desk is the part of IT that everyone has the most contact with, all of IT's reputation suffers.

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