ITIL on the March

It’s no longer the hot new thing. In fact, it never was the hot new thing. Rather, it’s just an old idea that continues to gain adherents and remake how IT operates. Not too shabby when you think about it.

The IT Infrastructure Library (commonly known as ITIL) was devised back in the 1980s (eons ago, in computing terms) by a U.K. government agency as a standard framework for best practices in the provision of IT services. Though it spread throughout Europe in the 1990s, it wasn’t until the last few years that it jumped the pond and invaded the U.S. market in a big way. According to a survey conducted in January and February of this year by INS and completed by 227 IT professionals worldwide, 52% of IT organizations are now using ITIL to help manage their IT services, up from 39% just 15 months earlier. Simultaneously, the percentage of IT professionals who understand ITIL on both a conceptual and detailed level has leapt from 24% to 43% over the same period of time.

So how does this nontechnical framework keep growing faster than the number of Botox-based wrinkle creams? The answer is surprisingly simple and elemental: ITIL offers low risk and high rewards.

Because ITIL is neither a technology nor a tool, it is in no danger of becoming obsolete, being bought out by a rival and retired, having support wane or simply running out of steam. As a framework based on best practices, ITIL doesn’t specify the details of how IT services should be supported and managed, only what needs to be considered when determining how to support and manage them. That provides users with the flexibility to tailor an ITIL-based approach to their individual IT environments, unlike other approaches that try to shoehorn every situation into a single model. Oh, and did I mention that ITIL is free -- other than the cost of documentation and perhaps the training needed to get started? Just as important, of survey respondents who had already successfully implemented at least one area of ITIL, only 1% were disappointed in its impact. Can’t get much lower risk than that.

But low risk is only half the equation. ITIL has the potential to pay off in a big way on several fronts.

Using ITIL to improve processes typically results in fewer service disruptions and faster resolution of IT incidents and problems. Both of these outcomes lead to increased customer satisfaction and can reduce the cost-of-service delivery by reducing the size of the help desk or service desk. An added benefit is that ITIL can provide more defined controls over IT operations, which are necessary to meet the plethora of government regulations besetting most large companies, including the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.

So, what’s holding back all IT shops from using ITIL?

First of all, smaller IT organizations may look at ITIL as an overly large effort to manage their operations, particularly when staff is already stretched to the limit. Medium-size and large IT organizations may already have a significant investment in processes developed in-house or may use another process framework, such as Cobit. But none of these issues should hold back organizations from implementing ITIL. For all IT shops, ITIL can be implemented in stages, making the transition as painless as possible. And ITIL is actually complementary to these other methodologies and can be implemented in a manner that adds value without duplicating existing processes.

So, how should an IT organization get started with ITIL?

The best approach is to look at current service support processes to determine where their biggest deficiencies lie. (Always start with processes, not systems or tools.) Typically, these will fall into one of two major ITIL-defined processes within service support: resolution or control. Figure 1 shows which support processes fall into each category. Identifying the major areas of deficiency can direct new users to the most productive ITIL processes to begin with. It always pays to start by addressing areas of pain and building out from there rather than trying to implement the whole ITIL framework from Day One.

ITIL on the March

One last word of advice: Don’t try to implement ITIL without executive buy-in. Two-thirds of INS survey respondents deemed executive sponsorship to be very important to the success of their ITIL efforts, and another 22% said it was somewhat important. Having the executive team fully invested in an ITIL implementation can be the difference between a soaring success and a crash-and-burn experience -- an unpleasant outcome even for a not-so-hot technology.

Rick Blum is senior manager of strategic marketing at IT consulting and software company INS in Santa Clara, Calif.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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