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Why Most IT Departments Are Modeled After a DMV (Even Yours!)

You don't meet a lot of people who think their state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV -- or whatever it's called where you live) should be a model for how to run business. Don't get me wrong -- the Nevada DMV, where I live, is pretty awesome as far as DMVs go. But still. Long lines, arbitrary rules, surly employees who delight more in saying "no" than "here's your license, sir/ma'am."

Yet thousands of companies across the world are using a government agency as their model for how to run IT.

Campaign rhetoric aside, governments have a bit of a vested interest in slowing down change in the way government works. Governments are meant to be stable, reliable and predictable -- and change opposes those goals. When governments change, they do so very slowly, after much public and political debate, and after many periods of review and comment. Governments rarely have to worry about being first to market, since they kind of have a monopoly on governing. Governments don't seem to have any motive to maximize their profits or minimize their losses. Governments, in short, can afford to not pursue change too avidly.

Business, on the other hand, needs the ability to change rapidly. A new technology comes along that can double your margins? Use it. A new product offers the ability to reduce IT overhead? Get it. New techniques reduce downtime by half? Adopt them. Businesses -- good ones, at least -- thrive on change.

So why are so many businesses running themselves like a government agency? Four letters: ITIL.Yes, the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, the IT management framework you've all heard of and may even be using. Created by the United Kingdom's Office of Government Commerce, a department of the UK government.

No, I'm not trying to beat up on ITIL. It's actually a pretty solid, comprehensive framework for managing IT. Given that most of us weren't doing much better of a job, ITIL offers some universal structure. My problem is that ITIL pretty much abhors change. No, not on paper -- on paper, ITIL manages and controls change. In practice, IT organizations use ITIL as a blunt instrument to halt change.

Let's face it, IT loves saying "no." As far back as the earliest days of computers in academia, the robe-wearing dungeon-dwellers known as "sysadmins" reveled in telling people "no." No, you can't have more computer time. No, you can't have more punch cards. No, you can't touch that. We had (and still have) good reasons: Users break things. If it weren't for users, nothing would ever break. Our job is to keep things running, and users are the enemy of that goal. We also hate change, for exactly the same reasons: Change means broken things, and more work for us. With all those users running around, we're not exactly short of things to do, so change is just another unwelcome burden. A new application? No. A new server? No. New domain? No.

ITIL and other IT management frameworks can take our genetic tendency to say "no" and codify it. "You want a new application installed? Well, you're going to have to go through the Change Management Process." Dilbert's pointy-haired boss couldn't have come up with anything better. Users who ask for the simplest things can be told "no," simply because the Rules support that position. Worse, in many companies, admins who step out of the change management framework to help a user with something small are chastised, written up, and put at the bottom of the list for promotions and interesting projects.

Yes, we absolutely need to manage change -- which is what ITIL is all about. We don't need to bury change, which is what too many organizations use ITIL -- and frameworks like it -- to do. Take a few minutes and evaluate your IT team to see if you're using your change management process as a codified way of saying "no." Simple, obviously non-destructive changes should have a way of being expedited in your organization. Remember, IT is there for the business, not just to follow the rules in a framework. Managing change is something we do because it is allegedly good for the business; when the framework isn't helping the business, consider changing the framework a bit.

(For the record, I really do like ITIL -- when it's implemented with common sense and an eye toward what the business really needs).

Posted by Don Jones on 06/21/2011 at 1:14 PM

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Reader Comments:

Fri, Mar 8, 2013 KILLEDBYITIL UK

Agree with this 100%. I have been in IT for 15 years and ITIL has really killed my job, drained my morality, and turned IT into everything I hate about the world. OK in the old days when we could do what we liked we took some risks that meant we would be working without sleep and fixing problems from 7pm up until 7am so when the first user logged in they never knew anything about the madness that had gone on to get that service back up. Sometimes problems occurred along the way which did affect companies, this was usually a good way of identifying people who did not belong in that role! Businesses always wanted everything yesterday and nothing gave me more satisfaction than being able to turn around and saying "I thought you would ask for that so I already implemented that yesterday!" What we have now frightens me, IT departments have more bodies than ever despite the costs needing to be cut everywhere, this has been the lifeblood and given outsourcing companies all the ammo they need to convince businesses why they should be outsourcing. I HATE hearing "No" I get told "No" everywhere i go (banks, job interviews, salary reviews) so saying "Yes" to the users really gave me a buzz and helped me sleep at night. Now I am always in the wrong for saying Yes. I am surrounded by "No Men" who will say No before even listening to requirements. Just the other day I received a request from a user with a wacky idea they would like to see implemented. In the time it had taken my boss to write an email telling him why this couldn't be done, why it would cost them so much money and require management of change, I had already replied saying "I've done it".....why is this so wrong? Why is my IT deparement about 5 times the size it used to be, and why are 80% of people (who are earning twice as much as everyone else) doing no work but only reporting on how well the service is sticking to the standards laid out by ITIL. I know its because not of them can be trusted to do anything with a computer (most are more dumb than the worst users I have ever dealt with when it comes to their own computer use) so ITIL is the perfect smokescreen for these people to appear they know what they are doing because they are gurus of the process but as ignorant about the actual work as a deaf dumb and blind mule. I used to enjoy work, now it is a pointless excercise in futility. The only reason this will never be axed in because it has created a bigger industry than real IT work ever can. I just miss the old days when work meant work, you hada bit of responsibility and the challenge was there. Thank you process nuts for ruining the only thing I ever enjoyed!

Tue, Aug 30, 2011 myother

I think Don is missing the forest because of the trees. If change wasn't managed by IT...the business would pay the price...and IT would get the blame.

Thu, Jul 7, 2011 symo Australia

Good article! As a consultant, I like what you've said here. I've seen many organisations implement ITIL simply to add a layer. When ITIL is implemented with common sense, change is BETTER! It's when ITIL is implemented "to the letter" that things start becoming slow.

Tue, Jul 5, 2011 Snarky

I don't think this happens all the time, but the very few times it does come back to bite you it makes an outsized impression. I've been on the receiving end of having worked out an architecture we feel works, and works well, only to be told that as competent, fast, and secure as it is, it isn't in line with the rest of the company architecture and that deviation could result in additional support time and, at the very least, additional dig time when something does go wrong, trying to adjust to the difference. True...but still frustrating if you're trying to introduce something new.

Thu, Jun 30, 2011 Dana

ITIL is what you make it. Unfortunately, the IT people who want to say no and make things difficult, make the ITIL processes difficult. I am a change manager and we have 2500 changes logged every month. Nearly 65% of those are auto-approved. It is basically a record stating this change was made at this date and time so if we can verify configurations and use the information for incident and problem management. Processes provide consistency and when they are routine ways to do things, then there is efficiency. The efficiency gain will inturn provide time to be innovative!

Thu, Jun 30, 2011

I am in total agreement with this article. Business outcomes from technology investments are all that really matter. IT people talk about revamping without having any idea of how their efforts and cost will turn a profit. The IT lame excuse of not being bean counters is dead.

Tue, Jun 28, 2011 Agree with perception USA

Well I'm gonna have to go ahead and kinda disagree with most of the commentators here and support Don on this. People need to see things from both sides to appreciate what I believe he's trying to say. Once upon a time I worked in this enterprise org which completely 'embraced' (note the judicious use of quotes here) ITIL both conceptually and in sw systems, and it was a complete disaster. Basically after mgmt got back from ITIL training, pretty much everything started going downhill. They overcomplicated things, said they embraced change but in reality their actions indicated otherwise, took seemingly forever to review change mgmt requests (weeks to months), called meetings at the drop of a hat and moved at a snail's pace. Unless of course it benefited them politically, in which case they were quick to offer up a solution that completely bypassed the necessary components of ITIL. Now was it really ITIL's fault? No of course not, in this case it was clearly due their lack of understanding and competence in the matter. But the perception had already been set about ITIL because no one of any 'importance' knew any better. So maybe we should cut Don a little slack here? Note that he writes: "For the record, I really do like ITIL -- when it's implemented with common sense and an eye toward what the business really needs"

Wed, Jun 22, 2011 pete United States

Don You should spend a little time on the other side of the fence to broaden your perspective.

Wed, Jun 22, 2011 the IT Skeptic

Don't shoot the message. You start out by blaming ITIL "four letters" then end up persuading yourself its about bureaucracy. ITIL doesnt create the monster any more than any other tool does. ITIL itself wants standard change - it wants change control to get out of the way.

Wed, Jun 22, 2011 David Q Hogan Australia

Don, you nailed it. The amount of times that I've seen important but non-service affecting changes (such as a new hostname on an existing domain) have been delayed by 'the process' .. ugh. This is one of the main reasons why small startups will always be able to out-innovate larger companies.

Tue, Jun 21, 2011 Ian Clayton USA

Don, with respect this article does no one any good. Its not an ITIL issue and ITIL is incomplete anyway and far from being an IT management method. Have you ever worked in IT? Have you visited an IT organization recently? IT is facing the challenge of enabling business at an ever increasing pace, and doing that in a social structure where IT is now a utility and 'invisible technology' to many under 30. Behind the scenes, IT organizations must stay up to speed with tech and the latest innovations, while maintaining a stable current infrastructure, and processing increased demand. I know IT has issues - hence the rush to cloud and virtualization, and ITIL can inflame issues by promoting an inside out, customer agnostic approach. But, really, do you feel comfortable using such a broad brush for all IT organizations? Its this bash IT stance that compounds the issue. Your assumptions as to what ITIL is about are plain wrong. Flawed and naive as I think it is - it represents an earnest effort to remind us that customer and services exist, and It has to embrace both. IT, like utilities, now provide vital (information) services. How they are used by customers is key to understanding how best to allocate finite resources. The DMV suffers no consequence for poor service. You can't even throw rotten tomatoes. IT lives on the edge of the satisfaction and funding abyss.

Tue, Jun 21, 2011 Dan Kane

What a load of bull. This phenomenon has nothing to do with ITIL or ITSM. In fact, good ITIL/ITSM practice may be the best way to get out of the pit of "No". The problem is the gaping disconnect between IT's customers (the ones who decide how much to spend on IT) and the consumers of IT's services. I would love to deploy (or let the consumers deploy) every iPad, downloaded application, etc. they can find. I'd love for everyone in the company to have a laptop. I can't do that. Why? Because my budget is based on the old perception of IT being a cost center that must be minimized. I'd get laughed out of the room if I submitted a budget that accounted for the additional hardware and software the internal consumers wanted, and the resources necessary to keep them happy with all that new stuff. Actually, the real response would be, "You need to learn when to say No". The old school corporate structure PAYS IT to say no. The customers (remember, the people who decide how much to spend) fund IT from the assumption that our purpose is to minimize costs. IT is not an innocent victim here. That's where ITIL/ITSM can help. It is our responsibility to better define how and why we need to spend our budget dollars. We fall short with our own old-school thinking that the customers/payers just don't get IT. Why don't they just trust us to spend money wisely? That doesn't work anymore. ITIL has the capability to help us explain how we will make decisions in the best interest of the business. We can use it to help the requesters/consumers see the same thing, and see how their request fits into a bigger picture. ITIL can absolutely be abused to codify the "No" culture. But soi can any other set of processes and standards. The existence of a a defined process does not either perpetuate or kill the culture of "No". There's a lot more to say about this, especially as it relates to what role the business needs IT to play. For example, some companies need and want IT to control costs and nothing else. In the right context, there's nothing wrong with that. I get that, as a blogger, you throw out some opinions that are just exaggerations of your real thoughts. But, c'mon, don't oversimplify the issue just to create controversy.

Tue, Jun 21, 2011 Don Jones

For the record, this blog is "IT Decision Makers," so it's kinda intended for those execs you refer to. It's also a bit tounge-in-cheek, sorry that didn't come across more. But... Regardless of how enthusiastic about tech the IT pro audience might be (and I agree they are), I hear "no" an awful lot when they're asked to implement a change they don't happen to be enthusiastic about. Always a great and valid reason for doing so - but my point is that there's another side to the change request, and management frameworks don't often have a way for that to be heard. Cmon, look in a mirror. You've never said "no" or put hurdles in the way? I have. And guys... Keep it professional here, k? You can disagree and make counterpoints without being childish, right? :)

Tue, Jun 21, 2011 sean

As a professional systems administrator, I have but one word for you as a comment to your entire article: No.


NOTBUYINGIT, You have a valid point about the general population of true ITsmen. We do love change and are excited to hear about feature upgrades, new technology, new methods, etc. This jaded author has mixed up very distinct genres of IT infrastructure. Don switches between "IT" and "ITLL Framework" synonymously. As an IT employee, I cannot help but cringe at this poorly written blog entry. Sure, ITLL may be ridged, but that is the nature of large enterprise environments. Nothing to cry about. "The independent voice of the microsoft it community" huh? Right...

Tue, Jun 21, 2011 notbuyingit

You sir, are a troll gone professional. First, IT departments don't like saying no...they just hate getting asked for incredibly stupid things! Second, IT loves change, LOVES it...we spend our nights reading up on the rapidly changing tech world, we would love to rip out our entire infrastructure and start fresh with the right technologies, we would love to swing for the stars and revamp an entire company from top to bottom....BUT we're usually the ones to be told "no" from the execs. Third, we only have these 'rules' in a general sense. If you want to do something that makes you better at your job that doesn't put our infrastructure at risk, nor takes constant attention from IT to accomplish, nor has any licensing or costs involved, then 90% of the time it's fine with IT. Lastly, and here I can't speak for all IT departments, nobody on earth likes the DMV, and to say quite directly that IT actively tries to mimic that bureaucratic nightmare makes you sound like a biased troll who probably asked IT if it was ok if he could watch porn all day at his desk and when they said no, you threw a tantrum in the form of a rediculously unsourced blog rant.

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