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ITIL Version 3: Perfecting processes to solve problems

There's a sense of momentum surrounding the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, commonly known as ITIL. The third release of the library is due out by year's end. The International

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Standards Organization (ISO) is aligning its new standard for IT service management, ISO/IEC 20000 with ITIL. Consultants and vendors are promoting ITIL certification. And an estimated 200,000 people in the U.S. -- many of them midlevel IT managers -- have taken basic ITIL training.

In the end, ITIL is a bunch of books. Version 2's eight books are being reworked into five but will be supplemented by sources such as Web pages and CD-ROMs. The books, training programs, certifications and consulting services are designed to define how IT should approach services such as help desk, problem resolution and change and release management.

"ITIL gives you a structure for setting up processes, and it gives you a sense of the order in which you are going to develop your processes if you are going to have an effective delivery model for your customers. It doesn't tell you how to do any of those processes. It says that this is the process you need to have, and basically forces you to come up with a method for doing that process," said Don Rolph, associate director of information services at Amgen Inc. in West Greenwich, R.I. Rolph began using ITIL almost four years ago.

Rolph said one example of ITIL's benefit is how it guided his organization to a comprehensive system for tracking incidents. One result is that Amgen Rhode Island is comfortable with an average 2.5-day backlog for problem resolution.

Filling in the gaps

Yet, the first two ITIL versions had some holes that the coming revision is intended to address. Consultant David Pultorak, CEO of Pultorak and Associates Ltd. in Seattle, contributed to the first two ITIL versions, which continue to be owned by the Office of Government Commerce in the U.K. Pultorak outlines some of the gaps in the previous versions.

  • ROI. "There's an assumption that it's self-evident that if you implement best practices you will reduce costs and gain efficiencies. That's obviously faulty because you can't get off the ground in getting things done unless you can point to the value of a discrete initiative. You need to be able to show on an ongoing basis that you are saving money or increasing the business's capability," Pultorak said. He also says the new release will emphasize the need to prove ROI on an ITIL or other IT project, and will feature case studies showing how others have done it.

  • Inconsistencies. Version 2 of ITIL suffered from inconsistent definitions for key terms, leaving IT staff in different groups to interpret terms in conflicting ways, according to Pultorak. The books in version 2 also lacked consistency in depth of coverage from topic to topic. "They are addressing it by being explicit in the way stuff is written, having oversight editing and giving a clear mandate to the authors to say, 'These are the structures we are looking for; here is the depth of coverage we are looking for, three pages on this, and two pages on that.'"

  • Changes in IT. The content in the first two versions of ITIL was static, and didn't easily reflect the dynamic changes in the IT community, Pultorak said. In Version 3, the books will contain what is seen as timeless, more general content, while Web vehicles, CD-ROMs and special publications will address more dynamic issues. For example, the core principles of change management are unlikely to change, so those can be covered in the books, while some emerging techniques may be addressed on the Web or in a special publication.

  • Lifecycle. The concepts in the previous books didn't follow the lifecycle formats commonly used in IT, such as a progression through strategy, design, transition/production, operation and continuous improvement, according to Pultorak. He cites the example of Version 2's coverage of service support and service delivery but not service development, which should be a precursor to delivery and support. ITIL should help IT synchronize its services with business services, and better support the business, he said.

New audience

The new release is expected to serve a growing audience. Peter O'Neill, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., said ITIL, which is already well established in Europe, is drawing more attention from U.S. companies that want to be compliant with ISO/IEC 20000.

Emphasis on process, not technology

ITIL can also help companies look at how work gets done in IT by breaking the workflow out of the traditional silos of technology in the IT group, according to Don Casson, president of management consultancy Evergreen Systems Inc. in Robesonia, Va.

"You can't look at the work from an efficiency or execution of quality standpoint if it's buried in a silo-to-silo hand pass. That's the gist of the problem,'' Casson said. He added that managers who take the day and a half of basic ITIL training become advocates for ITIL because they see that process matters more than technology. Many of those advocates are middle managers and directors who bring the message back to their company. "You get it going up the organization instead of down; it's a grassroots thing that starts to put pressure on as it goes up,'' Casson said.

ITIL resistance

But ITIL has to be kept in perspective.

Casson points out that ITIL typically starts at the help desk and problem resolution, where managers can measure success. However, when they extend it into areas such as release management, some companies encounter resistance from departments that may be set in their ways, including their compensation and rewards systems. "It's very common for these people to say, 'Hey, things are already working fine in my area,'" Casson said.

Rolph warns that one danger in how people think of ITIL is they lose sight of why they are using it.

"It's easy in ITIL land to get focused on process at the expense of realizing that the purpose of this process is to solve a problem," Rolph said. "Don't put in place a process flow that shows how we are going to solve the problem if, at the end of the day, the problem still remains after we execute the process."

James M. Connolly is a freelance writer based out of Norwood, Mass. He can be reached at jamesmconnolly@verizon.net.

This was first published in June 2006

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