The Cynical Side of ITSM – Why the Backlash?

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ITSM Service Desk

Too many ‘silver-bullet’ expectations!

There are too many ‘silver-bullet’ expectations driven by too many tools is fueling a let down in what ITSM can really deliver! Over the past year I’ve noticed an increasing level of cynicism when it comes to the implementation of IT service managementand specifically the ITIL® v3 framework. To be honest, I myself have been called a cynic (maybe even a heretic) because I refuse to kneel at the ITIL® alter. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe in the spirit of service management, but definitely not in the dogma.

As a bit of background, I’ve been in ITSM for 30 years. I cut my teeth on incident management, implemented an untold number of changes, managed and documented configurations, assessed, designed and implemented more processes than I care to mention … and most of that before ITIL® became mainstream in North America.

I believe in the value of best practice mainly because I’ve seen it works time and time again. Besides, why would anyone want to design their processes from scratch without leveraging what has worked for others. That’s why ITIL® as a framework has become a de facto standard. So, why all the cynicism regarding ITIL® and ITSM in general?

In my opinion, it is because people are confusing a “framework of best practices” with actually doing the hard work of governing their ITSM programs. When you fail to lose weight should you blame the diet or do you take an honest accounting of calories consumed versus calories expended. When you fail to get fit from exercise do you blame the program or should you take a look at effort, frequency and duration of your exercises? The diet or exercise analogy holds true with ITSM, as well.

If you are not getting value from your ITSM initiative perhaps its because you’re not actually following what you’ve set out to do. It’s easy to define a process and implement a tool ― the hard works comes in getting people aligned and moving in the same direction.

It’s hard not to get cyclical when you see the immaturity of most ITSM initiatives. A recent surveyConsulting-Portal’s 5th Annual ITSM Industry Survey, we conducted of 189 ITSM practitioners identified that fewer than 30 percent of organizations had defined and implemented the ITSM governance. The same survey showed that most organizations have only implemented, but a small handful of ITIL® processes and that only 31% have implemented a CMDB.

So, if ITSM and ITIL® are so good why have so few been successful in implementing them? I believe the problem starts with the ITSM community itself. We do a wonderful job of talking up the value of ITSM, but a very poor job of communicating and implementing what it actually takes to get results. In other words, you can promise whatever you want but sooner or later you have to deliver. The problem also lies with the ITSM tool vendors. ITIL® “out-of-the-box” was a marketing slogan of one big ITSM vendor. The inference is “implement our tool, and you’ve implemented ITIL®”. The illusion that a tool can solve all your service management problems is being further propagated by the OCG (Office of Government Commerce) and its accreditation body The APM Group through the launch of their ITIL® software certification scheme.

To be fair, there is value in standardizing terminology and some basic concepts however a best practice, by its very definition, is devoid of anything specific to your particular organization. No tool can implement your process for you. It’s important to augment the best practice with the specific organizational, technological and cultural resources ― and limitations ― of your company. By saying a tool is “ITIL v3 Certified” is about the same as certifying that a hammer can successfully drive a nail: It’s true, but it doesn’t make you a carpenter.

Any ITI®L practitioner worth their salt will tell you have to define the processes for your unique environment before, or in conjunction with, the implementation of a service management tool. Then, once implemented, you have to govern the execution of the processes to get true resultsThere is no silver bullet. I agree that you can leverage the concepts contained within a best practice, but you can’t implement it directly from the book.

What to do about it

Okay, now that I’ve gotten all cynical about ITSM, it’s only fair that I offer some solutions. First off, some proof that ITSM works: As a mainframe field engineer in the early ’80’s I was responsible for responding to incidents and digging into problems for the root cause. One of the most powerful tools at my disposal was my company’s incident management system (the Amdahl Corporation for those interested in the history of computers). This tool, accessed by dial up over a TTY (teletype) terminal, was the repository of all our known problems and potential workarounds and solutions.

This tool was consistently used as a troubleshooting aid and on more than one occasion identified trends that uncovered engineering defects that, when resolved, improved reliability for our clients and saved Amdahl millions of dollars in service calls and spare parts. But it wasn’t the tool that made the process work it was the discipline and governance that ensured everyone conformed to the process, entered the correct data, analyzed the metrics, and followed up and closed incidents. No tool will do that for you!

A successful service management program requires the discipline to continuously assess, design and govern your processes. The assessment of your processes is essential for identifying gaps and establishing a baseline from which ROI can be measured. Effective design of your processes requires you to create more than a VISIO flowchart. You have go get down into the weeds of data definitions, metrics, governance, procedures, workflow, tool requirements and much more.

But, most importantly, you need governance. People need to be accountable, in more than name, for their parts of the process. You have to define specific governance tasks that are assigned and measured and you have to take action if they refuse to conform.

It’s easy to be a pundit or a cynic constantly throwing stones at ITSM. In fact, I feel somewhat schizophrenic because I’ve thrown my fair share of stones while simultaneously spending my whole career in ITSM. So, if you’re going to be cynical about ITSM then place the criticism where it truly belongs. That is, place the blame on poor implementations and the over reliance on silver bullets and not on the principles of ITSM itself.

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David Mainville

David Mainville, CEO and co-founder of Navvia, is a passionate advocate of Service Management and a frequent presenter, blogger and well known member of the ITSM community. With over 35 years of experience, David has held progressively senior technical and management roles allowing him to "connect the dots" between the Business and IT. At Navvia, David leads the charge to bring innovative ITSM solutions to market focusing on Product Development, Marketing and Operations.

• Posted by David Mainville on Nov 07, 2012
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