ITIL: The key to productive performance

A framework developed by the UK government has become the de facto method of developing best practices for managing IT services, says Accenture's Michael Nieves

The effective management of IT requires a finely balanced blend of theory and practice. Theory helps us understand how things work, see patterns and ask the right questions. And practice helps us discern "what to do on Monday morning". An IT manager who relies on one at the expense of the other is likely to run into trouble.

Throughout its history, IT has been shaped by successive waves that have pushed forward the collective thinking. The industry is characterised by those who let their imaginations run ahead of current practicalities and consider not just what was, but what should be. They establish a forward position, everyone catches up, and business productivity rises as a result. Then it's on to the next wave.

When we talk of productivity gains from advances in IT, it's often technology itself that gets the credit. But when we look more closely, it's IT management that does much of the heavy lifting. If management is the art of performance, then IT management is the vehicle for turning technology's complexity and specialisation into productive performance.

In a world where IT-based services play a pivotal role in everything from transport networks, to banking, to keeping the lights on, IT service management's crucial importance has seen it expand from operational concern into strategic business tool. This in turn has triggered efforts to codify and formalise IT service management into a well-defined set of best practices and processes.

This is the context for the success of the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL). It has emerged as the premier framework for IT service management; crossing the boundaries of industry type and culture to provide objective measurements of service quality across the whole IT service spectrum. ITIL was first launched back in 1988 by the UK's Office of Government Commerce (OGC), not just to manage servers and network equipment, but to provide technology-related services to constituents in a cost-efficient, reliable manner. Since then its usage has steadily expanded beyond the UK public sector, to public- and private-sector organisations all over the world.

The IT world has come a long way since 1988, and ITIL has progressed with it. The latest version of ITIL — ITILv3 — was launched in May this year. Service Strategy, a book co-authored by Majid Iqbal of Carnegie Mellon University and myself, is part of the new version of the ITIL Service Management Practices series. Our objectives in writing the book were to capture "best practice" changes in the IT industry over the past decade and provide guidance on how to place business outcomes at the centre of all dialogue in IT service management.

This reflects the approach of the whole ITIL series. It is written to be accessible to a wide audience, setting out practical guidance while explaining the underlying theory and practice of managing IT services. Many books and frameworks focus on IT topics, but often they focus on a single idea, without broader context. The latest version of ITIL differs because it presents a coherent view of IT services.

In doing so, the series provides IT managers with the critical tools they need to reshape and reposition the IT department as a true service provider to the business, and to benchmark their own performance against...

...the actual value they deliver to the organisation as a whole, rather than the efficiency of their processes.

A cosmetics executive once remarked that his industry sells "hope in a jar". Similarly in IT, customers don't buy services; they buy the satisfaction of particular needs. This idea is one of ITIL's deceptively simple breakthroughs, and one that many IT managers still find elusive. The key lies in being able to quantify the relation between the services provided and the value created. In other words, the value of IT services can only really be quantified by customers. The more intangible the value, the more important this nuance becomes. As a result, we redefine service as "a means of delivering value to customers by facilitating outcomes customers want to achieve, but without the ownership of specific cost and risk".

More widely, the purpose of the latest refresh of ITIL in the Service Strategy volume is to ensure that the books — now five titles in all — continue to reflect global best practices, and to meet the needs of all stakeholders in the IT organisation. Restructured into a five-phase lifecycle, the series begins with Service Strategy, the discernment of the organisation's strategic purpose — a topic often receiving short shrift in the pursuit of day-to-day practicalities. Applied properly, these core strategic concepts can lead to practical insights such as: "Where is the organisation headed — and what does it need to do to get there?".

The next book, Service Design, uses analysis and insight to convert the resulting strategy into a design blueprint. This blueprint then handled by the subsequent book, Service Transition, which provides the "brakes" to regulate the pace of the lifecycle — thereby giving IT managers the confidence to drive rapid organisational change, secure in the knowledge that effective controls are in place.

The fourth book, Service Operation, is where the designs and controls are translated into execution — a step requiring both judgment and discipline. The fifth and final book in the lifecycle is Continual Service Improvement, which examines how managers keep the organisation moving forward while balancing short-term and long-term performance, making course corrections and re-deploying resources.

Overall, ITILv3 provides invaluable theory and practice for IT managers. Common sense may help you help you cope with a well-defined problem, but few of the important problems that afflict IT organisations arrive precisely labelled. Mastery of IT management comes from an understanding of why IT organisations and services work as they do.

The ability to make clear-headed choices is increasingly vital for IT managers. It is this capability excellence that propels the field forward. ITIL is the world's most widely accepted approach to IT service management and the standard by which many organisations measure themselves. If your organisation has not yet joined the ITIL community, maybe it's time you considered doing so.

Accenture senior manager Michael Nieves co-authored the ITIL v3 book, Service Strategy.


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