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1 December 2010 | Aidan Lawes Blog
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Are You Smart Enough to Join the Army?
This week Aidan looks at the suitability of MCQ testing and the importance of applying some commonsense to really understand what ITIL is or how to use it...

  Aidan Lawes

I listened to an interesting short radio programme the other day about MCQ testing. It was fascinating to hear that their genesis was from psychologists trying to devise a simple, repeatable and cheap method of testing whether people were intelligent (or stupid – it wasn’t absolutely clear!) enough to go into the US Armed Forces in the First World War.

Various individuals then commented on the suitability and applicability of MCQs. A number of academics extolled their virtues and stressed how rigour could be introduced to allow testing of more difficult concepts. However, it was equally obvious that in each case they were talking about examining knowledge of facts and not testing the candidates’ ability to express themselves by developing a rational argument for a particular course of action. Interestingly, a number of students raised this very point and bemoaned the fact that they were not being asked to apply critical reasoning. And of course, as I’ve said before, the answer is there; the candidate merely has to identify which one it is. MCQ testing clearly has a part to play, but in the ITIL scheme, at the higher levels it does seem to be inappropriate.

Another snippet that delighted me was the announcement that marks for grammar, spelling and punctuation were to be reinstated into the UK secondary education system when answers in English, History, etc were being graded. Finally the government is listening to the growing chorus of voices from the business community who have repeatedly said that the number of job applicants – including those at graduate level – who are borderline technically illiterate is a major headache and a direct barrier to competitiveness.

Excessive modularization, over-detailed and prescriptive syllabuses and inappropriate testing mechanisms are churning out people with pieces of paper (“qualifications”) coming out of their ears, but who are unable to add any value to an organization without significant further investment on the part of the employer. The last thing that is needed is for commercial qualification schemes to repeat and reinforce the failings of the education system.

On another front, misunderstandings and criticisms of ITIL continue to be aired in various forums and media. The October/November issue of SupportWorld magazine has an article with contributions from Noel Bruton, Barry Corless (itSMF UK Chairman), Malcolm Fry, Susan Storey and even me (from my “blame” blog). It prompted me to revisit Noel’s original article in August and the comments that it generated.

To summarise and paraphrase the various responses, there were many who took the same pragmatic approach that I advocate, namely that ITIL isn’t the solution, but that it gives some really good pointers to what needs to be addressed (and even some advice on how), but that each organisation needs to use it sensibly within the context of their own environment. When one looks at some of the negative responses it is fairly clear that it stems from a small number of repeated complaints: the organization doesn’t understand what it is trying to achieve and hence tries to “implement” ITIL (usually with disastrous results); the gathering of pieces of paper from the qualifications scheme is seen as expensive and valueless (yeah!); ITIL is either too prescriptive (don’t get hung up on the words!) or not prescriptive enough (one size doesn’t fit all); it is too narrow (all things to all men?) or too broad (actually it doesn’t address Application Development!); it isn’t some other standard or approach that the respondent favours (but most of these are incomplete in themselves! – all have a value but none are the solution).The one that really tickled my fancy most was the technologist’s wet dream: “really smart shops buy smart technologies to solve ITIL’s issues and save their companies tons of money too”. Oh yeah! Where have we heard this before – in my opinion before every major IT cock-up in history. How on earth can anyone develop a product that meets the needs of every organization regardless of requirements, size, maturity, culture, aspirations, etc? Good tools certainly help enormously, but the old adage holds true, “A fool with a tool is still a fool”.

A recent query on Linked-in highlighted to me a major factor that I have repeatedly said is at the root of so many of the issues. “How can one deal with the following statement?” - 'ITIL is ITSM - no ITIL and there is no such thing as ITSM'. As many of us pointed out, this is patent rubbish, but if significant numbers of people labour under this misapprehension, it is no wonder that we are in such a mess.

All this just reinforces my view that many people don’t really understand what ITIL is or how to use it. When will people understand a) that it is absolutely impossible to define anything – standard, framework, method, approach – that is going to be completely comprehensive or applicable to every enterprise verbatim and b) that the corollary to this is that every single enterprise needs to do some hard work in defining and implementing the solution that is right for them. From a) it follows that there will always be some who criticise (often with a valid, but nit-picking point), ignoring the 99% that is fine and would be useful and from b) that some organisations/people are lazy and don’t want to expend the intellectual energy necessary in the expectation that “someone else” can solve all their issues.

Coming full circle, in the armed forces discipline and obedience to orders are critical to success – not quite applied blindly, but certainly with a rigour not seen elsewhere. But most of us aren’t in the armed forces, and service management is about ensuring that the enterprise can meet its goals and aspirations. This requires above all the application of some commonsense and hard work.  Unfortunately the former seems to be in increasingly short supply.

Any feedback and comments are always welcome!! 

(ITIL® is a Registered Trade Mark of the Office of Government Commerce in the United Kingdom and other countries.) 

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