IT Management: The IT social contract

Businesses need the proper tools to function. And nowhere is that more clear than with IT. Here’s the user’s Bill of Rights from the IT department.

Romi Mahajan

In political theory, the notion of a social contract refers to the set of responsibilities the state has toward its citizens and the rights conferred upon those citizens. During the last few centuries, great philosophers and thinkers have debated the nature of the social contract. It should be lost on no one that there’s often violent disagreement about which responsibilities and rights are due to both the state and the citizenry.

Interestingly, the world of business has an analogous framework. In business, however, that concept is not as focused on morality as on productivity and working toward a common goal. In the business world, some departments individually have their own versions of the social contract. One of the most visible in a company is the social contract between IT and the user community.

Let’s define the players within this realm. First, let’s consider the “state.” The IT department is the state insofar as it has the power to govern, though it doesn’t always exercise this power. Second are the “citizens.” These are the customers of IT—those who use the systems and devices created, provisioned and maintained by IT. They have certain “rights” such as system uptime, service level agreements (SLAs) and established avenues for recourse (filing a help-desk ticket or escalating their situation to a manager).

IT as the state

IT grants certain rights to its users, just as a state grants rights to citizens. Here’s an overview of some of these rights—an IT user Bill of Rights, if you will.

The right to connect to systems and applications for productivity: The primary purpose of the IT department is to outfit and enable employees with systems and applications they need to effectively and efficiently do their jobs. This includes everything from telephones and PCs to mobile devices and alerting systems. In this regard, IT provides investment and provisions and maintains an infrastructure that allows employees to work.

The right to the consistent and verifiable ability to connect and be productive: IT not only provides systems and applications for productivity, but also a framework for consistent access to them. System uptime is an essential element of success for a good IT department. Inconsistent access and an unreliable infrastructure are indications of an IT department in shambles.

The right to connect to and view relevant data: Not only does IT provide basic rights such as systems and uptime, it also provides methods by which employees can access data that’s useful to their jobs. As data becomes the currency of value in the new enterprise, this access is considered a right like any other.

The right to system “health care” and problem resolution: As with any system (biological or otherwise), the infrastructure provided by IT is subject to temporary outages, wear and tear, or terminal decay. IT departments must therefore consider health care or upkeep to be a core part of their charter. Each individual user must have the right to a healthy, working set of systems.

The right to new systems: When old systems and applications no longer allow for the other four rights, it’s time for an upgrade. When an entire system or set of applications is no longer functional, IT must replace it with a new one that allows for the employee to continue his job with the least-possible interruption.

The user as citizen

These rights are codified in a set of SLAs. IT uses SLAs as an operating guide. An SLA breach leads to the invocation of any of the following methods of recourse.

Recourse 1: Address the issue with the proper authorities. In this case, “proper authorities” means the help desk. When a particular right hasn’t been upheld, it’s the user’s responsibility to communicate the problem to IT. If IT is unaware of any issue, it won’t be able to address it properly. There are many iterations of the corporate help desk, often corresponding to the size and scope of the organization. Either way, the help desk is the user’s first line of recourse.

Recourse 2: Voting with negative tickets. If service provision via the help desk is inadequate or ineffective, or if the method used to communicate fixes is incomplete or lacking in any way, the user has the right to register a grievance. The act of registration means the grievance continues to be an open and addressable issue until such time as the user decides to stop exercising his right to express his position.

Recourse 3: Political change—meaning, escalation to managers. When the local representative (the first line of IT, which is almost always the help desk) doesn’t work to the user’s benefit or liking, he can escalate to the next level of IT management. This type of escalation of an issue to a higher-level authority is essentially a call for change.

This conceptualization helps us develop a sophisticated view of the relative positions of IT and its customers. It also helps us create a more perfect model for the relation between IT and the rest of the company.

As far-fetched as it might be to use political metaphors to describe business and technology situations, it’s worth remembering that companies are indeed social systems. The modern enterprise is a complex system of groups of individuals interacting according to sets of rules and laws. Within this context, it certainly makes sense to consider the magnitude and gravitas of the social contract between IT and the business.

Romi Mahajan

Romi Mahajan* is president of KKM Group. Prior to joining KKM, Mahajan was chief marketing officer of Ascentium Corp. A well-known speaker on the technology and media circuit, he serves on a variety of advisory boards and speaks at more than a dozen industry events per year.*