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IT service catalog best practices: Is not having one key to better IT?

Executives talk a lot about IT service catalog best practices, but what if the best approach is not having one? Consultant John Weathington explains.

The biggest problem with IT service catalogs, ironically, is that they're very effective at empowering the IT department to provide excellent service to the organization. Believe it or not -- and this might sound blasphemous -- this well-intentioned concept is one of the biggest contributors to IT failure. In fact, when it comes to IT service catalog best practices, the best strategy might be simply not to have one.

How can that be? Well, if you position IT as a service provider, that's exactly how the rest of the organization will treat you. Furthermore, the better you execute on your service model, the more damage you will do to the image you should be striving for: partnership with other areas of the business.

There's a critical point in the growth of a company where IT leaders need to make a choice between becoming either a service provider or an information partner. These two paths are mutually exclusive, so when approaching this crossroad, choose wisely. In my experience, the best IT leaders resist the pressure to build a service catalog and instead focus on creating strategic alliances with the rest of top management.

Service catalogs and the challenges of growth

The purported need for IT service catalogs comes at a critical point in an organization's growth. Very small companies enjoy a creative, unstructured atmosphere that's usually propelled by forces they don't yet understand. It's not long before members of the founding leadership discover they need to, well, lead. In an effort to divide and conquer, they typically start slicing up the organization by function: product development, manufacturing, sales and marketing, finance and yes, IT. It seems logical, and this approach even has merit among many management sages. However, this is also where discrimination starts to take hold, which engenders a functional caste system. Unfortunately, most IT departments usually land on the more proletariat end of the social spectrum.

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Once an organization begins to grow beyond one or two flagship products or services, the leaders must once again make an organizational design decision involving IT and other shared services. They can either focus on building strategic business units for each product/service line and fold IT into each business unit (i.e., decentralize IT), or they can start building a centrally controlled IT function to service the various business units.

It's not uncommon to find leaders that favor the latter over the former: Non-IT managers often encounter difficulties in effectively leading and controlling skilled IT resources, so it's easier for top management to keep the function managed separately. The independent character of IT develops; it grows in size and cost, but it's still the working class of the organization, typically taking requests from finance, which is taking requests from the more strategic, "bourgeois" functions such as marketing and product development.

Everything seems to be fine with this approach until, one day, senior management starts to ask questions about IT -- questions that have an off-color hue and center on the topics of efficiency, transparency and control. It's usually not directed solely at IT, but the organization has grown to the point where efficiency makes a difference, and IT is a favorite target because it's a black box that costs a lot of money. Under organization-wide pressures of cost and process control, common benefactors of IT services start feeling that they're not getting what they're paying for.

To defend their value in the organization, IT leadership welcomes the idea of IT service catalog best practices, clearly defined service descriptions, request models and, of course, service-level agreements. These leaders feel as though the rest of the organization doesn't appreciate what they do, so the transparency and control will disabuse other business leaders of all notions that IT is just a huge, inefficient cost sink.

What these IT leaders don't realize is that the creation of an IT service catalog will also codify IT's status as a working-class function. Once they adopt this strategy, they have sealed their fate as a service provider; they have crossed a line that cannot be uncrossed. From this point forward, it will take a radical organizational design overhaul to partner with top management instead of service them.

The path to partnership, no IT service catalog needed

To prevent this demise, IT leaders must resist the adoption of a service management strategy and mindset, and instead take this opportunity to build your case for partnership. Partnerships are based on mutual respect, trust and joint accountability. What IT service catalogs do is reinforce the gap between what IT does and what the rest of the organization does. By clearly defining the elements of IT service, you emphasize the contrast. What you want is exactly the opposite effect: At this point, IT must blend into the rest of the organization and move the inflection point to the gap between the organization and its results.

A results-oriented approach takes a different perspective. The organizational problems of efficiency, transparency and control are real; however, the best way to solve these problems is not to pit the functions of the organization against each other, but to bring the functions together to solve organizational objectives.

What IT leaders don't realize is that the creation of an IT service catalog will also codify IT's status as a working-class function. Once they adopt this strategy, they have sealed their fate as a service provider.

This is the point where strategic business units should consolidate functions, including IT, to solve economic challenges. Instead of further centralizing IT, IT should be as decentralized as possible. Cross-functional teams should work together, and efficiencies should be driven holistically against business outcomes, not IT services. It's fine to highlight the costs of IT, but they should always be in the larger contextual business model for the business unit and analyzed together with the revenues generated by the product line.

With this mindset, it's much easier for IT leaders to partner with the rest of top management on strategic issues such as information-based innovations and data-driven strategy execution. Of course, bringing this creative energy into the strategic discussion is much more beneficial to the organization than wasting time and energy on perfunctory service arrangements.

When IT is under pressure to prove their value, an IT service catalog seems like a logical path, but they only further the divide between IT and the business. A fruitful relationship between the business and IT has been a timeless challenge for top management and a constant struggle for IT leadership. Instead of building service agreements that discriminate IT from the rest of the organization, build partnerships that bring everyone together to foster the best outcomes.

If you're currently faced with the decision of whether to employ IT service catalog best practices and management into your IT function, think of the consequences for you and your organization. Then, make the right choice -- it's an important one.

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