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Issue Date: March 2007

Of form and function

March 2007

Form without function means poor service and unhappy customers.

I am typing this article with one hand thanks to Telkom: My DSL line is down and I am trying to get support from its call centre. So I hold the phone in one hand and type with the other. And I listen to its cheesy holding music interspersed with its lady telling me to ‘Please be patient, your call will be answered’.
Ha! That is a bit of optimistic hyperbole. I have been waiting 15 minutes and expect to wait a whole lot longer. I reckon its holding music should be something like Rachmaninoff's second symphony - it starts slowly and builds to a magnificent crescendo after 30 or so minutes - that would keep me occupied while waiting for a service consultant to get round to me.
We cannot blame the service consultant when he gets to me, because he will have to go through his script before he can assign my call as a problem. He also has his first time call resolution targets to meet, as well as a screen showing him how many other calls are waiting. Overlay this with the fact that I will probably be somewhat miffed by the time someone answers, so I will not be a friendly bunny by then. Hold on, he has just answered. (I am tempted to play him some music for half an hour before I talk to him, but that would defeat the purpose).
Now that was frustrating. The service agent, Wassim, was very friendly but as predicted had to go through his script. I gave him my number, and he asked me to switch the modem off and on again. As predicted nothing changed so we moved to step three: "I will just run a test on the line". (I know the line is working because I am talking to him on it, but let him go through the motions).
As expected we are on to step four of the script, which involves asking me if the telephone line is connected to a 'black box' - he means the surge protector. When I answer yes, he tells me to by-pass the surge protector with a spare telephone cable. I explain that I am making the phone-call on the same line as the ADSL line, and would that not cut off this call. He says no. But it cuts my call to the service desk, and I am back in the queue, listening to the cheesy music, wishing for Rachmaninoff. So Telkom does have its uses – it is giving me ample opportunity to examine the Telkom experience from a user perspective. (And of course, to practice my one-handed typing skills.)
Today is a Sunday, and I have some work planned. Firstly, I was going to write this column, about a different matter, but thanks to Telkom I have switched topics. Secondly, after this column is finished, I have to do some strategic IT work for a large company. We offer CIO Advisory services, and I am working with this State Owned Enterprise (not Telkom unfortunately), on turning its IT function around from an IT 'Operations' function to being a IT 'Value-Adding' function. To do this I have to review its company strategy, its IT strategy, the IT budget, and then have a look at some best practices from our Butler Group Website. I will then collate everything, and make recommendations of the next steps to get from here (IT as Operations) to there (IT as Value-Add). Then I will put together a roadmap for how to implement the recommendations. This other work is going to take about six hours, and I need access to the Internet.
Now, because I do not have access to the Internet at home, I am going to have to go into the office. This means that most of my Sunday, which could have been spent at home as it should, will now be spent at the office. So I am going to have to appease my wife and go to the office as soon as I finish this one-handed column. [The important thing is that no overpaid Telkom executive was disturbed on Sunday. That is good service. Another Blue Label please, and put it on Mr White's bill. Ed.]
So what is the point of this column? Firstly, I want to impress everyone with how calm and measured I am being about the atrocious service I am receiving. But secondly, and more importantly, I want to talk about form and function.
The concept of form and function relates to the fact that you might have the 'form' of a particular service: you might have a Customer Service Centre, or Service Level Agreements, or Service Consultants, or Customer Relations Management systems. But that is just the form. Function relates to whether you actually deliver customer service, meet customer expectations of service levels, or whether your Service Consultants can actually be reached to offer service and consulting, and whether your Customer Relations Management systems actually improve customer relations. Government is famous for this form versus function debate - it has the 'structures on the ground', the policies are all in place, but its delivery record falls far short of expectations.
After my call to the Telkom Service desk was cut off on the advice of its Service Consultant, I waited 15 minutes to see if Wassim would call me back - he had my number after all. But he did not - so where was the form that the customer is king (or even the customer is vaguely important) in functional practice? [Do not pay your Telkom bill. Your phone will be ringing incessantly. Ed.] Where was Wassim's service orientation - he knew he had a customer in trouble, and he knew my number so why did he not call me? Also how will the SLA stats reflect the call? Is it a dropped call, is it unresolved, or will it be logged as a successfully fixed problem? [Wassim statistics on how fast he resolves calls just shot up. He is probably operator of the month. Ed.]
I can almost hear you tut-tutting at the service I am receiving but think for a moment about your organisation's form versus function issues. Do you meet SLAs? And if you do is this just another form versus function issue? If you meet your SLAs are you really meeting your customer's service expectations? As an example, this 'IT Operations' Function that I am about to start analysing has exactly this problem - they are meeting their SLAs. They have a 98% availability on their network.
But in talking to their CEO the other day, he said: "I know they are meeting SLAs, but when I was at one of our major branches they were down again. The IT people tell me that because the SLA only covers the core network, and not the single line to the branch, they cannot do anything about this". The CEO followed this conversation with me by asking what outsourcing options he had. Instead of fighting with his IT function about the semantics of SLAs over the services actually delivered, he would rather outsource them. He hopes that the outsource provider will be a little less pedantic about the difference between form and function.
Make no bones about it; setting up the form is easy but meeting the functional expectations of your customers is infinitely harder. One of the main problems facing IT functions today is that the drivers and measures for delivering on the 'form' are different from those for delivering on 'function'.
IT's form is all about efficiency - how well do you deliver against SLAs, how available and stable are your systems, how resilient is the infrastructure, and how cost-efficient are the services you provide? IT's function is about effectiveness - how well is the business doing by using your services, how responsive is your business to their customers, how cost-competitive is your business, and how satisfied are customers with your business' services?
Making the leap between IT's form and IT's function is not easy. It requires a concerted plan to address those issues which IT often considers to be business issues. But IT cannot add value if it thinks its job is just to deliver on the form, and leaves the function to business. Which brings me back to the other work I have scheduled for this Sunday. My call to Telkom still has not been answered. I have lost patience – I am off to the office.
Terry White
Terry White
Terry White is another victim of Telkom and a business and technical advisor for MarketWorks, sole distributor of Datamonitor, Butler Group and Computerwire research in Southern Africa. He is also the author of three books on IT Management. Contact him at

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