Today's burning question for IT departments is how to do more with less whilst delivering greater benefits at the same time. David Percy takes a look at four key trends in IT service management with the potential to drive efficiency, transform the service desk and shape the role of IT within the enterprise.

IT service management (ITSM) has undergone a transformation over the last decade. On the one hand, tools and technologies have become increasingly sophisticated and processes more streamlined.

At the same time, pressure has been mounting on IT departments to align their services more closely with the wider business and to demonstrate how they are contributing to the success of the enterprise.

In some cases companies are having to spend IT money originally intended for other technology investments in order to achieve regulatory compliance - Sarbanes Oxley, COBIT and ISO 20000 being prime examples.

Automating ITIL® processes

Recent years have seen ITIL® best practice emerge as the accepted basis of improved service delivery and as a framework for the closer alignment of IT with the business. ITIL® is also fundamental to ISO 20000, and therefore an essential for many organisations.

The prevalence of ITIL® has brought other considerations into focus, not least the degree to which it is now possible to automate key ITIL® processes. Given that people tend to adapt manual processes over time to suit their own needs, automation has a critical role to play in the elimination of service desk inconsistencies and the reduction of errors. It enables the establishment of consistent and repeatable rules for incidents/problems/known errors (IPK) and enforces their use.

Automatically ensuring that the defined business process is always followed creates a 'win win' situation: for managers the task of training and deploying new staff becomes much easier. Service desk analysts need allocate less time to routine issues, while customers benefit from faster, slicker service.

This is just a foretaste of the power of automation. The technology can be used in a myriad of ways: for example, setting up automatic alerts so that managers become aware of critical/hot issues at a very early stage and creating workflows that assign work automatically, removing the need for detailed management of service requests. Critically, for many organisations, automation also holds the key to cost-effective regulatory compliance, because it can easily enforce required best practices and generate the audit trails that prove compliance.

The federated CMDB

To manage services from a business perspective, IT staff require visibility of the components of the IT infrastructure and all related business services. A configuration management database (CMDB) should provide a model of this infrastructure, offering detailed information on all ITIL® configuration items (CIs), including each item's location, configuration and physical and logical interrelationships with other items.

However, to be effective the CMDB must ensure that all processes are working from consistent and accurate data. Herein lies the problem: because of the complexity and fluidity of the IT infrastructure, developing an efficient CMDB within a reasonable budget can prove a sticking point for ITIL® implementations.

In response to this challenge, a new model for the CMDB has emerged that relies on the 'federation' of existing data sources rather than the creation of another separate centralised database that is inherently difficult to maintain. The new federated CMDB model allows IT to take advantage of best-of-breed asset discovery tools with their own dedicated resource, and requires only core configuration data to be stored within the CMDB, making it much simpler to maintain.

The infraEnterprise Federated CMDB can also plug into multiple LDAP directory services on different platforms simultaneously. This enables the IT department to rapidly populate the CMDB with officer and customer information and greatly simplifies the entire process of providing detailed audit trails for financial and data protection compliance.

Having this 'helicopter view' of the IT infrastructure is key to improving traditional IT services. Not surprisingly, finding the smartest way to achieve this visibility now forms a vital stage in any ITSM implementation. The prize is an effective CMDB that enables IT staff to make decisions based on business impact and business priorities - the end goal for many organisations today.

Success of self-service

Implementing self-service has become a pertinent consideration for organisations when planning a new service management solution. Once the core service management processes, such as incident, change, configuration and service level management are in place, the next step for many companies is to release functionality through a customer portal. This use of self-service technology not only enables more efficient service management in terms of cost reduction, but is also an important means of improving the customer experience.

The cost benefits of self-service are generally well understood. A well-constructed system can have a significant impact on cost per transaction and an initial 10-20 per cent reduction in calls to the service desk is not unusual. Some of Infra's clients have managed the transition so effectively that around 80 per cent of calls to their service desk are now logged via a customer portal with many of those calls resolved using self-service options.

Moving IT operations online neatly dovetails into the current trend away from paper-based processes and manual audits. Implementing self-service allows requests to be kicked off by the customer (via the portal); once logged, an audit trail of the call is automatically produced. Applying online workflows also enables specific workflow tasks to be automatically completed, speeding up the end-to-end process and meeting customer expectations for more mature service and delivery models.

Open knowledge management

IT service management is a knowledge-intensive activity: and as not all analysts can be experts in everything, having a comprehensive, up-to-date knowledge base directly integrated with the service desk makes life a lot easier and minimises time spent on routine requests such as password resetting. Equally, integrating internal knowledge base content into a customer self-service solution is an effective way of ensuring that users have access to the content they need.

It is therefore not surprising that promoting the sharing of skills and experience amongst IT staff through a knowledge management strategy is fast becoming a critical factor in service management outcomes. But inspiring analysts to pool and use knowledge can be far and away the biggest challenge.

A highly effective option that is currently gaining ground is knowledge-centred support (KCS) - an open approach, where knowledge creation is closely bound to the support resolution process. Articles are created directly from logged calls, and the original problem description is preserved as part of the knowledge article. Subsequent calls that are resolved using particular articles are linked to those articles, and their problem descriptions added to the document.

A major advantage of this approach is its capacity to encourage knowledge sharing. The immediate nature of knowledge creation and the automatic way in which the authors of knowledge are recognised encourage the creation of material. In addition, the link back to the initial call maintains the connection to original context, providing the best of both worlds - a refined knowledge article that is bound to the raw problem description.

ITSM solutions from developers such as Infra are important enablers of knowledge management. For organisations seeking a more open approach, KCS Verified status provides independent assurance that their selected ITSM solution is based on industry best practice.

About the author

David Percy is director of service and delivery at Infra Corporation, the international developer of infraEnterprise, a 100 per cent web solution that automates IT service management processes.