Thoughts on SMcongress and the future of ITSM

The Service Management Inaugural Congress (SMCongress) is the output of the "RevNet" event at the 2013 Fusion ITSM conference in the USA. As a few of you know, twenty-something ITSM thinkers got together in a room to see what would happen. This happened. It has been followed by some unlovely debate and a number of articles.

I had hoped SMcongress would pass me by, but it seems not. A number of you really want to know what I think about SMcongress, (especially those who would like me to say the things you can't), so here you go.

In summary, SMcongress is full of emotion and short on ideas, it lacks clarity or focus, it is addressing the wrong problem in the wrong way, and like all these collaborative "community" movements in business it is unlikely to come to anything. If it can be built upon to create focus, to get back to useful outcomes, and to address the real issues, then its passion, inclusiveness, and energy might be harnessed to some good. I offer here three concrete solutions to the issues of IT and ITSM that I think SMcongress should be focusing on.

First, a caveat: I wasn't there. Everything I know about it comes from conversations with those who were there, and from what can be read in the webiverse, in the ripples in the little ITSM pond we paddle in.

Second: a personal remark. Many won't like this post but I call it like I see it, and I've put a lot of work into this post to make it as useful a contribution to ITSM as I can. It is long, which means 90% won't read it. At the end, it seems to have evolved into my own personal manifesto! I hope you will take the time to read it, and I hope you will perceive value in it. I welcome feedback (+ve or -ve).

Third: a disclosure. I'm organising the Pink Think Tank at PINK14 in Las Vegas next year. There will be those who interpret this post as a "competitive" attack. It's not. SMcongress and Pink Think Tank don't compete: any similarities are superficial. The Pink Think Tank is a structured event developing concrete advice on a specific industry question, with no political agenda. Charles Araujo and Jack Probst are on that Think Tank and we have worked together to understand and ensure there is no conflict. What you read here are my own personal views and are un-influenced by anything else I'm involved in.


So let us turn to the published material. There is a call to action, a set of values and some rights.

Who is this intended for? In places it would seem that it is ITSM that needs reform. It is true that ITSM has been defined in different ways over the years, but in no context can I imagine how the following have anything to do with ITSM:

  • Failure to champion individuals and equip them with proper competencies
  • Individuals and community over institutions and businesses
  • Right to portable identity.
  • Right to be your temporal authentic self.
  • Right to digital self-actualization.

For that matter, I have no idea what most of those even mean. Nor I suspect will most readers. But the world is changing so fast that people are embarrassed to call it out, in case they are supposed to know, in case they missed one of the many new and dazzling happenings in IT, for fear of looking dumb. "Ah yes", they nod, "digital self-actualization, of course."

Again, what is the relevance to ITSM? For a tiny little segment of the IT industry such as ITSM to be trying to drive a Universal Declaration of Information Rights is about as silly as if it had tried to set up an accrediting body for all IT professionals. Oh, wait... it did, with prISM.

Even if we go with the passion, the rhetoric, the impenetrable language...

what exactly is SMcongress trying to solve?

Apparently something is broken in our industry. I think that means ITSM, not IT in general. Exactly what is broken is unclear to me. I agree some stuff is broken in ITSM and in IT, but I suspect it is not the same things as SMcongress, but I have no way of knowing. Once again we have broad statements without evidence, that may or may not mean something to people:

  • Operating models that are broken.
  • Failure to recognize and take action on shifting business opportunities.
  • An industry that is built around old paradigms and is failing to recognize the new ones.

Personally I don't think we are "failing". I wish we'd do a bit less "taking action on shifting business opportunities" and a bit more concentrating on getting the current job done. Nor am I convinced that IT or ITSM are "stagnating", even after reading Charles Araujo's book (The Quantum Age of IT, a good book - I do recommend it even if I don't buy the apocalyptic premise). We in IT - heck in society in general - are becoming conditioned to expect novelty, wild change, and breakneck pace in everything. I'm grateful that I read about railroads regularly as an antidote from the real world. We seem to forget the real progress we are making. What did ITIL ever do for us?

I do agree that the ITSM industry is broken, and the ITSM approach is a bit stuck, but I think we needed the "decade of ITIL" to understand that we are, and why. I agree that we are ready for the next step - more of this in a minute.

Speaking to some folk, I feel the frustrations are not with ITSM and ITIL as a body of knowledge so much as they are frustrated with the broken politics:

  • The utter lack of governance of ITSM. The British government failed to govern ITIL. itSMF cannot govern itself. ISACA are a shining example of how it ought to work.
  • Petty and nasty infighting. itSMF demonstrates this in spades: US vs UK vs Australia; internal rifts in Spain, South Africa, Mexico, Egypt etc etc. The SMcongress "community" demonstrated this within days.
  • Personal agendas, corporate agendas, and dirty deeds. All go on in the ITSM world, and every other human endeavour. See "governance".
  • Cliques, cronyism, and inner circles. The speaker list at Fusuon always comes in for some criticism. So does the itSMF International Board. Same: happens in all human endeavours. You don't think RevNet was its own clique?

I agree with all of this, and have blogged about them in the past often enough, so I think the attack on ITSM as a BoK and IT as an industry is mis-directed anger, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Again, more in a minute...

What is the desired outcome? What are we trying to achieve here? Again more words, but nothing you can measure success by, nothing that will prove you have met the call to action in your organisation. I guess that is inevitable in a first "jam session" of two dozen strong-minded people but I don't think it is going to help SMcongress's cause that outsiders can't work out what it is actually trying to achieve.

It's all very well to get riled up...

...but unless we have clear outcomes we are working towards then we have nowhere to go. There are very specific things we can be doing to drive fundamental change in the industry - more of that in a minute as well.

Does it make sense? Much of it strikes me as not terribly well thought through and fairly well divorced from the real world:
"Right to access information regardless of membership, institution and walled bodies of knowledge." Edward Snowden will be pleased.
I find these to be contradictory:
"Right to create and share non-proprietary information.
Right to a free and open source of knowledge.
Right to be fairly compensated for effort."

The published material is clearly the product of a committee: it has no single message, no internal consistency, no obvious audience, and no actionable intent. Before I get to what I think the answers are, I have five specific issues with the output of SMcongress. Skip these if you want to go straight to my proposed solutions

1) Emotion

The first and obvious impression is how emotional everybody is. There is more heat than light coming from SMcongress. Hello! It's work. It is the job we do in return for payment. It is the shit we shovel. I remember years ago CA acquired a database company and a bunch of the developers decided to walk out in protest. I asked one of them in mystification "Why would you risk your mortgage and the welfare of your family in order to make an empty emotional gesture over a piece of software?" WTF? This isn't freedom for Saudi women, or gay rights in Russia, or saving the rainforest. It's computers. It's as exciting and important in the big scheme of things as warehousing. Reality check: if you want to change the world join the Red Cross or Greenpeace, not itSMF.

Emotion is unprofessional. One of the basic tenets of business is to keep emotion out of it: to behave in a civilised manner, to stay objective, to keep it impersonal, to solve things in a rational manner. Of course we are human so we fall short of that aspiration, but it is - or used to be - something we strive for. We understand the emotional cycles and plan for them: anger-denial-grief-acceptance, storming-forming-norming-performing etc. But we do so in order to manage emotion: it is something we deal with not incite. Business is driven by thought and logic.

Cultural change requires cultural events so I accept the need to fire people up, but let's keep it professional and dignified. Fist-pumping is for street protests. It might work in the land of P.T. Barnum but in other cultures it goes down like a cup of cold sick. As a logo for IT stuff it just looks silly.

2) Revolution

Which brings us to revolution. Our IT sector is prone to a number of odd phenomena:

  • We jump on every shiny new idea that comes along as the silver bullet solution
  • We think new = good and newer = better
  • We turn everything into a cult: single-minded, measuring using its own frame of reference, brooks no dissent.
  • We extrapolate the future with no consideration of the real world.
  • We confuse our personal digital experience with what is possible in Real IT
  • We think the answer to everything is a thing: a tool, a form, a CMDB, a manifesto...
  • Despite this absurd optimism about anything new, we thrive on negativity about what we have. Technical people relish problems (comes with the territory).
  • We make Chicken ITle declarations of doom and death
  • ...and so on and so on, and ...
  • We want to overthrow and destroy everything and start again: revolution not evolution. Even though the world almost never ever ever works that way and when it does the outcomes are usually bad.

I wish we'd grow up. It all reminds me too much of my dope-smoking university years. You don't want revolution. Revolution implies things are so fundamentally broken that you need to cut people's heads off and blow up buildings; and thereby set your community back by decades, shatter productivity, and create schisms and grudges that last for generations.

Measured, reasonable, thinking business change is about evolution. Start from where you are and go forward. Revolution is for hotheaded anarchists and trouble-makers.

3) Rights

The references to "rights" is the part of SMcongress I find upsetting. Have we lost all objectivity? Food and freedom of speech are fundamental human rights. Believing in mythical sky people and sleeping with who you want - those are rights. There is no fundamental human right to carry an iPhone or to have your boss explain everything. First world problems.

There are some real issues with ethics in IT, I wrote about it recently. There are things we need to stamp on. but please don't go debasing the concept of human rights by using the term to cover improvements in our quality of life that we in our pampered Western existence have the luxury to care about. That's an insult to the couple of billion people still struggling to have the real human rights.

4) Entitlement

Work isn't fun. Work is not a service that is provided to you to enrich your life. Work is what you do to deliver value to someone so that they will reward you.

Once again, if you want work to be a mission, a holy crusade, something you would do for free to make a difference, then I suggest your efforts would be better expended with the Red Cross.

Nor is your employer obligated to pander to your every whim. Sure we are entitled to basic safety and even dignity at work, but - for anyone likely to be reading this - our ancestors already fought that fight. Get down off the barricades and turn the aircon up a little.


Nor is ITSM a social club that must reflect your personal political agenda. We old grumpy white males are over-represented in the industry. That doesn't justify personal attacks on us because of it. The representation of the business aspects of ITSM is important in a movement like SMcongress: geography, industry sector, job role, organisational size... Personal demographics aren't. They are irrelevant: get over it. To drive somebody out of a conversation because of their gender or any other personal attribute is immature, self-centered, and unacceptable, especially when that someone is one of the greatest contributors to ITSM still willing to participate and contribute.

This isn't about you and it isn't about a "community". It is about the ideas and methods of a functional role in an industry sector. My Dad's generation would be either aghast or in stitches over this.

5) The chattering class

What an incestuous little clique we are, our own tiny chattering class, the same few people on Twitter and Facebook and G+, and our cluster of blogs and forums. It is amazing the things we convince ourselves are important. Take as another example the sale of ITIL to Axelos. Survey people in the real world, in the engine-rooms of IT: ask them if they even know about the sale, let alone care. Heck, when I ask local itSMF chapter meetings only a minority know about it.

There are over two million people with an ITIL certificate. I guess quite a few of them are ITSM practitioners in one form or another - even if they wouldn't call themselves that - let's say a million. So a few thousand have read the SMcongress stuff and a few hundred have put their names on it. You drive a noisy parade of open trucks through a city of a million, shouting on loud-hailers and banging drums, and you'll get a few thousand come look and a few hundred climb on the trucks. Six months later no-one will even remember the parade, except for the few who got hurt when they fell off the truck.

I'd love to be proved wrong. I'd love for us to look back in a decade and say this was a seminal moment, this triggered the transformation that made all the difference. But I doubt it. I doubt it because it is the wrong group addressing the wrong problems.

So enough skeptical criticism of a group's hard work. After all this negativity, I'll be accused of just throwing rocks, so here is my contribution to where we should be going as an IT sector and an ITSM industry (with some more criticism, sorry)...

The real problem in IT

I'm sure I come across as bitter and cynical. It is hard to do three decades in IT and not be. On the other hand I think I am far more proud and positive than the SMcongress. I don't think the problems IT experiences are IT's fault, at least not entirely. I don't think it is IT that needs to change, at least not at first. We're doing great, given the circumstances. We do a good job of juggling the conflicting responsibilities to protect and serve. We aren't the problem.

We are a great bunch of professionals in IT. We work harder and longer for less thanks than just about any other profession except emergency responders and nurses. What we get done in the face of the ridiculous expectations laid upon us is remarkable. We do our best. the faults in IT culture stem from a defensive mentality; it is the culture of a group embattled, battered, worn out. So don't be blaming the victim.

The organisations we work for have wilfully and systemically failed to understand IT, to integrate it into the strategy, planning and management of the organisation. They have treated IT as some sort of impenetrable black magic, and as a result have expected magical results. The number and complexity of the demands on IT increase as the expectations follow the personal digital experience, with no comprehension of how that relates to Real IT. In the meantime we are in the depths of a global recession that terminates a decade of IT being expected to "do more with less". IT is crushed between the two trends.

"I don't care if it is 150M people and the business rules are still in flux: Obamacare goes live next month!" THAT is the culture you need to fix. Organisations have failed their IT like bad parents.

Only once you address the fundamental failure of governance of IT, which ISO38500 so clearly articulated, and COBIT 4 before it (and the great new book from Alison Holt Governance of IT)...; only then can you get off IT's back sufficiently for IT to think and recover and make improvements. We can meet in the middle: if the organisation slows down we can speed up.

IT can't change until the way IT is owned changes. Only then can we have some sensible conversations, rationally and without emotion, about how the business should operate in order to get optimal performance from what is becoming one of the biggest investments in any organisation: the information and the technology to manipulate it.

Until then, anything we try to do within IT is going to be desperate measures in impossible conditions. Angst-driven breast-beating and demands for personal entitlements are counter-productive and distracting. Let's get back to adult business behaviour and rational engagement with the people who matter to the solution to this problem: the captains of industry and government.

[Update from comments:
I missed another point here. Not only have organisations failed to understand and include IT, they have also failed or been slow to grasp the shift from IT as a back-room cost centre to a value enabler. I still find organisations who don't have a bloody clue how integral their IT is to their success and how much wasted potential there is.
To be clear, it is the organisation as a whole that treats IT wrongly. Sometimes there are some folk in the IT department doing all things they are told they should in order to "align", even the CIO , sometimes there aren't. It makes little difference if the executive and Board are clueless]

The real problem with the ITSM industry the same: governance. The management often isn't flash either but we can survive and address that. But the governance of the ITSM industry just sucks:

  • itSMF was set up on such a badly flawed model and constitution that it never has and never will work without total reform. More likely, itSMF will die and the ITSM community will be subsumed by someone like ISACA.
  • OGC was so ineffectual as to be helpless. ITIL V3 was a debacle. ITIL product certification was launched with secret evaluation criteria.
  • The CAR outsourcing of ITIL was ill-advised and badly thought-out. APMG as both the governor and an EI was ridiculous. TSO as IP-police of the same market they sold into was equally daft.
  • The latest sell-off of ITIL is equally badly constructed. Capita have a majority shareholding that allows them to do whatever they want, with no regulatory constraints and few requirements for transparency.

As the Yanks would say "There's your problem".

This is the one area closest to needing revolution. But I don't think that will happen. Too many people have broken themselves against the walls of Castle ITIL or been poisoned within the castle's court.

I admit I struggle to see a workable fix here. What I would like to see is for everybody to just move their tents to the ISACA camp and get on with life. ITIL will be around for a long time but it's importance will decline. ITIL is now business as usual, something you do. The new frontier is governance as I already proposed. COBIT should be our focus, with ITIL as an explanatory addendum. We'd be better off putting all our energies there. Sadly I'm not sure that will ever happen: there is too much momentum and too many vested interests.

Channel all the fervour and anger of SMcongress into fixing that. Unfortunately, this is a very real issue which SMcongress all but ignores. It goes after the "broken" ideas of ITSM, which is a smaller issue - they are not broken just stuck - and the fix is apparent...

The real problem with the ITSM methodology

I think the problem with ITSM as an approach can be summarised simply: it is really hard to actually get people to do things differently.

Here I think SMcongress is a bit closer to the target.

We started as an industry that thought you meet needs with things, that technology solves problems.

Then we matured to an understanding that technology on its own solves nothing. You need practices ("process") to make technological change happen.

More recently we have come to understand that binders and flowcharts have little effect either. All needs / problems / risks are met by getting people to do something differently. All solutions are people change. You have to change the behaviour, to get people to adopt the desired practices, to use the technology in the desired way.

So SMcongress is right to try to change attitudes and culture and hence behaviour.

But I think they are addressing the wrong behavioural issues. SMcongress strikes me as amazingly left-wing for something that comes out of the USA and such a politically conservative industry. SMcongress seems to me to want to change the behaviour of evil corporations and oppressive bosses and nasty capitalists. This reflects a broader trend in society right now (especially in the USA) of "socialism by stealth". You call it individual rights and anti-corporatism and ecology and post-modernism because "socialism" will get you shot.

Personally i'm a liberal conservative from a semi-socialist country, so I'm all for some of it. But I don't think ITSM is the place for it, and it is not addressing ITSM's problem.

To achieve better results with ITSM, we need to understand how to change the behaviour of the people executing the practices so as to get the desired outcomes from those practices. We need tools and techniques for behaviour change when implementing modified practices and procedures and technologies. We know what needs to happen; we need better ways to make it so. This has nothing at all to do with what SMcongress is on about - it is not even close. We don't need to eviscerate our ITSM bodies of knowledge. What we have is good. We don't need revolution; we need the next stage of evolution. To see an early indication of what that next evolution of ITSM might be, start with Karen Ferris's book Balanced Diversity.

The future

So you wanted my thoughts:
SMcongress is a closed little world working itself up over the wrong problem, with - I predict - bemused disinterest from the rest of the IT community. Two dozen of our finest minds lost the plot.

Harsh, I know. I am of course invoking one of the SMcongress rights: "Right to seek and express opposing points of view." The IT Skeptic doesn't pull punches, but it is always intended as constructive. Challenge makes anything stronger. Consider this a stress test.

What of the future for SMcongress?

Charles Araujo is an awesomely smart guy, and this output doesn't look much like the ideas I have heard him espouse in the past. I'm hoping he and others will take some control of this woolly-headed post-modernist fluff and steer it back towards something of value to ITSM. There is a great deal of passionate energy here if only it can be directed.

If these hundreds of signatories are willing to put some actual effort in, if a clear vision emerges, if they solve the right problem, if practical goals can be set, if a few dedicated individuals commit a chunk of their lives to driving and guiding it, if sponsors can then be found, then SMcongress might come to something real. I think the real goals of SMcongress need to be:

  1. Promote governance of IT.
  2. Move the ITSM industry to somewhere where it will work.
  3. Grow the ITSM body of knowledge to deal with how to make it happen.

If not, then this will evaporate like Back2ITSM and other well-intentioned "collective" initiatives before it. The People's Liberation Front of ITSM perhaps.

[warning: F-word...]

I've provided concrete and actionable descriptions of what that "something real" might be: the introduction of ISO38500-based governance of IT at the executive level everywhere; moving the ITSM industry (alright if you insist: "community") away from existing structures; and the evolution of a behavioural-change body of knowledge to describe HOW to make ITSM happen.

I hope they will form a small part of shaping a future for ITSM that continues to be successful and useful.

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