Malcolm Fry and Phil Verghis were already well-known trusted advisors for business and IT executives when I first interviewed them a decade ago. Who better to talk with about the trusted advisor role than these two legends in the IT and customer support universes? Both are distinguished award winners, provocative speakers, prolific writers, sought-after advisors to some of the world’s largest companies, and simply entertaining fellows. Their previous calls to action still resonate, but Malcolm and Phil have added experience that colors their perspective in this “new world of IT” and continues to influence our forward direction.
Cinda Daly: What about this “new world of IT” makes it new?
Malcolm Fry: There isn’t a new world of IT, not exactly, but IT has morphed. We used to be exclusively back-office types, automating the business: running invoices, accounting, processing HR requests, controlling inventory, etc. Rather than transforming business functions, we were simply replicating existing forms on our screens.
People have more power at home than they do in their offices, and they often know more than IT does.
We did deliver many benefits in terms of performance, productivity, and cost savings. Today, we’re in the third or fourth phase of recomputing these activities, but now we’re sitting at the front of the front office, face to face with the people making the purchases and using the services.
Think of the business travelers who now take a snapshot of their receipts on their smartphones. Those images are collated automatically and sent to the home office for processing. Sometimes we still think too much about automating the business when we should be thinking about how to push the business to a higher level.
Phil Verghis: In the old days, computers were scarce, and people who knew how to support and maintain them were scarcer still. We created the help desk to provide a buffer: friendly but relatively clueless people who could protect the few high priests and priestesses, who knew about computers, from their customers, who didn’t know very much. Those days are long gone. People have more computing power at home than they do in their offices, and they often know more than we do. Unfortunately, much of our thinking hasn’t kept up.
Fry: Examples of the world moving on can be found everywhere. Twenty years ago, tracing your genealogy was very difficult to do; today, it’s easy. Fifty percent of couples meet online today. Offshore betting is now a mega-business. Computers and robots make cars today, not people.
Verghis: For a long time, you heard about something being “enterprise-grade” when introduced to the consumer market. Now, I’m increasingly hearing new enterprise applications described as “consumer-grade.” That just means that the technology is easier to use and install—a joy to use.
As a result, the tension between engineering and IT has shifted. Traditionally, the people in engineering would try things out and say, “I’ll build that for you over the weekend”; IT would slam on the brakes over issues like security, updates, and interoperability. That cautious mindset made a lot of sense in the old days, but the world has moved on. The move to DevOps and real-time releases means that millions and millions of lines of code are released every day. The stakes are higher, and so are the expectations, but we must keep up.
Daly: Phil just mentioned DevOps, a cultural and methodological shift that’s all about speed and agility. So far, ITSM leaders have been kept off the VIP list. Why do adjectives like sluggish, out-of-touch, and irrelevant get attached so frequently to IT and ITSM leaders?
Fry: In the past, when we talked about faster-quicker-faster-quicker, it was usually in the context of a faster, more reliable infrastructure. Today, everything needs to be faster-quicker-faster-quicker. But faster-quicker isn’t good enough—it never was. We still need quality.
We’ve learned over the years that if you don’t build IT services properly, they’ll collapse around you. Frankly, IT should be sluggish at times. Testing used to be a major part of deploying new products and services, and it’s one of the areas where people cut corners. I get a bit worried when I hear of new-fangled ideas that have merit but might lead to cutting corners that shouldn’t be cut.
Verghis: If IT is seen as the bottleneck and not as part of the solution, that’s a problem. Often, IT is seen only as the technical folks business leaders come to when the need to know if something can be done. In some ways, IT is like the legal department, another group that’s often seen as a bottleneck. It’s not often that people see legal as helping the company move forward; it’s more about protecting the company from mistakes.
This is part of what has to shift for IT: IT must go beyond responding to “Can it be done?” with a simple “yes” or “no” and start thinking about the variety of possible solutions they can apply to a business issue. Trusted advisors should protect what needs to be protected, but they should also think of things that haven’t been thought of before.
Daly: This is an opportunity for IT leaders to become the trusted advisors, mediate the engineering and business divide, and respond to customer expectations with speed and quality, while delivering appropriately secure solutions.
Verghis: In 1999, when I was part of a start-up that is now a $2 billion company, we did SaaS and DevOps, although we didn’t call it that at the time. We kept big banks and governments up and running, and it was a massive load. Our clients wanted their businesses to be up, so they asked for SLAs and other old-paradigm things. None of us knew the new paradigm. I think we’re still figuring it out.
At first, we stumbled around trying to use traditional support models, practices, and processes. We focused on identifying symptoms because the problems were so complicated that it could often take a year to resolve them. We built in redundancy and fault tolerance to address the symptoms before customers experienced them, which gave us time to pinpoint and address complex root causes.
Trusted advisors should protect what needs to be protected, but they should also think of things that haven’t been thought of before.
A really important “a-ha” moment was when we realized that what our clients wanted wasn’t what they needed. Our clients were IT professionals, and we gave them solutions in technical jargon. The problem was that, in the then-new world of the cloud, they couldn’t translate that technical jargon into the language of the business. They couldn’t explain to their bosses, for example, why they were adopting a cloud solution. Our biggest value was not just explaining the why and how but also translating it into business language. We gave that to our client who then gave it to their leaders. That’s when we made the shift to being a trusted advisor. We were helping them manage their business, their customers, and their bosses.
Daly: Malcolm, here’s a throwback. Back in 2004, you said, “We’ve been talking about adopting a more business-oriented approach in IT for long enough. Get your money out and do it.” Have we done it?
Fry: We’ve made headway because the dynamics have changed. There’s a big difference today when I go for beer with my neighbors and business colleagues. A few years ago, they couldn’t even string together a complete sentence about technology. Today, they can talk about technology just as well as I can. They know exactly what’s going on, and it’s an easier conversation. But, there’s a caveat. They’re not thinking about cyber-resilience, for example, and getting things right in the first place. I’m a little leery of people who feel that IT is out of touch simply because they, as individuals, have more knowledge than they did before. Unfortunately, they have that dangerous level of knowledge: some, but not enough. Technical expertise is still a very critical part of the role IT leaders play.
Verghis: That’s a great point, Malcolm. Many of the functions IT played in that past are increasingly handled in the cloud: network monitoring, fault tolerance, etc. Tasks that IT had to concentrate on before have become part of the app, part of how we do business. It’s the speed of business, not the speed of IT. These things are still getting done, they’re just getting done differently.
Fry: You can parallel this with the changes the average car mechanic has faced over time. Think about the mechanic of yesteryear: overalls, hands in his pockets. He would start up the engine, walk around the car, listen, and in about ten minutes, proclaim what was wrong with the car and then fix it. Today, mechanics are engineers. They plug a diagnostic tool into the car’s computer to uncover the issue. A new chip and the issue’s resolved. Their knowledge and skillsets are entirely different, and that’s neither better nor worse. It’s simply a shift. Mechanics may have morphed into engineers, but they’re still fixing cars.
Daly: We’ve been talking around the role of trusted advisor, but let’s hone in. What is a trusted advisor?
Fry: I started using an expression recently that seems to resonate: IT needs more IT. IT, of course, means IT, but the other IT means “integrity and trust.” As I’ve said before, “This way of thinking requires ITSM managers and CIOs to take on a more ambassadorial role, working with business managers to fuse ITSM resources into the day-to-day business activities. This idea is not to be confused with holding business managers’ hands. It’s thinking about providing customers with direct access to support and service technologies so that they can better manage and plan their resources.”
IT needs more IT: integrity and trust.
Verghis: Unless you operate purely in a break/fix model, much of what we do involves gaining our clients’ trust and becoming true partners in their success. I recently reread Clients for Life: Evolving from an Expert-for-Hire to an Extraordinary Advisor, by Jagdish Sheth and Andrew Sobel. In it, they distinguish a client advisor—an irreplaceable resource—from a tradable commodity, like an expert. Experts are specialists; advisors are deep generalists with broad perspective. Experts have professional credibility; advisors have deep personal trust. Experts analyze; advisors synthesize. Finally, experts supply expertise; advisors are educators who provide insight and wisdom.
Daly: Last fall, HDI research revealed that 51 percent of enterprises are planning to or are actively taking ITSM practices out to other areas of the enterprise. What are your thoughts on this opportunity for trusted advisors?
Verghis: Because we work across departments, if we discover that something works in the facilities department, why wouldn’t we take that idea to accounting, or engineering, or HR to see if the same technique will work for them? That’s the part that IT often misses. They get so busy with IT, with all the moving parts, that they forget they’re the glue that holds the company together. The most successful CIOs are the ones who can synthesize across groups and across industries.
Fry: I think of this collaboration as “synchromesh,” not just as synthesis. If you do things together but don’t automate all the pieces to the same level, the gears will simply grind. With synchromesh, all the gears work smoothly together.
Verghis: That’s great, Malcolm: synchromesh, not synthesis. That’s actually a key point. Trusted advisors know how to keep learning; they’re constantly exploring new ideas and new thoughts. Then they pull those ideas together in a way that’s refreshing and relevant.
Daly: You’ve both talked about innovation today. Any stories on how trusted advisors innovate?
Verghis: A recent story on the front page of The New York Times business section reported on how hardware companies are starting to give away their patents. Tesla is doing the same thing with the patents on electric cars. If we can help businesses open up and protect themselves appropriately, then we can foster innovation in an entirely different way.
Fry: Experience is something you get just after you needed it. That’s what we’re trying to do for the business; we’re trying to give them more experience, but before they need it. Thinking that 99.9 percent is a good achievement target is just wrong; the target must be 100 percent. If you don’t shoot for it, chances are you’ll never achieve it. You can’t stop the production line. You can’t close garages. You can’t stop supermarkets from selling groceries or banks from processing transactions. You have to try for 100 percent. That takes experience, a broad understanding, and openness to new ideas. That’s where innovation comes alive.
Verghis: There’s a global dimension to innovation, too. There are companies out there that are far bigger than Apple or Amazon. In fact, the most highly valued startup in the world isn’t Uber, it’s Xiaomi, a Chinese smartphone company. So much is happening in other parts of world that will have a massive impact on IT. Go east, go west, go somewhere to learn. See the world from a different perspective.
Cinda Daly is the CEO and chief content strategist for Focus Events, where she brings her career achievements as an impact player in content strategy, marketing, customer service, and events to her enterprise clients. Her current projects include a variety of initiatives in global event management, online media, and community building, all built on a foundation of high-quality editorial content, customer advocacy, and knowledge sharing.