Business Service vs. Product Thinking

By Myles Suer, #CIOChat Facilitator, Contributor, and Dell Boomi Head of Global Enterprise Marketing

Many years ago, I was asked to review an early draft of ITIL Version 3.0. I remember even taking the draft service strategy book on vacation with me. My wife asked me at one point why I was getting so excited about a ‘tech manual’ while she said that she was reading something truly exciting, a romance novel. In the end, I made many comments and suggestions as a business strategist. Most did not get accepted.

But I remember soon after the era of business service thinking being launched. The question is in the digital age is business service thinking still relevant. This was the topic that I put in front of CIOs and thought leaders recently. Their answers should prove of interesting to all involved with the IT value chains.

Is business service thinking relevant in the digital age?

Without surprise, I did not get a single answer to this question. CIO Rick Osterberg was one of the yeses. He said, that wherever there is business value, there is almost certainly some IT work taking place to support it, digital or not”. Former CIO Tim McBreen agreed with Rick but said, “once you move your IT approach to a run, grow, transform approach (matched to same business approach) then IT does things that drive business value. Run is the lights on. Grow is adding to existing portfolio, and transform is providing totally new value”.

Analyst Dion Hinchcliffe, however, had a different point of view. He believes, “ITIL is not the right model anymore (if it ever was.) Some pieces of ITIL are good. You should take those and define a value-based IT model. There are plenty of good frameworks. In fact, not long ago I sat down with a large group of ITSM managers and we rethought the practice of ITIL using modern customer experience, self-service, and design thinking as a basis”. At this point Osterberg added some color to his previous remarks by saying, “Olin College is all about agile and sprints. I have never looked at ITIL as a strict model, but rather as a toolbox and a vocabulary. There’s no perfect model for any IT organization. Success is driven by effectively using a variety of tools that fit an evolving landscape”.

Hinchcliffe responded by saying, “this is good thing because in many parts of the world, ITSM was and is still a strict IT/ICT orthodoxy. And a poorly performing one in my experience with the practice”. Dion continued by saying, “it is my personal take that Shadow IT is so big now it must be dealt with as a full ITSM opportunity, but not to scrub out. But to make it a higher performing innovation pool plus strategy to close service gaps”. CIO Milos Topic did not disagree when he said, “for a growing number of organizations, IT is an integral part of the business, a true partner and a leader so with that in mind, it matters a lot. Technology relates, empowers, innovates, drives, and supports almost all functional areas in various ways”.

As IT moves more to digital products does project portfolio and service management thinking retain their value?

Forrester Analyst Charles Betz claimed, “this is a hard question, because it immediately forces the semantics question. Is there a meaningful difference between a service and product? In the same week, I have heard these statements: 1. we are moving from a product to a service model, and 2. we are moving from a service to a product model. Both made sense, once the organizations unpacked the definitions people were using. If by product you just mean software as a trade good, services are more attractive. If by service you mean something low level and technical, products are more attractive. The legacy of definitional disagreement between ITSM vs. SOA plays into this issue”.

Hinchcliffe said, “I’d say that you can’t have a product without a service. But you can’t have a good service without it being treated as a product”. With respect to question, Hinchcliffe said, “yes, project portfolio and service management still have value, but they are becoming much more operational and productized”. CIO David Seidl agrees with Dion when he says, “massive scaling of how we do online instruction, handling growth in conferencing, softphones, and collaboration technology. Remote support issues for people who have never worked at home. Even things like re-engineering solutions for remote work. We need to plan and run these darn things. We need to support them and their integrations. We need to understand their lifecycle, and where that intersects with all of the other things we have running. If you don’t keep a broad view…you fail”.

Other CIOs, however, had a different perspective. Topic said that “effectively managing projects, programs and portfolios matter. Additionally, providing customer experience with minimal to no friction is essential and that won’t change”. Martin agrees and says, “I see more value than ever, they don’t magically happen we still need to be structured in our approaches to them”. Former CIO Joanna Young agrees with them and says, “portfolio management effort and cost should decrease as prioritization focus increases less projects and related tools become more sophisticated. Less tracking and monitoring and more decisions and get stuff done. In terms of ITSM, we need to move to a customer-centric ITSM within DevOps construct”. This is a big thought and the basis for a future discussion.

If product approaches are DevOps in orientation has plan-build-run become a fossil?

Topic says that “while there are always best practices and recommendations, they don’t all apply to all organizations, all skills, all cultures…at all times. It is important to build and align with what you have and where you want to go”. Meanwhile McBreen suggests that he has become “an equal opportunity stealer from each best practice to make one that works in real world for business and IT. I have found that each new best practice was based mostly on old best practices with new words and fine tuning. I try not to chase new shiny toy”. On the other hand, Seidl claims that “unfortunately he has IT fossils that he has to maintain. We apply agile methods wherever we can. In terms of the next important steps, DevSecOps is an important incremental step from DevOps. With this said, I try not to collect fossils, and I’ll admit to chasing patrons out of the museum whenever I can. But we often have to keep some things going due to finances, compliance requirements, special needs, or…any of a host of legitimate, if sometimes frustrating reasons”.

With Seidl’s candor, Betz says that he has “had the responsibility of reviewing a number of IT policy frameworks for major firms lately and what strikes me is how much unspoken waterfall pervades them. Layered assumptions that large batches of build go through exhaustive check listing prior to going live. This has to end, and the governance, risk, and compliance strategies that are based on this need to transform”. Dion agrees with Betz and sees agile connecting to DevOps connecting to DevSecOps. Next on his list are AIOps and AnalyticsOps”.

Do product thinking approaches demand personal disruption from CIOs?

Milos believes, “an adjustment is needed across all teams not just CIO’s teams and that the change would vary based on roles and contributions in the process. Not that disruptive, more of a change, adjustment, evolution, and progress”. Seidel agrees but says, “this is part of our jobs. We have to avoid becoming stuck in the way we learned to do our job, and the models we are comfortable with. Our jobs are to respond to organizational needs and help find the right solutions and paths forward”.

A part of doing this well, says McBreen involves “bringing new people into organization that can challenge old ways of doing things and our models. And this is as true for IT as the business leadership team. The best organizations that I have been involved with have leadership and board turnover and have encouraged and challenged me”. Seidl agrees when he says that “having a team that’s willing to play devil’s advocate and has a healthy habit of doing is essential”. This is very similar to management theorist, Gary Hamel, who has suggested that the practices of management need radical change. Hamel believes “it is time to challenge long-standing management orthodoxies that constrain innovation”. Dion agrees with Hamel when he says “there is an urgent need for growth, evolution, and outright transformation of the CIO into a strategic business leader is perhaps the biggest IT story of 2020. Product thinking part of this”.

Parting remarks

It seems to clear that CIOs are grappling with many frameworks and adding new approaches as appropriate including product thinking. There is not one single approach including on product management thinking which many are experimenting that will end up winning. With this said, there is clear progress and maturity take place in the CIOs that are open to it.


Please check out this recording with Myles and Steve Nunn, President and CEO of The Open Group, from The Open Group ‘Digital First’ event held last week.  They discussed Enterprise Architects as the foundation for a digital company.   @theopengroup   #ogVIRTUAL

Myles Suer, according to LeadTails, is the 9th leading influencer of CIOs. He is the facilitator for the #CIOChat. The chat has executive level participants from around the world in a mix of industries including banking, insurance, education, and government. Mr. Suer also has a weekly column at (The Adaptive CIO) and has had his articles published in ComputerWorld, Innovation Enterprise, and COBIT Focus. He also heads global enterprise marketing at Boomi.