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ITIL tough but worth it, says midmarket telco firm

Just another process? Perhaps. But for one firm, going from no process to being process-centric turned it into a well-tuned IT organization.

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- The Infrastructure Technology Information Library (ITIL), the British-born set of best practices for the delivery of IT services, has a reputation for being hard -- hard to plow through and hard to implement.

Jim Dunlap wouldn't argue with that. The vice president of IT at General Communication Inc. (GCI), Dunlap launched ITIL when he arrived at the Alaskan telecommunications company in 2004.

"Three years later, we're still at it. It's not easy to roll out ITIL, to go from no processes to process-centric," said Dunlap, who spoke at the annual CIO Decisions Conference here. Indeed, 30% of his IT staff left during the transition.

The gains, however, have been dramatic, Dunlap said, and absolutely necessary for IT to keep pace with the business.

Based in Anchorage, publicly held GCI boasts 500,000 subscribers out of a state population of 660,000. Its locations pepper Alaska's 1.5 million square kilometers, making it one of the world's largest telecommunications companies in terms of geographic reach. And its list of offerings keeps growing --wireless, data and a lock on cable TV (90% of Alaskan households).

At a company that large and so accountable to so many customers, IT services should have been front and center, Dunlap said. But the department was flying by the seat of its pants (e.g., unclear roles and responsibilities, ad hoc processes, outdated or fragmented documentation, no standard tools for development and service management, inconsistent reporting).

"There was not a shred of evidence that the IT staff knew anything about change management, other than we would make changes however we wanted and whenever we wanted," Dunlap said. There were no service-level agreements (SLAs) to speak of. Application management was "unheard of." "Crappy" software was put into production, only to be snatched back. The department had no program management office (PMO). The data center took a wait-and-see approach, as in waiting for the thermal event to happen before making a move.

Three years into ITIL, the right monitoring and managing tools are in place, as are a "very rigorous" set of processes, Dunlap said. Infrared cameras keep watch over the servers 24/7. Every vendor is managed in an identical way, so scorecards have meaning. A PMO staffed by 10 people performs weekly risk analyses of every project. IT can fire up a new GCI marketing plan in a "matter of minutes," Dunlap said, rather than the four months it could take in the past.

American ITIL

ITIL is generating a lot of buzz these days. Technology publications were all over the recent release of ITIL V3, the library's first revision in seven years. Vendors have jumped on the bandwagon, offering up tools that promise to make adopting the nine-volume framework a bit easier. But ITIL has been slow to catch on in the U.S. and remains a bit of mystery for many companies, especially midsized organizations. It shouldn't be, said computer scientist D. Akira Robinson, who ran a breakout session on ITIL at the conference.

"Most people don't realize they have been doing some ITIL," Robinson said. If an IT shop has a service desk or a formal process for requesting a change, it is doing a form of ITIL. And while he happens to like the ITIL framework, particularly V3, the message for midsized companies is to adopt a framework that allows for continuous improvement and will make IT processes reliable and repeatable.

"I don't care if you embrace ITIL. But no matter what you do, pick a standard -- any standard, Six Sigma, ISO, CMM," he said.

It's not easy to roll out ITIL, to go from no processes to process-centric.

Jim Dunlap, vice president of IT, General Communications Inc.

CIOs who adopt ITIL also shouldn't feel compelled to adopt all the processes or hesitate to collapse processes where it makes sense, Robinson said.

For GCI's IT, the "heart and soul" of ITIL was the service desk. "ITIL begins and ends with the service desk." Dunlap piggybacked much of the ITIL implementation on the backs of large projects -- a billing conversion, for example, so the relationship between ITIL and the business was unambiguous. But it still takes a lot of marketing, he told the audience members, urging them to sell, sell, sell the standards to the business.

Oded Haner, CIO of Monster Cable Products Inc. in Brisbane, Calif., is two years into an ITIL implementation, "without calling it ITIL," he said. His biggest challenge is selling the benefits of process-driven to a company that started in a garage, is privately held -- so no SOX requirements -- and entrepreneurial to the core.

Formal processes in that environment can be seen as a limitation, not an enabler of business, Haner said. But with rapid growth and locations in India and Ireland, "we had to put processes in place," he said. His strategy was to start modestly, with SLAs that spelled out and delivered on IT services. "That was the first win, and we marketed that win to everyone," Haner said.

As the GCI staff climbs the chain of standards, ITIL keeps giving back, Dunlap assured the audience. And these days, IT is no longer invisible at GCI, bragged Dunlap, clearly proud of the transformation. "It enables the company's growth. In fact, I have to keep throttling my staff to keep them from pulling the business too far and too fast."

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

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