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An Introduction to Visible Ops

By Kevin Behr, Gene Kim and George Spafford
August 31, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Practitioners in information technology face pressures on many fronts. In addition to the demands to become more efficient, IT must now address challenges to maintain a secure state and comply with regulatory requirements. For example, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 is forcing publicly held U.S. corporations to attest to the fact that internal controls are both in place and effective. IT operational best practices, such as the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), provide a framework to start defining repeatable and verifiable IT processes. However, as organizations attempt to use ITIL to begin their journey toward process improvement, they face a very difficult question: How and where do you start?

We have developed a methodology known as "Visible Ops." Since 2000, we have met with hundreds of IT organizations and identified eight high-performing IT groups with the highest service levels, best security and best efficiencies. What was most amazing about them was that they shared the following attributes: a culture of change management, a culture of causality and a culture that fundamentally valued effective and auditable controls, promoting fact-based management. Visible Ops reflects the lessons learned about how these organizations work and describes a control-based entry point into the world of ITIL that others can leverage to springboard their own process improvement efforts.


In the IT industry, Stephen Elliot, an analyst at IDC, showed that on average, 80% of IT system outages are caused by operator and application errors. This motivated our need to dig into causal factors of infrastructure downtime, which continually revealed shortfalls in change management practices. Often, many organizations would have well-documented change management practices, but in reality, no one ever followed them. In many of these cases, the goals and motivations for having change management were not clear to management or to the practitioners themselves. Another key finding was that having a documented change management process was necessary, but far from sufficient, to achieve high-performing characteristics. In the high-performing organizations we studied, change management was embedded in the culture and had a very different meaning than in typical organizations. The Visible Ops Handbook is dedicated to describing those practices that set the high performers apart.


Something Must Need Improvement – Otherwise, Why Read This?


"The most likely way the world will be destroyed, most experts agree, is by accident. That's where we come in; we're computer professionals. We cause accidents." – Nathaniel Borenstein


The motivation for ITIL, change management and overall process improvement is well known. The trade press is full of stories about cost-cutting measures, outsourcing and regulatory requirements from Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), Basel II, FISMA and so forth. The list of people talking about the problems is already large enough, so we promise to keep the discussion of the problem domain to a minimum. The issues and challenges that need to be addressed include:




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