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ITIL 4 and the Evolving Role of Roles

In the context of work, a role is typically defined as a set of responsibilities, activities and authorities granted to a person or team. While a role can, at times, represent a full-time job, this is not always the case.
In the course of our work, many of us play different roles (i.e., we wear different hats). For example, we may play different roles within our teams (e.g., team lead or team member), or within practices (or processes) (e.g., practice owner, process owner, or practice/process practitioner), or in the context of a framework or methodology (e.g., customer, user, or sponsor; or product owner, scrum master, or scrum team member). Roles are important because they provide greater flexibility than job descriptions, which are often bound to formalized performance plans and perhaps even to contracts.

This flexibility is important because organizations are increasingly adopting operating models that are more evolutionary and less structured than most companies have used in the past. Historically, organizations have used a hierarchical model where departments and job descriptions are carefully documented and illustrated in an org chart. To increase company-wide interaction, some organizations have adopted a matrix organizational structure where employees may report to two or more managers. For example, an employee may have a primary manager they report to as well as one or more project or product managers they work under. This type of structure is useful when the skills needed to complete a task need to be shared across departments. Other organizations are embracing flatter approaches such as Holacracy, which is a method of decentralized management and organizational governance. This type of structure is useful when organizations want to speed up decision making by distributing authority to autonomous self-organizing teams (or circles), rather than having decisions made through a management hierarchy.

Interestingly, the greater the desired flexibility, the more relevant roles become. This is because, in the modern world of work, organizations are responding to ever-changing dynamics by using fluid teaming approaches. These organizations value people who can quickly adapt to new circumstances and who can contribute to their teams in many different ways. This not only enables these organizations to adapt their cultures and operating models as needed to meet business needs, it also enables a fuller, more rewarding job experience for employees.

Job descriptions are important as they can help support legal requirements with respect to the rights of workers to fair and equitable compensation, selection, and career opportunities. Organizations are finding, however, that job roles are changing too fast to ensure that job descriptions reflect all of an employee’s assigned tasks and duties.

Roles can be used to describe those assigned tasks and duties, and also the competencies 
knowledge, skills, and behaviors) needed to perform that role effectively. What roles do is make it possible to define accountabilities for ongoing work, rather than who (i.e., what job title) is responsible for doing that work.

An education strategy can then be used to provide leaders, managers, and staff the knowledge and skills needed to understand the role they play within the organization (or aspire to play within the organization), along with expected behaviors. Executing this education strategy on an ongoing basis leads to a workforce comprised of T-, or Pi-, or M-shaped professionals who are able to collaborate effectively across disciplines, and who can play many different roles within their teams.

Two significant changes in ITIL 4 that are leading to new roles are the emphasis on value stream-centric ways of working, and the evolution from process to practice. In the context of value streams, emerging roles include value stream owner or manager, value stream facilitator, value stream architect, and value stream analyst. In the context of practices, the practice owner role is accountable for ensuring that a practice fulfills its purpose, just as a process owner did in previous versions of ITIL.

So what’s different about the practice owner role? This role includes managing the practice resources in all four dimensions of service management (another of the important evolutions in ITIL 4), as well as effectively integrating the practice into the organization’s value streams.

In reality, practice ownership (as described in ITIL 4) is what effective process owners have been doing for years. They’ve been thinking beyond just the process or workflow and have defined roles and responsibilities and performance metrics. They’ve been thinking about how their process integrates with other processes and how they can leverage information and technology to improve its performance. They’ve been working hard to continually improve all aspects of their process (now practice) in an effort to ensure the practice is fulfilling its purpose and satisfying the needs of its stakeholders. What’s perhaps most different about ITIL 4 is the need to think about these practices in the context of their greater value stream.

Another role recognized in ITIL 4 is the product owner role. A product owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product that a development team produces. This recognizes the trend to move from temporary project- to longer-lived product-oriented teams. An organization’s operating model, organizational structure, and its product and service architecture will all influence the relationship between the product owner role and the service owner role (as defined in ITIL v3 and carried forward to ITIL 4).

It all comes down to ensuring clear accountabilities, while at the same time enabling flexibility. Organizations today can’t afford to remain stuck in slow-to-change traditional hierarchies, just as people today don’t want to be stuck in a job that leaves them little room to expand their knowledge and skills, or with only one way forward if they want to advance in their careers. Today, both organizations and individuals need to experiment and adapt to survive and thrive. Focusing on roles and competencies provides the flexibility organizations need to adapt as quickly as possible without the massive disruption of organizational restructuring, while at the same time enabling the growth and development of their employees.

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