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Top-tier ITSM skills go beyond a good tool set

An organization can supply all the tools IT wants and still struggle to succeed. Build up key soft skills in IT and you'll boost productivity and business relationships.

It's an old lament: IT doesn't get business. On the other hand, business often doesn't get IT, either.

For ops admins, it pays to be proactive -- ready, willing and able to communicate with business leaders and put IT service management (ITSM) capabilities in the best alignment with organizational goals. But how, and is it something beyond technology that can help?

"IT professionals [who] develop the skill of 'seeing the whole' can make themselves indispensable to their organization," said Alan Zucker, founding principal at Project Management Essentials, a training and advisory company in Washington, D.C. The concept of seeing the whole comes from the lean movement, he said. Essentially, everyone should understand what they are doing and how it fits into the product they create or the value stream they deliver. This integration with business should be counted among ITSM skills, alongside things like asset tracking, change management and reporting.

Many IT professionals are deeply knowledgeable about technologies, pipelines and architectures, but focus on their specific role or function in the organization. They don't consider the downstream effects on the rest of the business; instead, they try to optimize their part of the process in a vacuum. For example, Zucker said, too often a small component of an application or project receives disproportionate attention, because it is using a new technology or tool that interests IT, but that slice of the project may not matter in the larger scheme.

"IT professionals [who] understand how to optimize the end-to-end project ... stand out in the eyes of their customers; they become the future leaders because they understand how everything fits together," Zucker said.

Having worked with many IT teams across Canada and the United States, I can say that, without a doubt, the average IT person's mindset holds IT back in their organization.
Mazdak Mohammadiowner, BlueberryCloud

This focus on the whole is one of the drivers for ITSM, which blends IT capabilities with business requirements to deliver technologies that address workers' needs. But even shops with ITSM experience face an intrinsic deficit in soft skills.

"Having worked with many IT teams across Canada and the United States, I can say that, without a doubt, the average IT person's mindset holds IT back in their organization," said Mazdak Mohammadi, owner of BlueberryCloud, a custom website developer based in Vancouver, B.C.

Mohammadi said the problem is intrinsic to the nature of IT, which is based on logic and influences how IT people think. Logic is not enough when dealing with business. "In order to influence anyone to do anything, such as adopting a new technology, you must create trust," he said. Trust doesn't come from logic, but instead requires an emotional connection. In addition to building hard ITSM skills so they can implement the business's vision, IT people should also become "better salespeople," so the business will put that vision into IT's capable hands.

The deck can be stacked against IT people who try to keep up with every trend, buzzword and best practice for their profession. That doesn't leave much time or energy for the issues that most affect customers and the company. "It's easy to fall prey to tech-industry peer pressure and spend all your time learning things that never help you, nor your company, get ahead," said Wes Higbee, a consultant and author based in New York. Instead, look for real blocks. "Maybe your customers spend a lot of time manually importing data from your system, and automating this could save them millions of dollars," he said.

It can be difficult to think of presence as an ITSM skill, but the new approach takes shape in small differences. When IT people meet businesspeople halfway, the results are often positive, according to Kelly Finn, principal for information technology at WinterWyman, a recruitment firm with headquarters in Waltham, Mass. For example, pay attention to your attitude and tone when you explain something technical to a nontechnical audience. Were you in a rush or patient? Did it sound condescending or helpful? Listening is the most important soft skill you can develop, Finn said. Then, use your technical knowledge to come up with practical and winning strategies. "Too often, a businessperson will tell you they need X, Y and Z, which you recognize is beyond the resources you have," Finn said. Be patient, and push back appropriately until you get to a service delivery plan that is achievable.

Some of the onus for a better ITSM experience is on the business side, according to James Goepel, vice president and CTO at ClearArmor Corp., a cybersecurity company in Riegelsville, Penn. "The misalignment between IT and business is a huge problem that creates inefficiencies and is at the root of many of today's cybersecurity issues," he said. Businesses need to stop looking at the IT department as a cost center, and, instead, see it as a business enabler. To do this, the IT department needs to approach its technological systems the same way the organization's leadership approaches the rest of the company, he said. "Tie the IT systems back to the organization's core business functions, and ... discuss the IT initiatives that they are advocating by how they will benefit the business," he said. These benefits might range from improved efficiency to reduced cost or lower risk, or some combination of these factors.

Use tools to support soft ITSM skills

Don't neglect the technology dimension when you shift focus to the overall experience. ITSM tool sets are rapidly evolving from systems that simply record tickets to ones that actually help resolve incidents as they occur, said Shannon Kalvar, research manager for ITSM and virtual client computing at IDC. The major vendors in this space, including BMC Software, Cherwell Software and ServiceNow, have moved in this new direction. IT teams are more effective at the front lines, "helping people to quickly resolve complex questions and problems using automated systems," he said. These tools boast machine learning to underpin capabilities, and more integration in one user interface. With views into, for example, help desk tickets and monitoring stats on the same interface, "you don't have to do constant flip screening," Kalvar said.

In keeping with the shift in mindset and skills that brings IT closer to the rest of the business, ITSM tools are becoming broader in their focus, jumping to new areas such as HR. "The impact of this technology is that IT skills have to move from the back office to more directly helping people," he said.

But Forrester analyst Charles Betz offered a note of caution. In his view, the entire premise of ITSM is under siege. The IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) framework, which is the basis for much of ITSM thinking, is due for an update in 2018, after many years without one. ITSM has been under attack from DevOps devotees who believe it is a more efficient way to create and manage IT.

Both philosophies, ITSM and DevOps, have active adherents, but Betz said he sees more momentum on the DevOps side. "[Research] seems to actually suggest a negative correlation between ITIL-related practices and business outcomes," he added, citing information in Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and DevOps: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble and Gene Kim.

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