Organisational Change and IT Service: Enabling Innovation from Below

Florence From Above — Peter Johnson

Digital, devops, agile, lean, IT4IT — it is not the first time that the IT industry has been surrounded by an enormous cloud of hype. Nevertheless, this might be a particularly dense genus of cumulus-hyperbolus which the sector finds itself at the centre of at the moment. It might not even be too far-fetched to draw parallels with the nineteen nineties — web 1.0 and dotcom booms — when there were similar levels of noise; on that occasion about what the internet would do for, and change within, the industry.

One of the issues with these periodic hype storms is the difficulty that audiences have in sorting quality analysis from marketing push. Web 1.0 demonstrated this problem particularly well via the insane valuations and subsequent crashes of early dotcom enterprises. The world learned, although it should have realised this in advance, that those who are supposedly wise about the state of things are not always so. Indeed, Bill Gates’ reported dismissal of the internet as a “fad” was a case in point.

Lacking, as we always will, a definite authority in the art of futurology, those making important decisions about corporate strategy and expenditure — or even an imminent career move — will probably be best served if they follow the sage advice of the ancient philosopher Plato — only substitute the phase “hype” where the philosopher writes “life”.

“I feel myself, and I daresay that you have had the same feeling, how hard is the attainment of any certainty about questions such as these in the present life. And yet I should regard a man as a coward who did not test what is said about them to the uttermost, or whose heart failed him before he had examined them on every side. For he should persevere until he has achieved one of two things: either he should discover the truth about them for himself, or learn it from others: or, if this be impossible, I would have him take the best and most irrefragable of human theories, and let this be the raft upon which he sails through life…”

Plato — Phaedo (Plato & Jowett, 1930)

At present, there is much guidance on offer to the would-be transformer of the corporate IT function. A sizeable portion of it is encompassed in the catch-all buzzword digital. Digital signposts customer and user experience, new business strategy, cloud, mobile, analytics and social. It relates to utterly transformative ways of operating the business and in turn, IT. Hot on the heels of digital are what are claimed to be supporting (although technology-focused) methodologies. These include devops, agile, lean, SIAM and even good old ITIL (according to its proponents, only when this is used in the right way). All are vigorously argued to be necessary weapons in the armoury of the digital transformer.

It cannot be denied that those charged with creating business applications can learn much from the aforementioned methods. It will certainly be useful to the business if applications are designed with UX in mind, if they are moved to the cloud, and if the concept of perpetual beta is wholeheartedly embraced. Whilst all this is valuable, those working in the IT sub-sectors which are concerned with human-to-human interactions (the service desk, second line support, etc.), might be forgiven for being disappointed with the lack of specific advice related to their particular specialisms in this storm of digital prescription.

Nonetheless, user-facing technologists and managers will take what they can from the digital thought leadership on offer. Thus you will find IT support teams developing and acquiring UX-friendly service tools (cloud-based, self-service heavy), utilising SIAM approaches to manage external suppliers, and ensuring that there is greater integration between operations (that is the support teams) and development.

There is nothing in the list above which is not to like. However, digital, agile and devops have less to say about transforming support and operations functions beyond the new methods of organising to promote customer-centric development. Therefore, while digital transformers are busy aiming for rapid development, and deciding upon infrastructure and application designs to enable positive UX, they are also, in my view, revealing a deficiency in two key areas. The first is the dearth of knowledge related to excellence in human-to-human service, and the second is an absence of a focus on the innovative capacity of the entire enterprise. The latter is keenly required in the age of disruption and is also closely related to the former as will be elaborated upon below.

In respect of customer satisfaction, it is worth restating the fact that digital technology is not the complete answer. This is acutely recognisable where human-to-human interactions are concerned. For instance, while a self-service digital hospital might be the goal of the singularity dreamers, for the rest of us such an idea would be unpalatable. Indeed, socio-technical systems theory (see Cherns, 1976; Clegg, 2000) has much to contribute on this point. According to the principles laid out in this theory of design, both technical and human aspects need to be considered in any project. By way of an example, consider the fact that the technology for making video calls has existed for decades. However, it is used only rarely when compared to audio calls. This is because humans enjoy something about the visual anonymity offered by audio: human needs must be considered.

Of course, there is much about the digital paradigm which does satisfy customer demands for speed, simplicity and efficiency, and this is why organisations such as Amazon and eBay have fared so well. Nevertheless, there are also many occasions where human needs are best served by a conversation, an interaction or in-person collaboration. It is perhaps the reason why digital professionals enjoy attending conferences, hackathons and like. One could facetiously ask — “why isn't there an app for that?”

It is a subtle point, but one which signposts the reasons why human-to-human technology service in corporations need not be consigned to the dustbin of the post-digital landscape (an idea that some have hinted at). It might even be argued that to do so would be one of those hasty fad-driven mistakes that both users and corporations may come to regret in later epochs. This line of reasoning leads to the conclusion that human-to-human IT service functions remain necessary within enterprises, and the goal should be — like hackathons and conferences — to bring groups of people with differing specialities together when the need arises.

In order to develop this point further, it is necessary, in mind, to divide the enterprise into two distinct groups of employees. The first group are the non-IT staff. These will include finance people, the sales department and other teams relevant to the industry in question. For instance, in the insurance sector one would find underwriters and actuaries here, while in a creative firm, there would be designers and producers. The second grouping of employees are the technologists in the organisation — IT service staff, developers, technical project managers et al.

The above might be regarded as a rather arbitrary division: on one side technologists, on the other, the remaining staff. However, the subject matter at hand is technology service in enterprises, therefore this particular split is appropriate. Moreover, that technological datum line is the point at which human-to-human IT service occurs. It is probably unnecessary to state that the finance people, actuaries and designers are likely to have good knowledge of IT; increasingly these departments will be staffed by those referred to as digital natives. Nevertheless, on their side of the split, the primary sphere of expertise will always be the main roles of the employees — e.g: finance, actuarial and design. Technical solutions, advanced coding and infrastructure know-how should remain the expert speciality of the technologists. The process of the former seeking help from the latter is what we otherwise describe as IT service.

Trichromy is an approach to service provision which is being explored in relation to to the IT service industry (see Johnson, 2014). It aims to provide guiding principles to those concerned with human-to-human service interactions. Unlike the other popular initiatives which have been mentioned above, it is not a methodology. Moreover, while it is being applied to IT service at present, it is in fact a theoretical framework built on the complex adaptive systems literature (see Stacey, Griffin & Shaw, 2000), the self-determination theory of motivation (see Gagné & Deci, 2005) and the Schwartz model of human values (Schwartz, 1996). It is therefore a genuinely industry-agnostic theory of work psychology.

A key construct in trichromy arises from the Stacey et. al. (2000) reading of complex adaptive systems. This is the idea of autonomy, or human freedom. Autonomy is a constant theme in trichromy, and is posited as an important driver of responsiveness and innovation on both sides of the IT service divide. Autonomy relates to organisational practices which result in the reduction of hierarchy and top-down control, the elimination of unnecessary processes (that is, the majority of them), freeing staff from rigid ideas of best practice, and also reducing the influence of pre-set targets on worker behaviour. In place of the old control structures, trichromy advocates using the power of individual human values. These, according to trichromy, channel autonomy towards directions which are beneficial to the enterprise.

The call for greater autonomy for employees is nothing new. In response to the rising popularity of scientific management (see Taylor, 1911) in the early and mid twentieth century, theoreticians such as Frederick Herzberg (Herzberg, et. al., 1959), described the benefits of autonomy to workers and organisations. Modern initiatives including agile and devops echo these earlier efforts. However, unlike in the new technological methodologies, autonomy is not an optional component of trichromy — it is central to it; trichromy cannot exist without autonomy. Furthermore, trichromy differs from many contemporary prescriptions about autonomy because it is a holistic philosophy which integrates its three constructs (control, values and autonomy). Together, the whole is certainly more useful to the enterprise than the individual parts (including autonomy).

The central place that autonomy and complex adaptive systems occupy in trichromy enables the concept of innovation from below to come to life. Trichromy posits that autonomy is essential for employees in a service department because such freedom allows staff to be more responsive and innovative. Thus when a user contacts the service agent, the individual service giver is able to think beyond pre-baked processes, targets and offerings, and deliver outcomes which are truly relevant and pleasing. Autonomy therefore ensures that the intelligence, creativity and service passion of everyone in the service function is utilised, rather than of just a small number of managers who in the past were responsible for the design of the processes and targets.

The trichromatic notion of the organisation as a complex adaptive system goes beyond a simple prescription to grant greater autonomy to service agents alone. Trichromy also imbues the service users with autonomy and freedom. This implies an acceptance (by the service organisation) that the ideas and innovations of all users are important in their own right. It is not an insignificant point. It is a direct contradiction of the distinction that ITIL makes between customers (managers and service negotiators) versus users (ordinary employees). According to ITIL, customers are able to influence service levels, service catalogues and service design, whereas users simply must accept that which is already agreed. In the trichromatic view this distinction is anathema — both users and service agents are to be released from the restrictions of excess hierarchical control.

Traditionally, the number of individuals responsible for designing and negotiating digital services was restricted to the few managers and senior people (on both sides of the datum) whose role this was. Viewed through the lens of the new philosophy, innovation can now emerge from anywhere; from junior level designers, actuarial experts and finance staff as well as from the managers. Perhaps most importantly for the intended audience of this piece, trichromy encourages business employees to freely collaborate with the (now) autonomous technologists — that is, the people who have the expertise to turn the innovative digital dreams of the business users into reality.

The outcomes described above have been referred to elsewhere as innovation from below. This phrase recently appeared in an article in CIO magazine (Qualtrough, 2016) in which the chief technology officer of the Royal Opera House in London opined:

“‘One thing I'm thinking quite a lot about is how we create the right opportunities for innovation in the rest of the organisation,’ he says. ‘That can sometimes be labelled Shadow IT, although in my view that’s probably an unhelpful label since we can all be creative technologists.’
‘The role of a centralised service is yes, to think about things and how they move to the core of the business, how they become operationalised, how they can be made more efficient, and how they can be secured.’
‘But actually the real innovation is going to come from the lighting designers, the sound and video designers, people trying to solve problems — it’s about enabling those people around the organisation. Putting the right tools in their hands and giving them the right advice to be pioneers in the right field with technology.’”

Whether or not the CTO in question, Joe McFadden, had been exposed to trichromatic ideas is unclear. However, his vision is identical to that of the advocates of this approach. Mr McFadden appears to have recognised that in order for a business to reach its innovative potential, it needs to release the intelligence of all its staff; or as it was put by Albert Cherns as far back as 1976, to allow problems to solved by those closest to the issue. Trichromy then, offers an approach via which those concerned with the organisational elements of digital transformation can move beyond the mere platitudes of thought leaders. It describes a philosophy, principles and the necessary action which may turn facile prescription into valuable reality.

The discussion above is an attempt to unpick some of the complex organisational elements necessary to realise the noble aspirations of the digital revolution. It is increasingly being recognised that in addition to new applications, new infrastructure and development methodologies, organisational change of this nature is also required. In fairness to the technological guidance currently on offer, many do acknowledge the importance of what they refer to as ‘culture change’. However, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the primary aim of these methodologies is effective application development, whereas the singular goal of trichromy is the changing of the organisational mindset. In many ways trichromy could be argued to be a supporting layer beneath any of these methodologies.

Most importantly perhaps, trichromy offers a philosophy which human-to-service providers can follow. It suggests the reason for their continued existence in the post-digital world and indeed, also hints at their value — their central place in the process of ongoing digital innovation — to the enterprise. Trichromy turns IT service departments into the very purveyors of innovation from below.

The ideas of Eamonn Healy will serve as a coda to this piece. Evolutionary biology is the speciality of Professor Healy, and amongst laypersons, he probably best known for his appearance in the 2001 film Waking Life (2001). In this motion picture, Healy is featured delivering a monologue about the telescoping nature of evolutionary time. He enumerates the periods between major biological landmarks: two billion years for life to develop on earth, six million years for the hominid to appear and one hundred thousand years for mankind. Healy then proceeds to describe milestones in human progress: ten thousand years for agriculture, four hundred years to the scientific revolution and one hundred and fifty years to the revolution of the industrial variety.

It is in this almost logarithmic curve that Healy detects telescoping. His monologue ends with predictions about this trend continuing though our lifetimes and beyond, and the fantastic implications of this. The professor might yet have a point, for we are indeed may be witnessing increasingly rapid change at present. Only recently, technological progress occurred on a scale that was measured in decades — consider the mainframe to the personal computer to the world wide web. However, the timeframes of today are ever-shrinking: web to mobile to cloud to IoT. Major technological shifts occur every few years — and that scale is continuing to reduce.

Digital (service) is the thing right now. It is the very epicentre of the hype storm. However, should the Healy thesis be correct, soon enough we’ll be moving on to the next thing. If — or indeed, when — this occurs, the main weapon in the organisational armoury to deal with change will continue to be innovation. This is why trichromy — fad agnostic and based on individual human psychology — may be a more profitable long term strategy than some of the reactive ideas for organisational change which are rooted in thinking designed to solve the immediate problems of today.

However, the difficulties of understanding and utilising approaches such as trichromy are not insignificant. They are so different to current ways of doing things that the situation might be likened to a Kuhnian paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1960). One of the features of a paradigm shift is that adherents of the new gestalt find it difficult to communicate with those who subscribe to the old way; the latter interpret the tenets of the new thinking through the prism of the old, rendering it impotent and unintelligible. Nevertheless, the eternal hope of innovators is always that over time there will be a groundswell of converts who will begin to adopt the once-revolutionary mindset. It is at that point that the industry will acknowledge the new IT service, and the customer experience will soar.

It is a dream, but perhaps one which might secure the future of human-to-human IT service at a time when it is under intense scrutiny from those digital transformers with a penchant for the impersonal. It remains to be seen whether the sector will undertake the heavy lifting necessary to deeply transform the organisational elements of the IT department (and consequently the rest of the enterprise). The alternative is a continuation of the dominance of technology-focused methodologies and empty organisational aphorisms. Nevertheless, at the most macro level, the Platonic advice above remains valid. Consider all the arguments - then decide.

For more information about trichromy visit


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Clegg, C. W. (2000). Socio-technical principles for system design. Applied Ergonomics, 31, 463–477

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