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ITIL is Cultural Not Technical

Dec 12, 2008

Rob England


I used to think “cultural change” was an opaque, mysterious term. I thought people who made cultures change would have spooky psychological techniques and arcane political strategies. Well, some might, but the basic principles of cultural change are pretty straightforward. The strategy comes to us from John Kotter with his eight step program, which is readily available by—speaking of cultural change—Googling it.


The tactics are nothing special either, but we often do them half-heartedly; as an afterthought to the ITIL project, with minimum budget and even less commitment. Some tactics get ignored. Processes go in with no real training of the users, or zero documentation of what they mean, the work procedures for each specific “actor” (as the UML folk would put it), or no walkthroughs with those actors.


So it is not that cultural change is anything exotic. It is just that we often don’t do enough and we don’t do it systematically as part of a cultural transformation program. Once we understand the objective of the project is changing the people, then it should be obvious the bulk of the effort and spending should be directed towards the cultural change activities. These activities include work-shopping, interviews, presentations, newsletters, town halls, walkthroughs, training, go-live, coaching, reviews, monitoring, feedback, and celebration.




There is no magic to cultural change. Get the people involved, listen to them, empower them, get some enthusiasm going, find some champions, kick it along with executive support, help people out, give them what they need, check all is going well, and pick up the ones who stumble. And have a party when it works.


It sounds like hard work, and it can be. But if you don’t it, then some will resist, some will white-ant, some will ignore it, a lonely few will support you, and some will go along reluctantly for a while and then forget or cease to care. Failing to do cultural change is like building something without painting it, or without charging the batteries or fuelling the tank. You can build a fine machine but it won’t go last and it won’t go far. We don’t get proper return on our investment.


The typical breakdown of costs for an ITIL project is half technology (and its implementation), a third process re-engineering, and the last little bit on training and rollout. A greater proportion of ITIL projects will succeed long-term when we get to a typical spend of 40% to 50% cultural change, 30%  process reengineering and the rest on tools.


Rob England is an IT industry commentator and consultant, and nascent Internet entrepreneur, best known for his blog The IT Skeptic.