Some years ago I attended a talk given by the BAFTA-winning documentary maker Adam Curtis. You may have encountered some of his work on the BBC. His documentaries include All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and more recently, Bitter Lake.

If you haven’t seen these, they’re well worth the time; you’ll find them highly informative and challenging.

At this event he talked about ideas that have become so much a part of the world around us that we cease to notice them – in effect we take them as self-evident truths. He used the phrase “the water in which we swim” to describe this. I think he was trying to convey the notion that an aquatic organism is oblivious to water in the same way that we’re oblivious to air despite the fact that we (and the fish) are surrounded by the stuff.

For this reason it may sometimes be beneficial to take a hold of these assumptions (or social constructions as sociologists would term them) and under examination we may find that they are not quite of the shape that our lazy heuristics suggest.

Take the phrase customer service. It is no doubt used many thousands of times a day in corporate environments. In IT departments, service managers will talk endlessly about “providing excellent customer service”. However, if one day you stopped one of these with that easy phrase between their lips, and asked them what it meant, they would probably regard you as a crazy person. Nevertheless, I have an inkling that many do not fully comprehend the real meaning of the term.


The ITIL definition of a customer describes one who pays for the service or negotiates the service agreement (everyone else is considered simply a user). Personally, I think that IT service departments embedded in modern organisations should consider treating all client staff as customers. I am fully aware that this statement contradicts the ITSM orthodoxy. However, I believe that the ITIL approach is outdated; it is an obsolete model designed for 20th century enterprises. Let me explain why.

The 21st century trend is for organisations is to be less hierarchical. Staff – at all levels – are increasingly being given more decision latitude than in previous generations. The reason for this is partly because modern knowledge enterprises – especially start-ups and digital concerns – believe in investing time and effort to find and hire intelligent people, the aim then being to delegate more decision-making and innovation to them (otherwise what’s the point in hiring the bright things?).

Therefore the idea of customers and users, and that the latter have little say at the point of service is out of step with the direction in which contemporary organisations are moving. It is another indicator that ITSM is a philosophy which is being left behind by the unstoppable march of progress.


The word service has numerous meanings, the vast majority of which converge around the definition of the original Latin servitium and servus (which are to do with the condition of being a slave in the ancient world). The word in question implies the act of a person or persons providing help or assistance to others. Note that I am fully aware that there are other meanings of service – for example materials used to supply the needs of others (as in telephone service), or that thing that Serena Williams is good at in tennis, or the reason for the annual expensive trip to the garage. Nevertheless, most meanings of service are around the human-to-human assistance thing. Thus in providing service, we are a slave to the customer. We exist to cater to his or her needs.

Due to the underlying philosophy of processes and targets which dominate ITSM thinking, many IT service functions do not practice true servitium in relation to those requiring assistance. IT Staff are in fact, only servus to the pre-scripted process, to the pre-agreed targets and not to the fast-changing needs of the individual who contacts them requesting expert help. The very idea that in the current – disruptive – business landscape, we can pre-plan what will be required by our customer organisations long in advance is absurd.

The overall point of this post is that ITSM has taken liberties with the meanings of both words in the phrase customer service. It has neutered the term such that it is now defined around the needs of the service provider. For instance, via the sleight-of-hand of an ITIL definition, the majority of those who contact the service desk are not considered to be customers. Instead they are a put into a category of corporate untermensch (users) whose needs are only to be considered where they align to those which the service provider has sanitised long in advance.

Sadly, IT service has been working in this way for so long that it has become the water in which we swim. This not-customer-service is a social construction which has taken root in the community of IT service practitioners and we view it as self-evident truth. Earth to ITSM… it’s not. It’s just one way of doing things, a way that I think is fast being found wanting within contemporary enterprises.

This is why I’m increasingly convinced that a change in underlying philosophy of IT service will benefit both provider and recipients greatly.

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