web analytics

The Power of Cultural Forces – Part 1 [LONG]

Since the ITIL tender was issued in late 2012, there has been much discussion about the future of the framework and what this means to those that have come to rely on it. Indeed, as time has passed, especially over the past few weeks, many have anxiously awaited the Cabinet Office to publish the results of their evaluation and announce a “winner.“ In a certain sense, I can’t blame anyone for that. After all, many have jobs and/or are engaged in businesses which are directly related to this framework, so any reduction of uncertainty regarding its future should be a good thing for them.

As far as I am concerned, I’d like to go on record as saying:

I am not (and haven’t been) attached to the outcome. The fact that Capita has won is fine with me! It’ll all work out, in the end.

It’s not that I don’t “care,” because I do. I just think that the work I am doing transcends any one of the numerous frameworks or standards that I might be paying attention to at any given point in time.

Despite this, I think that this single event provides us with an opportunity to talk about a number of things that are very important to those with an interest in service management. So, for the purposes of this series of posts, I shall use ITIL as the foundation for a discussion about the power of cultural forces.

Let’s dive in, shall we? Good!

On “World View”

The first thing that we want to understand is that by adopting or “buying into” a framework, what we are actually doing is adopting a way of thinking about or looking at a specific area.

Contrary to what some might believe, I feel that frameworks have power because they have a shaping force on relationships, not because of the content. The greater the span of coverage is and the more coherent/consistent the operating principles are (as evaluated through the experience of the practitioners who rely upon it), the more likely it is that the framework will come to be relied on as having a valid take on what is happening and how professionals should respond to their challenges and circumstances.

Where such confidence in a frameworks fundamental methods and models does not exist or is lacking, practitioners will use it on a limited, utility/contingency basis, until something better comes along or it has been rejected by the professional community that it was developed for. In other words, adopting the framework helps establish a common world view.

I’ll say more about world view later, but for now, the important thing to realize is that one of the reasons why world views persist is because they become embodied in the network of relationships with an interest in this area.

A Matter Of “Perspective”

This may sound like an abstract bit of fluff to you, but it’s really not. Understanding how all of the parties who have some interest in IITL are related to each other is a very worthwhile exercise.

Let’s see this in diagram form:

Who Is Invested In ITIL

The first thing to recognize is that ITIL is in the center. For all intents and purposes, ITIL is the “center of the known universe.” Whether anyone likes or dislikes this is not relevant. The framework itself has a shaping force over what kind of conversations can be had, as it establishes the context for what/how/why the people related to it will talk about it.

What really becomes important here is the relationships. I believe that I’ve captured a good, representative sampling of the various relationships that currently exist in this area and these are represented by the role names (shown in the lighter blue boxes). In some cases, these are organizations and in some they are individuals/persons. Either way, even if we’re talking about organizations, ultimately we are talking about individuals/persons who are engaging in this conversation over time. For ease of reference, I will refer to these as “perspectives.”

The Owners Perspective

As you can see, each one of the roles/functions depicted in this chart has some interest in ITIL’s continued success, yet this does not mean that such interest is created equal, because it isn’t. In fact, it’s often quite skewed — skewed in the favor of the framework owner! In this case, the framework owner is the Queen of England.

As she doesn’t manage ITIL directly (thankfully, for her), she has “agents” appointed who manage this asset (in the form of intellectual property) on her behalf. To do this, the content owner will give its agents the ability to authorize licenses or enter into contracts with others to utilize its intellectual property. Her Majesty’s agents have (in turn) established commercial relationships to ensure that these assets are properly and effectively managed.

In essence, what we see the Queen and Cabinet Office doing is what any other owner would/should be expected to do: getting the best return on assets that they can arrange!

This really leads us to where we stand today — looking to see how this will play out operationally in the coming months, now that the contract is official.

The Stakeholder Perspective

The stakeholder perspective is interesting, because it’s one that an owner (or product/service manager, eh?) wants to pay particular attention to. Why? Because ensuring that they actively manage their stakeholders perception of value and expectations is essential to ensuring their own (as in, the owners’ proprietary) success.

We refer to them as stakeholders, because they are “invested” in the success of the framework. They are not neutral, objective parties. There is some underlying reason behind their adoption of the framework in question. Any Product Manager worth their salt wants to understand these reasons and see that they are captures as wants/needs/requirements.

When we look at the various perspectives, we want to consider at least a few of the following questions:

  1. How does our framework help the stakeholder (the owners’ customer) be successful? What do they currently want/need?
  2. What impact would changes to the framework have on the stakeholder?
  3. How will this impact the stakeholders perception of value?
  4. How will this impact existing stakeholder expectations?

This is not intended to be a complete, exhaustive list. Rather, this should give us a sense of the type of questions that allow the owner to better understand how well they are doing in their stakeholders eyes.

The Power of Cultural Forces

This may sound like an abstract concept, but it’s really not. Since Version 1, ITIL has grown and expanded through the work of the collection of authors and agents who have been closest to it. While much new content and concepts have been introduced, there’s been little and fairly inconsistent product management thinking applied here. I assert that much of this is due to the organic growth and momentum that we’ve seen over the years. In my opinion, the framework has grown and thrived in spite of this, because of the inherent power of cultural forces at play here.

A Network Of Relationships

So, you might wonder:

Q: Why do people choose to embrace and continue to promote a specific view of the world, often to the exclusion of others?

A: Because they both identify with and get value from it!

In essence, the extended community (described here as a “network of relationships”) by adopting the framework gains a number of tangible benefits from adopting it. Regardless of the guidance it actually provides, the first thing that it provides is an ability to connect with and relate to others who think like them. Humans, well at least most well adjusted ones, have a fundamental desire to belong. Identifying with groups or movements is one tangible way in which we can satisfy this need. It does have a downside to it as well. After all, belonging to something sets up its converse — a ready ability to identify those who do not belong.The pull towards homogeneity isn’t inherently bad, but can have consequences if allowed to run unchecked.

Where does the value come from? It comes from having a consistent set of language that is used, giving the appearance that we are all talking about the same thing, regardless of whether this is true or not. In most cases, at least when it comes to ITIL, we suffer from being like (the old joke) “America and the U.K. — two countries separated by a common language”! For example, if we asked five service managers for the definition of a “service” (let alone a definition for “ITSM”), we’d likely get six different answers. Yet, at the surface, it appears as though we’re all in the same conversation.

Dynamic Systems and Homeostasis

The fact is that, in adopting the framework, we are not just taking on a world view, we make ourselves part of a dynamic system that works to keep the chosen world view in place. Each of the stakeholders/roles has their own reasons why they got involved and once involved the name of the game becomes about achieving a level of stability — homeostasis. In other words, keep the system operating within a certain set of boundaries. It helps solidify our identification with the framework itself (this is who we are and what we are about) and will help ensure that, if we do our part, everyone will get what they came for. In order for this to work, we need to minimize “changes” and “disruptions” to the prevailing view and we need to keep structures in place which maintain this view of how things work.

Cultural Forces Are Self-Regulating

Over the course of the years, many people (myself included), have offered criticisms of ITIL. Yet, given the lack of formal product management, most of these have been little more than “noise from the sidelines,” given that they were not considered or factored into the evolution of the framework itself (with either the V3 or 2011 versions). Whether anything was acted on or not is irrelevant.

What is important to note here is how culture can marginalize things which do not fit with the prevailing view. When brought up for discussion, they can be easily dismissed as invalid or unworthy of consideration, if they don’t readily fit within the common world view.  The cultural forces at play serve as a “self-regulating mechanism” that pulls towards the homeostatic view spoken of earlier.

Seeing The Forest and The Trees

Good/Bad – Right/Wrong

I would caution any reader against taking this discussion as saying that I think that what I am saying is either good or bad, right or wrong. It would also be inaccurate to view this as just being about ITIL, because it’s not. It just so happens that ITIL made for an easy and timely real-world example to examine.

Examining what we’re talking about from either of the polarities, doesn’t help us gain any clarity about what actually shapes things. In fact, if anything, it helps obscure what is actually happening in the background.

The Scope of Cultural Forces

Part of what allows this to remain in place is that the focus remains on ITIL. It wasn’t accidental that I chose to refer to it as “the center of the universe.” That wasn’t intended to be either snarky or a criticism — it’s purely a reference to where the focus is. I might describe this as the “Inside-Out” view (about the framework and how we do things) versus an “Outside-In” (customer-centric) view.

If we were to change (as in, broaden) the focus, new options become available and help us consider things in a new context. None of the details about what the framework is or how it is constructed have to change — only our perspective on it!


I am really intending this to be a starting point for a discussion about this, not a final statement on it. The way that I see it, this is an ongoing conversation — a work in progress. It’s taken a lot of thinking and writing just to get here. In fact, the more that I think about it, the more I see there is to say and discuss.

I leave it to you (the reader) to make the determination as to whether this is the “good news” or the “bad news”

I encourage you to join in: leave comments, ask questions and engage with me.

Posted In:Org/Personnel Development, Service Management
Tags Used:Change, Cultural Forces, Culture, Frameworks, Futures, Gravitational Force, Gravity, Homeostasis, ITIL, ITSM, Joint Venture, Paradigm, USMBOK, Value, Worldview
Original Post Context/Metadata