For the past 20 years, IT has been attempting to align itself with the business. Yet today how many organisations still offer poor service based upon reactive helpdesks, haphazard change management and irrelevant service level agreements, despite an increased investment in help desk technology? Paul Whitlock asks what ITIL® really has to offer to businesses and what its limitations are.

There is no doubt that ITIL® has a lot to offer organisations. But to date the main beneficiaries of this best practice methodology have been the software vendors. Too many companies have undertaken a six-month review process to attain nothing more than a £60,000 bill. ITIL®, as commonly approached, is over-engineered for effective implementation into 95 per cent of organisations and in its vanilla form is not fit for purpose; despite worthy intentions, organisations are still failing to match deliverables to the real needs of the business.

If organisations are to finally bridge the chasm between business and IT, some ITIL® myths need to be dispelled. There is simply no need for complex, resource-intensive and expensive ITIL® projects that address every one of the 11 disciplines. Instead, organisations need to take a business-led approach that focuses on the key areas of pain - such as service desk, incident, change, configuration and service level management - to rapidly deliver a tailored, relevant and cost-effective service across the business.

Poor service

Over the past decade many UK organisations have been seduced into investing in one of the many new helpdesk software solutions that have appeared on the market, offering a range of bells and whistles from online knowledge base to highly complex management reporting. And yet their users are still receiving poor or inappropriate levels of support. Why? Because most companies have bought software first and considered processes afterwards. If those delivering the service don't buy into the processes and procedures, they won't follow them and will invent their own workarounds, rapidly undermining the quality, accuracy and completeness of information and, hence, the value of the initial investment.

Any organisations that have 'been ITIL®'d' can attest that 'out of the box' solutions are the antithesis to getting the right, fit-for-purpose processes. For 20 years, software firms have bombarded organisations without actually implementing the necessary ITIL® processes and procedures required for better service management.

Many businesses have also suffered as a result of taking an inflexible approach, insisting upon addressing each of the 11 disciplines that make up ITIL® without paying attention either to the needs of the business user or areas in which the organisation is already succeeding. By doing this, they also assume a level of internal resource that is simply unsustainable by the majority of organisations, leaving a pile of documentation and no tangible opportunity to improve the quality and relevance of the service delivered.

Not only can the process become cumbersome but, with no attempt to embrace the unique requirements of the organisation, it lacks relevance. Is it any wonder that so many companies, despite suffering poor user satisfaction and escalating support costs, continue to eschew the idea of ITIL®?

ITIL® relevance

As so many have discovered, implementing new software without making process change delivers no long-term benefits - so just how are UK organisations going to transform their reputation for inadequate service and support and deliver real value from their IT investments?

The problem with trying to apply ITIL® is that it is merely a framework for best practice - it does not provide specific instructions. For example, while stating that organisations need quality call answering, quick response, high fix rate and good reporting, it does not actually indicate how these capabilities can be achieved. And, in truth, these requirements need to be tackled in line with real user expectation.

For example, it is not always possible to combine quick call answering with a high initial fix rate, unless an organisation can afford to have a plethora of highly skilled personnel at the first tier service desk. It is only by discussing with users their requirements that the staffing and expertise level can be correctly ascertained, and effective ITIL® processes implemented.
Correctly applied, ITIL® processes can ensure the appropriate level of service to support real, defined business requirements. For example, by opting for fewer highly skilled helpdesk personnel, an organisation can meet its users' stated requirement for more first call fixes - with expectation that call answering may take several minutes. This approach ensures fewer call backs, simplifies incident tracking and boosts user satisfaction.
It is user-led discussion that determines the right processes: in truth, for all its benefits, vanilla ITIL® will not provide any indication as to which approach is the best for any specific business.

Targeted approach

The only thing that can be guaranteed with a 'by the book' approach to ITIL® is a long consultancy process. But there is no reason to address every one of the 11 ITIL® disciplines. Indeed, for most businesses addressing four or five - in the right way - will deliver massive benefits. Getting key areas such as service desk, incident management, problem management, change management and service level management right enables organisations to achieve a significant improvement in efficiency, resulting in increased customer satisfaction and reduced costs.

And while ITIL® may address each area separately, for many organisations combining, for example, incident management with problem management into a single discipline, is far more manageable and relevant to the levels of IT resource available.

But this can only be achieved if organisations are prepared to walk away from textbook ITIL® implementations and work with consultants with a real-world take on the business applications of ITIL® to highlight and prioritise focus areas. Critically, this approach avoids the danger of involved and expensive implementation projects and, by delivering key improvements in a practical, efficient, relevant manner, ensures the maximum impact for minimum outlay.

Focus and prioritisation also enables organisations to embrace ITIL® in phases, building upon the successes gained from the initial four or five disciplines to attain further benefit. In time, this can provide a platform for achieving BS 15000 certification, should that become a priority. Taking this business-led approach ensures the emphasis is on achieving a return on investment (ROI) as early as possible, rather than waiting for the completion of a full, textbook ITIL® implementation.

ITIL® is not a panacea or a magic wand. It is, quite simply, an excellent framework for improving the quality and relevance of IT services delivered to the business. But it cannot be implemented in a void - good services can only be achieved if they reflect the specific needs of an organisation and its users. And without practical implementation of the ITIL® guidelines, its value is lost.

Service transformation

While the goal may be to reduce costs and increase service levels, it is an indictment on the IT industry that today too many organisations don't even realise the lows to which service levels have fallen. From the company supporting 30,000 users with a spreadsheet to the organisation with a top of the range helpdesk solution that adds confusion and complexity rather than streamlining the service delivery process, too few companies have got this right.
And, for many organisations, it appears a Catch 22: implementing new software is no use if processes are not changed, yet ITIL® is just too complex, resource-intensive and, frankly, expensive, to even consider.
By taking a focused approach to achieving ITIL® aligned processes and procedures, organisations can finally break out, targeting the key areas of service desk, change, configuration, incident, problem and service level management to transform service levels and, finally, match IT deliverables with the real needs of the business.
Paul Whitlock is head of service management at Plan-Net.