Is I.T. the New Mafia?

At the very successul itSMF Annual Conference in New Zealand this month, the Chairman of itSMF International – Mr. David Canon – was noted as comparing I.T. to the Mafia!

His reference was to I.T. Operations and was along the lines of:

“It would be a shame if something went wrong with your shiny new system… best you give us more money to make sure it doesn’t…”

This analogy led me to thinking more about the comparison with the Mafia. I did some research on the characteristics of the Mafia to detemine whether there was any further alignment between the two organisations.

The first thing that struck me was Omertà – the code of silence. Slience is golden to the Mafia and is often what protects them most. If no-one talks about what they are doing, then no-one will know.

How similar is this to I.T? One of the biggest complaints that the business has about I.T. is the lack of communication. This is at all levels from non-communication about the progress of a call that has been made to the Service Desk; to performance against Service Level targets; to updates on proposed service improvement initiatives.

In addition to Omertà, is the existence of Mobspeak – a language that grows out of secrecy. This language develops in an effort to exclude outsiders and hide the activities of the group. The Mafia constantly try to hide their activities from the authorities and one way in which to accomplish this is through the use of a cryptic vocabulary. When they do need to discuss matters, they make sure that noone but themselves will be able to decipher it.

There are over twenty words for the verb “to kill” including whacked, erased, burned, chipped, iced or hit.

It is vital that noone understand what they are not intended to. Therefore, their own vernacular has evolved. An example of the bizarre syntax employed especially in telephone conversations is evident in the FBI transcript of a conversation between Henry Hill – an American mobster and FBI informant – and his “man in Pittsburgh”. From the book that immortalised him – “Wiseguy” by crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi – is the following:

MAZZEI: You know the golf club and the dogs you gave me in return?

HILL: Yeah.

MAZZEI: Can you still do that?

HILL: Same kind of golf club?

MAZZEI: No. No golf clubs. Can you still give me dogs if I pay for the golf clubs?

HILL: Yeah. Sure.

MAZZEI: You front me the shampoo and I’ll front you the dog pills….What time tomorrow?

HILL: Anytime after twelve.

MAZZEI: You won’t hold my lady friend up?


MAZZEI: Somebody will just exchange dogs.

What this actually represents is a drug deal between Hill and Mazzei. The Mafia knows the letter of the law and these codes reflect that knowledge. They cannot be implicated for discussion of “dog pills” and “golf clubs”.

How often do we hear I.T. talking in acronyms and in a language that means nothing to the business? How often do we read SLAs that are written in technical jargon and mean nothing to the business? I would suggest that we might as well be talking about dogs and golf clubs when we are trying to communicate with the business about service provision.

The Mafia have also developed their own specialised language for their own self-contained world. Mafia members seldom deal with anyone outside of The Family. Therefore the language reflects the limited contact with anyone else, because they never really need to use it.

Maybe if I.T. spent more time talking to the business – outside of The Family – and working with the business, the language would evolve into one that everyone understood. We talk about ITIL bringing about a common language for I.T. but maybe we need to be thinking about the use of a common language with the business.

Of course, any discussion on the characteristics of the Mafia would not be complete without mention of protection and extortion. The Mafia’s major business is protection.

A protection racket is an extortion scheme whereby the Mafia coerces other entities to pay money, allegedly for protection services against external threats (usually violence or property damage, and sometimes perpetrated by the racketeers themselves).

In some cases, the “protection” is little more than extortion, with no real service rendered unto the victim.

Are we in I.T. guilty of extortion? Are we providing real service value to the business or just getting the business to pay money to protect their business objectives and outcomes without them really knowing what they are paying for?

During this research I came across an academic named Diego Gambetta who wrote a book called “The Sicilian Mafia – The Business of Private Protection”. Something that struck a chord with me was his reflection that a demand for protection only appears in societies where mutual trust is low. Where there is little trust between two or more businessmen engaging in a deal, and there is no state to ensure contracts and prevent one or both of the businessmen to be cheated, a market for protection is created. He says “In every transaction where at least one party does not trust the other to comply with the rules, protection becomes desirable, even if it is a poor and costly substitute for trust”.

We know that I.T. is often not seen as a “trusted” partner and I wonder whether we perpetuate this situation so that the business will continue to pay for protection. In providing protection, there is a strong distrust reproducing mechanism that increases the demand for protection.

So, I think there was certainly something in the comparison made by Mr. Canon at the New Zealand conference. It caused quite a stir at the time and for good reason. Time for I.T. to step up and shake-off the image of a secretive and costly organisation that delivers no value apart from protection due to lack of trust.

The days of “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” are over the – business can say no thank-you.

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