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Beyond ITIL

How Cultural Differences Impact ITSM

When it comes to working cross-culturally, understanding your partner's home turf can make all the difference. ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) is the world’s most widely accepted framework for IT Service Management (ITSM).

ITIL defines best practices for IT service providers as they plan consistent, documented, and repeatable processes that improve service delivery and support. It can help IT manage their departments as a business through adoption of industry best-practices. But while ITIL is gaining traction across the world, companies deploying it globally find that “one size” doesn’t necessarily “fit all.” What works in some cultures may alienate others.

While ITIL creates a common vocabulary across an IT organization, to be effective, this vocabulary must take into account cultural nuances. Understanding these cultural frameworks will help you explain ITIL more clearly, and see which best practices make sense for your organization.

Everyone possesses a cultural “lens” through which they see and interpret behaviors. As you’re about to see, different cultures interpret the same behaviors completely differently.

One of ITIL’s strengths is its flexibility. It allows IT departments to craft service level agreements (SLAs) that make sense even in very different cultures. ITIL is also non-prescriptive. It provides advice and guidance on the key process and people issues involved in delivering IT services. But it does not demand or command. That’s what makes it so effective across many different cultures. This flexibility becomes most apparent when applied in the context of “rules-based” versus “relationship-based” cultures—a distinction made by Ethics professor John Hooker in his book, Working Across Cultures . Rules are Rules …

Kind of at a macro level, societies can be divided into these aforementioned camps. In a rules-based culture, individual behavior is governed by agreed-upon rules. People take comfort in rules and believe they're what hold their society together. These are the type of people who will come to a complete stop and look both ways at a stop sign (even at a remote intersection in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night.) In a rules-based culture, it is quite possible for complete strangers to sign an agreement and start doing business with each other the very next day. They're often bound by a signed contract containing precise language which specifies how changes, disputes and deviations will be handled. So negotiating an SLA between two rules-based cultures shouldn’t cause too many problems. Trust can be created quickly because both parties agree to the same set of rules.

But relationship-based cultures are quite different. Behavior is governed by relationships, not rules. Rules are simply guidelines, to be evaluated in the context of each particular situation—not something rigid and unchanging. In a relationship-based culture, drivers may not come to a complete halt at the stop sign in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night. They would feel they followed the spirit of the law if they made sure no other car was near—and would not worry about the rigid definition of the law. In a relationship-based society, it is almost impossible for two strangers to meet and begin doing business the next day. Trust is required, and that depends on long-term relationships, which is based on people, not rules. A signed agreement is seen as more of a general understanding, which can be freely modified based on the situation at any given moment. It’s just a guideline, rooted in theory, that hasn’t yet been tested in reality. It can and must be modified, based on the particular situation.

In the context of ITIL, and service level management in particular, understanding the differences between these two cultures is critical. A written SLA in a relationship-based society does not make it definitive or cast in stone. The good news is that even in relationship-based countries, IT and technology people generally like SLAs. They realize these agreements can mean the difference between chaos and some semblance of sanity for a service provider.

Context Matters

Some cultures are “low context,” in which information and instructions are explicitly spelled out. Low-context cultures are characterized by signs and written directions on what to do next. Most low-context cultures are Northern European-based.

In a “high-context” culture, behavior is much less dependant on posted signs and written instructions. Instead, attention is focused on the people and environment around them, e.g., the context. When it comes to ITIL, high- and low-context societies require different communication strategies. For example, sending a written memo or e-mail to explain a policy or procedure is less likely to be read—or perhaps even followed—in high-context and relationship-based cultures. In these societies, it's essential to supplement written messages with more personal methods of getting your point across, including phone calls, video conferences and personal visits.

Most IT knowledge bases and self-help tools are text-based, making them inherently low-context systems. These are fine for providing clear instructions in certain, task-oriented situations. But they can be inefficient for communicating complicated technical information. They lack the subtleties you can only get by listening to or watching someone with experience in action.

Cultural Classifications

Professor Geert Hofstede from the Netherlands’ University of Maastricht developed a popular- cultural classification scheme that differentiates cultures along five axes:

  • Power Distance – The extent to which less-powerful members of institutions and organizations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.
  • Individualism – How much people look after themselves and their families rather than larger social groups.
  • Masculinity – How masculine cultures tend to be competitive, while feminine cultures encourage cooperation.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance – The extent to which people feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations.
  • Long-Term Orientation – Measures a society’s long-term devotion to traditional, forward-thinking values.

In the context of ITIL and SLAs, power-distance and individualism are the most relevant. In cultures where there is a high power-distance, you (as a person in authority) are less likely to be challenged or questioned.

If you are an authority figure from a low power-distance culture, like the U.S., soliciting input in a culture with a high power-distance index, like India, what you hear may not mean what you think it does. For example, suppose you ask people if they understand the requirements you’ve just laid out, and they say, “Yes.” That response may simply mean “Yes, I understand them” rather than “Yes, I agree to abide by them.” Same words but very different meanings.

Or you may not receive any input at all. If you ask for candid input, you may only get feedback that does not embarrass the person in charge. Watch for this kind of behavior, particularly if you rely on surveys to gauge how effective your service is. You may have to interpret the results differently, or phrase the questions differently.

Conversely, if your boss in a high power-distance culture like China asks for your candid input in private, and you provide it, you're likely to find it's not well received. Why did he react so poorly, when you simply gave him what he asked for? Once again, different cultural lenses are at work. Now consider how individualism can play into service level management: user forums and self-help-based support tools are becoming popular in Western countries. Customers can help other customers, answer questions and provide guidance. Typically, these individuals are eventually recognized for their contributions to the company-sponsored information resource. This highly desirable situation can be a win-win for all involved. Individuals love to contribute, but only if their contribution is recognized and valued. And companies can certainly use the extra help. Rather than depending solely on their often-overworked front line support team, companies can encourage expert volunteers from the ranks of their customers to provide additional support to other customers, with the understanding that this is not official support, but an alternative. The volunteers are then rewarded with “MVP – Most Valuable Professional” status, meetings with senior company executives, access to inside technical information, premium-level support and more.

This model works very well—in certain circumstances. However, once these forums start expanding to countries in Asia or Africa, using individual recognition to motivate volunteers may be less effective. These cultures are typically more collective, rather than individualistic. Recognition goes to the group, not to an individual. In some cultures, an individual who stands out can even be perceived as a nail sticking out—one in need of hammering. Over time, tools that celebrate individuals and their contributions will need to adapt to more collectivist cultures.

Even a basic understanding of cultural frameworks dramatically increases your chances of a successful global ITIL implementation. The key to success is flexibility. Remember different cultures have different cultural lenses that can interpret the same behaviors completely differently. Be sure that you, your teams, your processes and technology are all flexible enough to accommodate a variety of cultural and societal differences, as you continue your quest to deliver outstanding service around the world.

Phil Verghis, May 2006.