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itSMF Slovakia 2016 Conference

itSMF Slovakia: 2016 conference

I’ve just got home from being part of the itSMF Slovakia conference. I’m keen to document what a good event it was. So … that’s the first message – Tomas and his team did a great job, made the speakers welcome and sent away happy delegates at the end of the two days. T
hanks for that but I think it is worth a look in some more detail. Others may find a lesson or two worth learning?

Slovakia is a small country, and so has a small itSMF membership base. Nowhere is booming these days but around 100 paying delegates delivered a decent size audience, and crucially the organisers built an event matched to the delegate numbers and also built upon their knowledge of their members and what they want to hear and do.

Nice to present at …

Forgive me if I start a bit self-centredly, but I enjoyed the time in Slovakia immensely. The speakers were looked after, and made very welcome. And Bratislava is an impressive city, an old centre with enough buildings to admire but small enough to walk around comfortably.

The event was themed around the “Magnificent Seven” film, with cowboys, western h12814644_10153993285037433_7927815363618673934_nats and pretend six-shooters. I confess that such role-playing isn’t entirely my thing, but the organisers and speakers entered into the spirit and it provided a structure across the event. I forgave them for making me wear a hat indoors, even if that is a most un-British thing to do. But the practicality of that theme really worked – a variety of internationally gathered presenters covering a range of attitudes, knowledge and opinions to present a comprehensive view of ITSM today. Not too tightly focused as other conferences seem to try, but offering something for everyone.

First day was a single stream of presentations – that meant that we got to present to a full room of interested people – none of that nervous wait in the breakout room to see if anyone is going to come to your talk. It also helps in that you can build on previous talks knowing the audience also saw them.

Enthusiastic people

I’ve been to events where no-one talks to you afterwards. I’ve been to others where you get major debates and discussions about every detail. Slovakia – for me anyway – hit that sweet spot between. I had many interesting talks with delegates, mostly exploring and progressing ideas from my talks – not arguing, not just agreeing but developing. No better kind of follow up is possible.

For those delegates who wanted to follow up after the broad series of presentations, the second day was all about workshops, with most of the presenters each delivering a workshop. I led one on ‘customer awareness’. While I had a list of things I could have talked about, I wanted it to reflect the attendees’ concerns and interests. And that’s what I got, there were about 20 of us and the conversation didn’t flag across the 90 minutes. I learned a lot, and I hope the others did too.

Matched to customer wishes

I think what I liked best about the event overall is that the organisers know their audience and set out to deliver something specific. The first day was a standalone offering. Unlike some other events it didn’t feel like a cut down version of something bigger. It was a one-day event with a balanced programme. No need for an expensive end of the day drinks event because many folks stayed on and networked afterwards. The catchment for the delegates was pretty much Bratislava based, and most go home afterwards, not stay in hotels. So customer knowledge means they realise an evening social event is not right for them.

The commitment to play out the western theme was reflected in the interest shown for serious ITSM gaming as presented by Christian and Peter in their presentations. In fact Christian relevantly quoted George Bernard Shaw on the topic “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing”. That seems to work well for the Slovakians.

Last thoughts on this year … and the first on next year

I had never been to Slovakia before, and was surprised by some things. The conference was 90% in English, and that seemed to cause no problems to anyone. Impressive secon
d language performances, better than I have seen before in Eastern Europe, up there on a level with the Dutch and Scandinavians – no higher praise. My personal embarrassment at a total absence of language skills makes me all the more appreciative of the those skills in others.

The scenery, food, wine and – especially for my tastes – Fabrika’s dark lager were captivating.

Mostly though it was the delegates made the event work – they laughed at the jokes, applauded the content, questioned, commented and developed the ideas put forward. The original spirit of itSMF is alive and well in Bratislava.

Thanks again to Tomas Hettych and his itSMF Slovakia team. You can see more details about the event here Get ready for next year – I am already trying to think up a reason they should invite me back.

Accidental Cultural Imposition

I wrote in my last blog here about Intelligent Disobedience and how that technique – and approaches in general based upon innovation and applied intelligence – have much to offer in the service management space.

One of the interesting points about Intelligent Disobedience is an apparent conflict. While recognising the need for it and the benefits it can offer in delivering customer satisfaction, procedures should be designed to prevent the need for it. The experiences and lessons learned from effective intelligent disobedience should form an input into writing procedures that prevent the need for further disobedience in the future.

There is something often found in company procedures – and rules and even in countries’ laws – that creates a need for Intelligent Disobedience. And it is a need that is mostly avoidable. I have been calling it ‘Accidental Cultural Imposition” (ACI). So this seems a logical blog for me to write to follow the one on Intelligent Disobedience.

What is ACI

ACI is my term for where the creator – or maintainer – of procedures (or software or whatever, it applies broadly) has unconsciously built in aspects that reflect the way they think and live – and presumes the rest of the world lives like that too. Let me illustrate it with an example:

A company’s travel and subsistence rules limit what will be repaid to cover meals when employees are travelling on business. This is to keep costs reasonable and sounds fair. The rules say the meals will be reimbursed subject to maximum amounts of $10 for breakfast, $20 for lunch and $40 for dinner. This almost certainly reflects they way the author eats. For a global company this is going to cause a cascade of needless work. Other parts of the world might eat in a different pattern, with main meal at lunchtime, or two meals rather than three. And if you have just flown across 8 time zones in 12 hours it may be perfectly reasonable to want to eat dinner at breakfast time. This invites a non-stop stream of expense rejection, calls to point out the inappropriateness of the laid down claiming structure and – hopefully – after some discussion an intelligent decision will be agreed. Of course, what the author should have written was ‘$70 a day’, why would the company really care about how many meals were eaten or which one was larger?

That sounds quite trivial – indeed it is and should be easily resolved by sensible discussion. But all that questioning and discussion and interpretation take time and money that shouldn’t need to be spent.

We see other examples too – screen and page layouts that the author believes are intuitive because the logic flows left to right. But that won’t be so logical if significant parts of your user community think in Arabic or one of the other Right to Left languages! And most southern hemisphere employees of global companies have had to get used to hearing their VP talk about ‘releasing in the summer’ without mentioning just whose summer.

Wider then you might think 

Of course, like most things in ITSM, this isn’t a new thing but as old as cultural differences. But it is something that costs organisations today: costs time, money and aggravates and isolates users from the procedure writers back at HQ.

Take a different example. When should banks schedule maintenance on an ATM system? If you are a boring old man like me, then you might think 2am on a Sunday morning is the obvious quiet time. Talk to someone who knows the industry in modern western culture and they will laugh at you. Sunday 2am in a big city is critical business period, it’s late Saturday night and youngsters out on the town need cash to get back home or to party on. Of course in other parts of the world and other cultures it will be different again. But we all have suffered from someone accidentally imposing their culture on our services.

What can we do about it

First and foremost, we can stop thinking that procedures have to address every possible situation in the finest detail. Instead of that microscopic focus, if they aim at getting the right people in the right conversation, with the right skills and information to make a good decision, then perhaps that’s a decent enough target to aim for.

Let’s try to avoid the ‘applying best practice in detail’ myth that wants to see a set of rules that always applies, even when that isn’t a sensible scenario.

The procedures and rules we do build should be designed to do the job they are needed for, that might not be the same as being pervasive and detailed. Ways to find out include:

  • Involving people across the whole range of those who will use and be affected by the procedures
  • Don’t go into details unless you know why you are doing it and what the benefits will be.
  • Build in space and room for interpretations; expect intelligent disobedience to solve the spaces you leave. That may well be the best and cheapest way to deliver the service quality needed
  • Use feedback from documented intelligent disobedience experiences to drive changes in rules and procedures
  • Be especially careful when rolling out services, rules or anything else, to new areas: geographical, cultural, linguistically or anything else. Get someone from the new community involved beforehand.

And finally, we can come clean and admit that we have all been guilty of this at some point. Never mind the work environment, every parent is guilty of expecting their children to behave according to parental cultural norms. If you haven’t done it as a parent yet, you likely can recall it from the child’s perspective.

It is human nature, so it isn’t about blaming people for doing it, it should be about being aware and taking deliberate steps to avoid it.

Intelligent Disobedience – A Service Dog idea for Service Management

guide dogOne of the interesting consequences of ever increasing self-service across the ITSM spectrum is the – unnoticed in many organisations – increasing average complexity of those tasks that do require human involvement.

Routine calls to the desk – from password request through to a new PC are dealt with by modern software without the need for people. Answers for foreseeable questions and actions for foreseeable situations are built into the software beforehand; decided once and then applied at (almost) zero further cost.

But what that means is that when a call to a person is required, the issue is complicated, the pre-programmed normal rules do not apply and significant skill level is required to understand and address the issue. This kind of exception work* requires not only skill and knowledge, but also empowerment to make decisions required in what are often unforeseen circumstances.

We saw many years of organisations de-skilling front line tasks. We now see major moves towards self-service and automation of the routine. Those two ideas are not compatible and as self-service automation takes hold, the result is a need to upskill the remaining customer facing roles.

All this calls for a new attitude to our front line staff; one based on genuine empowerment, which means:

  • Authority – to make decisions and implement non-standard actions – including the cost and consequences of those decisions
  • Knowledge – built and maintained – to help make those decisions correctly
  • Trust and support for decisions made– especially being aware that, at best, they will only be right most of the time for most customers.

A useful and powerful concept, essential in the training of guide dogs, is the need to foster “Intelligent Disobedience”. Put simply, this is knowing when the rules you generally work by are not appropriate and what is actually called for in a particular situation is something that would normally be against the rules.

The traditional example is the guide dog not crossing the street when the pedestrian light comes on because they see a car coming at speed that will not stop. We see examples in all the skilled professions too from sport to surgery. In fact our television series seem to worship the idea, but in them success depends on the star rating of the perpetrator.

But this idea is applicable much more widely than service dogs, in fact it is applicable to all kinds of service support. Realising the benefits requires an environment in which it can be practised, and in many organisations that will need a change in management style. Training managers to embrace intelligent disobedience is often the hardest part!

Getting the right balance in real life needs a good and meaningful practice environment. This doesn’t have to be expensive – we are talking about people not vast technological test environments. In fact the approach is basically the same as that used for doing service rehearsals before go-live.

Of course the data and information input is critical – and it is here that modern technology needs to play its part alongside the traditional human skills. Knowledge management is central to success in solving complicated questions and in triggering and supporting intelligent disobedience decisions.

* And the whole landscape of normal vs exception is set out better than I ever could by Rob England in his ‘Standard + Case’ book. I acknowledge gratefully learning much from his writing and trainings. More information here: