Most, if not all, IT organisations have service-related issues at one time or another. For some they are transient or small-scale, for others they may be enduring and significantly affect overall business operations and, in the worst cases, impact both revenue and profit.

How the IT function manages these issues, or hopefully minimises or avoids them altogether, can make a real difference to an organisation. It not only affects how IT is viewed by the rest of the company but more importantly how the organisation is viewed by its customers - indeed recent global research has highlighted that service improvement is (along with cost-cutting) a prime concern of CIOs. Dave Davies and Paul Mellings from Xantus Consulting report.

Service issues can have a variety of causes, including under-investment, lack of management focus and poor change control. These issues will not resolve themselves and sustained effort will be needed to address the root causes. Maintaining high levels of service is difficult; it's like trust - hard to gain and easy to lose.

Furthermore, poor service levels can be self-perpetuating; they can lead to a fall in morale and a loss of key staff resulting in a further reduction in service levels. Service issues can sometimes be a matter of perception; however, as far as the customers are concerned, perception is reality. The service function may be able to prove that services are meeting required service levels but if the users feel otherwise, then that's their reality.

Where to start

The good news is that there are ways and means of improving service, although like most things, they do take time, money and effort. There are some quick wins but mostly the answers lie in:

  • making sure that the service mission is well understood by those directly and indirectly involved in service delivery - in other words instilling a service culture;
  • aligning people, processes and technology to achieve that goal.

In this way an environment can be created where success breeds success and service improvement is sustainable. Outsourcing is a tempting option when service issues are prolonged, but often a better approach would be self-help in the form of a service improvement programme (SIP) to improve service and restore trust in the IT organisation. This does not exclude outsourcing at a later date, starting from an improved baseline.

What is a SIP?

Pursuing the SIP option requires a strong service improvement programme manager. They will have to provide enthusiastic and inspirational leadership whilst driving through process improvements and instilling a service culture within the organisation. Most good IT programme managers can deploy an application or the infrastructure to run it on, but far fewer have what it takes to change culture through winning hearts and minds. The outline steps in running a successful SIP are:

  • Get support from your key business stakeholders.
  • Create a team with sufficient dedicated project management resources so that the initiatives don't run out of steam. Consider whether you have the right skills in-house or whether you need assistance.
  • Gather an initial view of the service status and find out what's broken.
  • Set initial improvement objectives couched in terms so that they are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-framed. Aiming for something that is unachievable will be demoralising to the team. Far better to set realistic targets and raise the bar once that they have been achieved.
  • Create a plan. This seems obvious - however, many service initiatives fail due to poor planning.
  • Decide on actions and carry them out, review the results, then start all over again.


The success of any SIP and its initiatives is dependent on there being a structured framework in place on which to build coherent, integrated and repeatable processes. Since the mid 1990s the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL®) has become the de facto standard for delivering quality IT services.

The ITIL® recommendations and documentation set is not a prescriptive solution. ITIL® provides an overall framework and then 'best practice' for each of the recommended processes. These should be seen as guidelines and used pragmatically; slavish adherence to ITIL® guidelines could place a burden on IT that it is not justified.

The IT service desk

ITIL® also includes recommendations for how a service desk should be organised and run. The service desk is the human face of IT and is a key component in ongoing service delivery and service improvement activity - how the desk deals with customers issues (incidents) will have the greatest influence on how the caller views IT and the service it provides.

The service desk owns the incident management process and the goal of incident management is to restore normal operations as quickly as possible, thus reducing the impact and cost of the incident. Failing to provide the service desk with the resources (people and tools) it needs can, therefore, be a false economy. Whilst striving to lower the cost per call is admirable, greater benefits can be gained by focusing on reducing the total cost per incident, factoring in not only the IT costs but the business costs.

The service catalogue

Another core concept of ITIL® is that of the service catalogue. Today most IT functions are at least aware that best practice for service delivery involves treating the internal users of IT as 'customers' - customers who demand a certain quality of service and value for money.

The service catalogue formalises the 'contract' between IT and its customers and has many benefits including promoting a better understanding of the level of service that can be supported, improving focus on the relationship between cost and service, and showing where services are underpinned by third parties (and highlighting risks where it is not). Whilst the initial setting up of a service catalogue can seem laborious, requiring time to define how services are made up and who owns the various components, the effort is worth it in the long run.

SLAs and OLAs

On the point of using third parties to deliver part or all of a service, service levels agreements (SLAs) play a key role in guaranteeing quality; they should frame the service to be delivered, the quality of the service, the relative responsibilities of the supplier and customer, the service cost, allowable exceptions, contingency actions in case of failure and key contacts for decisions.

Operational level agreements (OLAs) serve the same purpose but are used where the 'supplier' is an internal party. The best advice regarding both such documents is to avoid making them overly long, formal and complicated - capture the essence on a single side of A4 and it is far more likely to be read and serve its rightful purpose.


When dealing with technology and processes it's all too easy to forget about the people element. However, they are the glue that makes everything work. No matter how well defined the processes and how aligned to ITIL® they are, without the people to make them work they are documents on a shelf.

Take the process away and the people will continue to work, perhaps not as effectively, but work never the less. So it's important to keep people motivated and focused on service. This means ensuring that job descriptions clearly spell out service objectives and that remuneration is proportionate to service achievement. It's also worth saying that service objectives are applicable to all roles and not just those directly in service operations.

Summing up

Improving service is not easy and it's sometimes hard to keep the momentum going. But be patient - service will not improve overnight and sustainable improvements may take months or even years. However, with the right framework in place, an integrated set of processes and a motivated workforce it is possible to achieve marked service improvements and to reap the accompanying benefits.