Top-shelf governance with ITIL

Two CIOs lead the charge with Information Technology Infrastructure Libraries -- the British-born methodology that converts IT from reactive to proactive.

Phil Zweig, vice president of IS for Northwestern Mutual, made a $2 million investment in the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) to bring some discipline to the company's help desk. The British government developed ITIL in the late 1980s as a standard operating model for the delivery and management of IT services.

The $17 billion financial services firm had expanded dramatically, and so had its IT operations. "Just in terms of servers, we had grown by the hundreds," Zweig said, and there was no debate about IT's role in the business. "Our business is information. Without computers, there is no way to do what we do today."

Michael Jones, CIO of Children's Hospital and Health System Inc. in Milwaukee, is turning to ITIL for the same reason. In his case, the help desk lost track of some incidents that were triaged to whoever was responsible for the technology in the company. He wanted better documentation and a mandatory system for tracking and resolving incidents. "Problems get resolved, don't get me wrong, but we just ought to be able to do it better. If we have the information to analyze, we can do it better," Jones said. The $400 million company has 82 IT staffers and will launch the first phase of its ITIL project this month.

The two firms are among a growing number of U.S. companies that are beginning to implement a radical change in IT for a relatively modest investment, at least in terms of cash.

Never intending ITIL to function as a global standard or as a revenue-generating product, the U.K. nonetheless did solicit advice from large technology vendors. Vendors and practitioners got behind the model, forming what would become the de facto guiding organization, called IT Service Management Forum (itSMF), which adjudicates, develops and coordinates the renewal and evolution of the ITIL framework. The only cost of ITIL is the books (or CD-ROM) it's printed on. "Of course, realistically, it takes a lot to implement," said Troy DuMoulin, senior consultant for Pink Elephant, a Toronto-based consulting firm that has specialized in ITIL training since its inception.

"The British were way ahead of the game in recognizing that IT was a strategic advantage to enabling business processes, and way too important to be allowed to manage itself in an ad hoc manner without an alignment to business needs," DuMoulin said.

ITIL dictionary

As IT has become more integral to the business practices of corporations, the requirement for standard operation procedures has ballooned. One important feature of ITIL is that is provides a dictionary of terms that allows a company to use a common parlance. Experts said interest in the British-born system has gotten another push from federal regulations, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, as ITIL provides a way of delineating responsibilities and the organization of IT within a company. Perhaps its most important advantage, however, is that it changes IT to a proactive rather than a reactive organization.

"This forces IT to move from a reactive model -- watching boxes until they break -- into a more proactive mindset, because it asks the basic question: How does any IT component enable or disable a business process from revenue generation," DuMoulin said. "Until you can express that question clearly, you really can't have any alignment to business."

An ITIL library consists of a series of books or CD-Roms that guide business users through the planning, delivery and management of IT services. Companies often begin with two books, Service Support and Service Delivery, which describe key processes that must be in place to provide superior customer service. Under ITIL best practices, for example, calls for tech help to begin and end at the service desk, command central, where electronic tickets are issued and the technology problem either is fixed then and there or "triaged" to the appropriate owner, who either solves it, or sends it on to the next likely owner until the matter is closed. Recurring incidents are brought to the attention of a problem management team, whose job is to sift through the particulars to find the root cause.

Seems logical, but that was different from what was happening at Northwestern Mutual before ITIL, Zweig said.

"The client picks up the phone and calls the help desk. The person sitting next to him knows somebody in the technology group. He says, 'Why don't you call him?' Somebody else has a buddy in application support, call him. Pretty soon three or four different teams are working on the same problem, [but] they just don't know it," Zweig said. "This is a focused, functional way to get to the heart of the problem. That is great advantage."

Three years later, Zweig said the ITIL incident change and management change processes are now well defined. Problem management service is about 90% there, and the next step is configuration or asset management, the ITIL process that "tells you what your infrastructure really looks like," he said. "It's kind of the last piece." At every step of the way, Zweig has made sure to demonstrate costs savings. "The easiest thing to measure and the most direct savings are in software licensing, because now you have records on how many licenses you're using. Now we're getting into other measurements, like the time to restore service and average downtime," Zweig said.

The biggest stumbling block?

"Old habits. Our clients were accustomed to calling someone they knew from the support team. The initial perception was they were not going to get as a good a response," Zweig said. The migration also involved training -- and bringing on board -- all of Northwestern Mutual's IT support teams to what, after all, was yet another new process. One of Zweig's colleagues came up with a silver, gold and platinum certification process. "Each manager had this plaque sitting outside his wall, and the further you moved into the training the more gold and platinum seals you got. IT got to be kind of an internal competition," Zweig said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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