Service management constants

Managing IT and its associated services has been a challenge since Day One. At first, the High Priesthood in its glass house ruled. Supplicants knelt at its feet, humbly asking for such boons as the gurus would grant. The power was all in the hands of IT.

But that was then. Today, IT is merely one service among many that keep the business going, and as such, it needs to be managed. In some cases, the services aren’t even controlled by the IT department, but rather are contracted for by business units who have found that a cloud service plus a credit card can entirely bypass any controls the IT department imposes. At least, that is, until something goes wrong – then IT has the dubious pleasure of cleaning up the mess.

One huge problem has been the absence of a common vocabulary to describe issues. Especially in organizations with dispersed IT staff, or whose IT departments grew by the assimilation of the IT departments of corporate acquisitions, communication and process don’t always translate. That can lead to colossal misunderstandings, and serious dropping of critical IT balls.

In the 1980s, the UK government faced just that problem, and began development of a framework of best practices for IT service management. It grew into the 42 volume IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a series of books that provided guidance on everything from service planning through its implementation to support and ultimate retirement.

ITIL versions
ITIL versions

Since those days of centralized IT and mainframes, that library has been twice revised to reflect the current state of IT, and has been condensed into a series of five books covering the broad topics necessary for effective IT service management. It also was reorganized to revolve around the IT service lifecycle. The five volumes include:

Service Strategy starts the process by discussing how to align business and IT. Its goal is to make sure IT stays focused on business goals.

Next, Service Design provides guidance on the production and maintenance of information technology policies, architectures, and documents.

The Service Transition volume focuses on change management and release practices, providing guidance and process activities for the transition of services into the business environment.

Service Operation deals with delivery and control process activities based on a selection of service support and service delivery control points.

Finally, Continual Service Improvement focuses on the process elements involved in identifying and introducing service management improvements, and on issues surrounding service retirement.

Five books. That’s all. Yet those volumes lay out guidelines for managing the entire IT lifecycle. They provide that critical common vocabulary and standardized practices that can help IT keep the operation on the rails. They’re accompanied by a series of certifications (beginning with the Foundation level, and culminating with ITIL Master), and are tied to the ISO standard for IT service management.

It’s important to realize, however, that the ITIL volumes provide guidance, not edicts. Companies can mix and match what works for them. Many service desk software packages, from monsters like BMC’s Remedy to the more nimble Cherwell Service Management, are based on ITIL processes, making it easier for organizations to adopt the practices.

Why bother? Well, think about it – today, IT provides the plumbing that keeps information flowing. That information runs our businesses. No (or bad) information equals serious competitive disadvantage.

Of course, ITIL isn’t the only framework available, nor is it always appropriate. For example, for governance, COBIT serves better, and complements ITIL guidance.

The point, however, is that IT can’t afford to fly by the seat of its pants any more – and businesses can’t continue to ignore the rigour that IT can bring to service delivery in favour of a fast track to cloud. There’s too much at stake. Instead, IT must adopt and enforce industry best practices if it is to protect the operation of that oh so critical IT infrastructure. ITIL’s strength lies in the fact that it is a living product, under continual scrutiny and revision by experts, supported by a community, who manage and update the content. Individuals certified in ITIL practices have consistent ways to describe and handle the myriad issues that affect IT, from its planning to the way requests and tickets are managed by the service desk.

Yes, things will still likely slip through the cracks – nothing’s perfect. But with a management framework like ITIL, the cracks become smaller, and the common understanding among IT staff will lead to more effective operations, and happier internal and external customers.

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