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Value From Knowledge AND Experience

Let’s start off with a simple, necessary assertion:

No one book will ever contain all of the things you need to know about a given area of study/interest.

No place is this more evident than in the area of the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) and (more generally) IT Service Management (ITSM). If you’re reading this, it’s 99.99% likely that you have some interest in one of these topics and are likely consider yourself knowledgeable about them. A wise author once wrote:

It’s not what you know, it’s what you know that just ain’t so

Mark Twain

Now you might be saying to yourself, “what does this have to do with the ITIL books?!” Well, I am very glad you asked, because I have a story to tell you. Let’s get started…

While I was running the Data Center Transformation Product Management team for Symantec Global Services, I had an open headcount for a Product Manager. As any other responsible hiring manager would do, I wrote my position description, worked with human resources and the recruiters to bring in candidates that fit my needs. I can assure you that this is a long, arduous process, but a necessary one. You see, I was looking for someone that had practical experience about what it took to use the guidance that ITIL provides in the “real world.”

Before the actual certificate became available, it was quite common to find someone who would include the phrase “ITIL Expert” on their resume. I always thought that this was a good bit of fun, an opportunity to question this “expert” to test their knowledge and provide examples of how they actually used it. Just so you know, I was never mean about it, but I was always thorough!

At this stage of the interviewing process, there would have already been three phone interviews, including an interview with practice leaders of the regional consulting teams. By the time we were at the point where we’d be having an in person interview at our facilities, you could tell that things were starting to get really serious. In this particular candidates case, a very experienced and well spoken woman, I was very excited to have this interview and was hoping that it would work out and I could start the process of creating a job offer for her.

We talked about a lot of different things during the course of the interview. While the ITIL/ITSM aspect was important, it was less important than some of the other areas that I needed in my Product Manager. As such, I always left that to close to the end of the interview. I didn’t want to get overly enthusiastic about that or prematurely disqualify someone because I was unhappy with this alone. After all, I did have a plan on how to bootstrap someone, if their experience wasn’t sufficient for my needs.

I asked the candidate a question about the content of one of the ITIL books, offered her a whiteboard and marker, and asked her to go to town. Needless to say, she did a great job. She got on the whiteboard and started drawing, she explained what she was drawing as she was doing it and talked about how this was relevant to her current job assignment.at this point, most hiring managers would probably be beside themselves with excitement, thinking that they had found an ideal candidate. And I will admit that I was very enthusiastic about the way that she handled herself. My follow-up question is where things got interesting! This was the dialogue:

Me: “I really enjoyed your answer to my question, but I asked you to tell me what ITIL had to say about this. Unfortunately, what you told me is not what is published in either V2 or V3 of ITIL.”

Her: “Yes, it is.”

Me: (strongly) “No, actually, it isn’t”

Her: “Yes, it is.”

At this point, one might wonder about why a candidate would invest time to start an argument with their (potential) future boss, but I digress. I’ll give her points for confidence AND presentation, so there’s that.

Me: “OK, got it. Please remain here for just a moment.”

I stood up, walked out of the conference room where I was conducting the interview and went back to my office. I reached into my carry bag, grabbed the five ITIL volumes and headed back to the conference room.I then instructed the candidate that her task was to show me where what she had told me was written in the books. For this task, I gave her 30 minutes. At the end of the allocated time, I would come back to the conference room and she would present me with her findings. Alternately, if she found the information earlier, she could call my cell phone and let me know that she was ready to present to me. I stood up, close the door behind me and walked back to my office.

At the appointed time, I returned to the conference room, sat down and then asked her to present her findings. She told me:

You were right. It’s not in the books. I was positive that it was in there!

I acknowledged her for being willing to stand up for what she believed in and the great job that she did in describing how this worked inside of her current environment. She did a really good job!

What she did was use her experience to supplement gaps that are in published guidance. you might be wondering to yourself:

Isn’t that what you expect people to do?? What what’s the problem with that?!

My answer to those questions are:

  1. Yes, it is exactly what I expect people to do. I established at the beginning of this story that all published guidance is going to have gaps in it. As such, practitioners need to work to map that guidance to the organization that they work with, their specific service management challenge and what that means to what their customer cares about. In doing these things, if they know and understand the guidance that the books provide, they should be in a position to take that guidance and use it appropriately. The value contained in the published guidance is reinforced and extended by combining that knowledge with the individual practitioners experience.
  2. There are actually several problems with this:
    • An inaccurate citation of the published guidance;
    • An inability to consider that they might be wrong or that someone knows more (the least minor);
    • An inability to distinguish between the publish guidance and how they had supplemented it with their experience (the value add!).

Ultimately, the last one is the most dangerous. Why?

Because stories like this get told over and over again, we end up with popular folklore about the guidance contained in publications and the potential value that it can provide. My point is not to knock the books, but rather to offer an appropriate “caveat emptor” when these are purchased and used. Just having and reading the books or getting a certificate in the content the books cover isn’t sufficient.

We need to be able to understand what portion of what we use in an organization is based upon the guidance that is contained in the books and that which we use to supplement and add value as practitioners. The important task here is to be able to document the difference between the two and see that this is communicated to those that follow after you have gone. If this work doesn’t get done, it can serve as an unnecessary and (potentially) significant risk to the success of future changes/initiatives.

This brings me back to my first quote:

It’s not what you know, it’s what you know that just ain’t so

As long as we are publishers and consumer of guidance, we will face these challenges. How thoughtfully and effectively we respond to this challenge is the real question. I encourage you, as a practitioner, to bring the rigor to your work that allows you to distinguish between the knowledge that publicly available frameworks provide and the level of skill you bring to that which represents added value. Not only will your customers love you for it, it’ll also help you make the case why you should be given your next assignment — because you added so much value!

Comments or questions about this? Jump on in. Let’s go!

NOTE: A few minor edits/corrections after publishing. I’ll fire the editor later!

Posted In:Service Management
Tags Used:Certificates, Experience, Frameworks, Guidance, Hiring, ITIL, ITSM, Knowledge, Recruiting, Rigor, Value, Value Added
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