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By | Tony Baer 10th December 2007 18:38

ITIL deeds don't go unpunished

Of carts and horses

It shouldn't be a surprise as to why IT's automation needs often fall to the bottom of the stack: because most companies are not in the technology business, investments in people, processes, or technologies that are designed to improve IT only show up as expenses on the bottom line. And so while IT is the organization that is responsible for helping the rest of the business adopt various automated solutions, IT often goes begging when it comes to investing in its own operational improvements.

That, in a large part, explains the 20-year "overnight success" of ITIL. Conceived as a framework for codifying what IT actually does for a living, the latest revisions of ITIL describe a service lifecycle that provides opportunity for IT to operate more like a services business that develops, markets, and delivers those services to the enterprise as a whole. In other words, it's supposed to elevate areas that used to pass for "help desk" and "systems management" into conversations that could migrate from middle manager to C-level.

Or at least that's what it's supposed to be cracked up to being. If you codify what an IT service is, then define the actions that are involved with every step in its lifecycle, you have the outlines for a business process that could be made repeatable. And as you codify processes, you gain opportunities to attach more consistent metrics that track performance.

We've studied ITIL and have spoken with organizations on their rationale for adoption. Although the hammer of regulatory compliance might look to be the obvious impetus (e.g. if you are concerned about regulations covering corporate governance or protecting the sanctity of customer identity, you want audit trails that include data center operation), we also found that scenarios such as corporate restructuring or merger and acquisition also played a hand. At an ITIL forum convened by IDC in New York last week, we found that was exactly the case for Motorola, Toyota Financial Services, and for Hospital Corp. of America - each of whom sat on a panel to reflect on their experiences.

They spoke of establishing change advisory boards to cut down on the incidence of unexpected changes (that tend to break systems), formalizing all service requests (to reduce common practices of buttonholing), reporting structures (which, not surprisingly for different organizations, varied widely), and what to put in your Configuration Management Database (CMDB) that is stipulated by the ITIL framework as the definitive store defining what you are running and how you are running it.

But we also came across comments that, for all its lofty goals, suggest ITIL could wind up erecting new silos for an initiative that was supposed to break them down. One attendee, from a major investment bank, was concerned that with adoption of the framework would come pressure for certifications that would wind up pigeonholing professionals into discrete tasks, a la Frederick Taylor. Another mused about excessive reliance on arbitrary metrics for the sake of metrics, because that is what looks good in management presentations. Others questioned the idea of whether initiatives, such as adding a change advisory board or adding a layer of what were, in effect, "account representatives" between IT and the various business operating units it solves, would in turn create new layers of bureaucracy.

What's more interesting is that the concerns of attendees were hardly isolated voices in the wilderness. John Willis, who heads Zabovo, a third-party consulting firm specializing in IBM Tivoli tools, recently posted the responses from the Tivoli mailing list on the question of whether ITIL actually matters. He didn't get a shortage of answers. Not surprisingly, there were plenty of detractors. One respondent characterized ITIL as "merely chang[ing] the shape of the hoops I jump through, and not the fact that there are hoops..." Another termed it "$6 buzzword/ management fad," while another claimed that ITIL makes much ado over the obvious. "The Helpdesk is NOT an ITIL process, it is merely a function..."

But others stated that, despite the hassles, that the real problem is defining processes or criteria more realistically. "Even when I'm annoyed, I still believe ITIL or ITIL-like processes should be here to stay, but management should be more educated on what constitutes a serious change to the environment..." Others claimed that ITIL formalizes what should be your IT organization's best practices and doesn't really invent anything new. "Most shops already perform many of the processes and don't recognize how close they are to being ITIL compliant already. It is often a case of refining a few things."

Probably the comment that best summarized the problem is that many organizations, not surprisingly, are "forgetting that ITIL is not an end in and of itself. Rather, it is a means to an end," adding that this point is often "lost on both the critics and cheerleaders of Service Management."

We're not surprised that adopting of ITIL is striking nerves. It's redolent of the early battles surrounding those old MRP II, and later, ERP projects, that often degenerated into endless business process reengineering efforts for their own sake. Ironically, promoters of early Class A MRP II initiatives justified their efforts on the ideal that integration would enable everyone to read from the same sheet of music and therefore enable the organization to act in unison. In fact, many of those early implementations simply cemented the functional or organizational walls that they were supposed to tear down. And although, in the name of process reengineering, they were supposed to make the organizations more responsive, in fact, many of those implementations wound up enshrining many of the inflexible planning practices that drove operational cost structures through the roof.

The bottom line is that IT could use a dose of process, but not the arbitrary kind that looks good in management PowerPoints. The ITIL framework presents the opportunity to rationalize the best practices that are already are or should be in place. Ideally, it could provide the means for correlating aspects of service delivery, such maintaining uptime and availability, with metrics that actually reflect the business value of meeting those goals. For the software industry, ITIL provides a nice common target for developing packaged solutions, just as the APICS framework did for enterprise applications nearly 30 years ago. That's the upside.

The downside is that, like any technical profession, IT has historically operated in its own silo away from the business, where service requests were simply thrown over the wall with little or no context. As a result, the business has hardly understood what they are getting for their IT dollars, while IT has had little concept of the bigger picture on why they are doing their jobs, other than to keep the machines running. IT has good reason to fear process improvement exercises that don't appear grounded in reality.

ITIL is supposed to offer the first step - defining what IT does as a service, and the tasks or processes that are involved in delivering it. The cultural gap that separates IT from the business is both the best justification for adopting ITIL, and the greatest obstacle towards achieving its goals.

This article originally appeared in onStrategies.

Copyright © 2007,

Tony Baer is the principal with analyst onStrategies. With 15 years in enterprise systems and manufacturing, Tony specialises in application development, data warehousing and business applications, and is the author of several books on Java and .NET.

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