Spreading the gospel

“When I was a programmer, back in the 1980s, the idea of making things standard and interoperable was unheard of,” recalls Peter Fanning, acting chief executive of the UK’s Office of Government Commerce (OGC). “The game used to be to make things difficult.”

That the sentiment among corporate IT departments has swung so far in the other direction in the last two decades is thanks, in part at least, to the UK government. Despite its dubious track record for managing its own IT projects, it has, in the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), created a methodology for effective IT service management that is free of commercial impartiality – and globally lauded by IT managers.

The library of guides espouses the theory of IT service management, whereby IT resources are managed as discrete services instead of tools. Advanced ITIL followers can achieve business service management (BSM), whereby those services are defined in terms of their business benefit, not IT functionality. This allows IT resources to be designed, deployed and managed in accordance with the demands of the business.

Launched in 1984 by what was then known as the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (now the OGC), today ITIL is used by around 35% of IT organisations across the world, with adoption in Western Europe even more enthusiastic, at 56%, according to research by business service management software provider BMC. 

It has some very high-profile followers, including consumer packaged goods manufacturer Procter & Gamble, which claims to have made IT management cost savings of $500 million in four years through the application of ITIL.

Three quarters of the 200 senior IT decision makers polled by BMC said that ITIL adoption was delivering the promised benefits to business and IT alignment.

According to that same BMC research, though, a lack of interest from the business itself can be a limiting factor for ITIL adoption. 

That barrier to the forward march of the ITIL guidelines may soon be eradicated, though, thanks to the third iteration of the library, officially launched in June 2007. In version 3 of ITIL, the authors have expanded the scope of the guidelines to include more business concerns, so that IT management can engage with the business more effectively, and vice versa.

Strategy and design

“ITIL has been viewed in the past as an operational practice, and the truth is its not and never has been,” explains Sharon Taylor, ITIL’s chief architect. “Part of the idea behind Version 3 is to expand the process to have more of a business viewpoint and to help people in the service management industry to see it from more than just an operational viewpoint.”

In order to truly deliver services of value, says Taylor, it is important to “engage the business actively in the design and development of services to better understand business requirements and business value” – and the third version of the guidelines makes specific recommendations for achieving this.

Indeed, two of the five books that comprise ITIL version 3, Service Strategy and Service Design, are directed as much towards C-level executives as they are hands-on IT managers. (Service Transition, Service Operations and Continual Service Improvement complete the set.)

“We’ve moved the focus closer to the CIO,” says Michael Nieves, senior manager from Accenture and co-author of the Service Strategy volume. “It helps the organisation think about whether they are offering the right services.”

Nieves believes that some IT professionals may be surprised by the content of his contribution, as it introduces some ideas with which they may not be familiar. For example, it encourages the IT department to think about competition, and what they can do to compete against the other alternatives that the business has open to it, such as outsourcing.

“The Service Strategy book invites IT departments to consider what kind of service organisation they want to be, and how they can be different,” he explains. “For example, internal departments often have a better understanding of a customer than any third party. Thinking like that can protect the CIO, and this book helps them do it.”

Even Service Operation, the most practically focused book, may surprise practitioners by how much it ties operational management to the service lifecycle, which ultimately begins with strategy and design, says Taylor.

The improved business focus of ITIL version 3 mirrors a growing interest in ITIL among business circles, says Alan McCarthy, director in EMEA for Pink Elephant, an IT service management training consultancy.

“Over the past 5 or 6 months, we’ve had IT people calling us up saying that their sales director is telling them to ‘get ITIL’,” he says. “Being ITIL-compliant is now a selling point for many businesses.”

But he adds that the bulk of the interest in ITIL still comes from operational IT staff. “About 85% of the people who comes to us are interested in running service desks,” he says.

Catch up

With ITIL firmly established as a framework for managing IT, technology providers are naturally keen to associate themselves with the refreshed brand. HP, IBM, Axios Systems, Accenture and BMC are all ready with tools and consultancy that will help organisations achieve compliance with ITIL version 3. Indeed, many of them have made recommendations to OGC on the content of ITIL version 3.

Most of these vendors already have toolsets on offer that support more sophisticated service management than is mandated by ITIL. According to Ken Turbitt, BMC’s global best practice director.

“It must be remembered that ITIL is middle-of-the-road best practice: it’s not the baseline, it’s not the cutting edge, it’s the middle of the road,” he says. “With version 3, ITIL is catching up with the market.”

Therefore, he argues, businesses can effectively get ITIL version 3 ‘out of the box’ already. Of course, training is required for this to be possible, he says, but in terms of process design and integration, many of the processes recommended by ITIL can be automated.

Sharon Taylor agrees. “There is no question that the benefit of adopting the ITIL practices gains momentum with the use of technology,” she says. “Configuration management, for example, would be impossible without automation.”

“In version 3, we’ve set aside space for discussing which parts of ITIL you should automate. We don’t recommend any tool over another, but we guide people to make wise decisions.”

However, she adds, there is more to ITIL than a series of automatable processes. “There’s a cultural part of ITIL than cannot be automated.”

The battle for the ITIL agenda

When UK accreditation body APM Group won the right to examine and qualify IT professionals for their knowledge and expertise in ITIL, the service management best practices guidelines, its employees knew they had their work cut out to win over the ITIL fanatics of the world.

But they did not expect to be openly jeered at, as they were when they attended the IT Service Management Forum in Salt Lake City in September 2006.

“They were saying things like, ‘What do you know about IT?’ and ‘What has the UK got to do with ITIL?’” recalls APM Group managing director Richard Pharro. (Few in the US and elsewhere are aware that ITIL is the intellectual property of the UK’s Office of Government Commerce, the OGC).

The detractors’ complaint against APM Group is that while it has a decade of experience accrediting and administrating the OGC’s project management framework, Prince 2, ITIL is a different, more collaborative beast. While the principles of Prince 2 are passed down from on high, ITIL benefits from input from the broad IT community.

Many felt that this collaborative nature would be sacrificed in favour of standardisation by APM Group, and that the credibility of ITIL version 3, launched in June 2007, would suffer as a result.

The two bodies that had historically managed the accreditation of ITIL-related qualifications – EXIN and BCS-ISEB – also disputed the amount of royalties they would be obliged to pay APMG in order to carry official ‘ITIL-approved’ status. In November 2006, EXIN and BCS-ISEB released a joint statement announcing their intention to keep their qualifications distinct from APM Group’s officially branded certificates.

“The appointment of APM Group has created a division in the IT service management community, with APM Group on one side, the original examination institutes on the other, and the community split between the two camps,” Simon Mingay, research vice president for IT management strategies at Gartner, said at the time. “It is in nobody's interest to create divided factions, but positions have become entrenched.”

The schism threatened to dilute the reputation of ITIL and practitioners were worried that their hard-won qualifications would eventually be worthless. Fortunately, the two sides reached an agreement in January 2007: the sanctity of ITIL would be preserved.

But has harmony really been restored to the world if IT service management? The plot thickened in June 2007, when it emerged that the online elections for the US division of the IT Service Management Forum may well have been tampered with.

“It appears that an individual, or individuals, is attempting to interfere with the itSMF USA’s governance process and has obtained information from [our] database to accomplish this objective,” wrote Leah Palmer, the group’s president, in an email to members.

As that emphasises, a great deal of value is rides on controlling the service management agenda.

Further reading in Information Age

Company analysis – BMC looks to close the loop – June 2007
Feature – Voyage of discovery:the rise of the CMDB – April 2006

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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