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ITIL practices at SMBs challenging but rewarding

With the right training and investment, ITIL can help SMBs define and improve IT best practices just as much as it benefits large businesses.

Lou Hunnebeck compares the challenges of adopting IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) practices to those of starting a diet: lifestyle changes take some getting used to, and you'll probably still crave sweets.

"IT folks are ones and zeroes people. They want a kit," said Hunnebeck, IT Service Management practice director at CCN Inc., a New York-based ITSM and IT workforce technology provider. "ITIL can be very frightening because it takes a certain amount of trust. It's really about changing culture."

But more small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are adopting the concepts set forth in ITIL, which puts a framework around IT practices and aligns them with business strategy. A revised version of ITIL standards is expected to be released at the end of May, with new instructional materials to follow in about a year, according to Hank Marquis, director of ITSM consulting at Enterprise Management Associates, an analyst and consulting firm in Boulder, Colo.

Faster reaction time, better results

Raritan Computer Inc. began adopting ITIL standards in spring 2005 to quicken reaction time to the needs of its data centers in Somerset, N.J., and in Asia, said Neil Liu, director of global IT. The company has 400 employees worldwide, including a global IT team of 21. The company is a leading global supplier of analog KVM, KVM-over-IP, remote server management, power management and network monitoring and management technologies.

"It was chaos when something went down," Liu said. So "we adopted a project management style with service manager technologies," including a reporting dashboard, speedier alerts when something goes amiss and remote access. More than two dozen engineers and the IT team were trained in ITIL practices and collaborated on the project, which saved Raritan $12,000 a year by bringing server monitoring in house, Liu said. Other savings include an hour a day of the server administrator's time thanks to better reporting and increased compliance with Section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

"Don't do ITIL for the sake of ITIL," Liu said. "You have to find that pain point that ITIL can solve to develop a standard operating procedure that any team member can pick up and follow."

Hunnebeck said her company doesn't stress ITIL practices in its IT projects, but the methodology is important to help SMBs achieve strategic goals. "We call it quality or an operational excellence program," she said. "ITIL is just one of the tools to achieve that business objective."

Training staff and ITIL certifications

ITIL was developed by the United Kingdom's Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency in the late 1980s, but it has taken on new importance in recent years as SMBs have recognized IT as an integral part of a company's business processes. That recognition, however, puts a heavy burden on once-maverick IT departments that now must rein in their superhero mentalities.

IT folks are ones and zeroes people. They want a kit. ITIL can be very frightening because it takes a certain amount of trust. It's really about changing culture.

Lou Hunnebeck, ITSM practice director, CCN Inc.

Although budgets are a concern at companies of all sizes, SMBs feel that pain more acutely. Gaining ITIL certifications can stretch already tight budgets and put additional pressure on employees -- both those being certified and those left behind to pick up the slack. But the payoff is more efficient processes and the integration of IT throughout the organization.

Current ITIL training will remain valid even after new curricula based on ITIL v3 is developed, Marquis said. A preview of v3 indicates a consolidation of the current library of nine books to five. The new books are service strategies: service design, service transition, service operation and continual service improvement.

Foundation is the basic ITIL certification, which covers the 10 core processes of ITIL. Two-day "exam-cram" sessions or a three-day program that also explores real-world applications through case studies and role-playing can cost participants between $700 and $1,500, Marquis said.

The Practitioner certification offers an in-depth look into key processes. Practitioner exams are focused on four clusters: support and restore (service desk), release and control (back-office functions), agree and define (service-level and financial management) and plan and improve (availability, capacity and continuity management). Courses generally are five days and cost around $2,500.

Service Manager is the highest level of ITIL certification. Courses can run up to 15 days, including two testing days. And it's not cheap. Costs range from $8,000 to $12,000. This certification is geared toward project managers and those who lead ITIL initiatives at their organizations.

Keep your IT operations in top shape

Electronic control device manufacturer Phoenix Contact had an ISO 9001 certification, but its IT function around the service desk wasn't as robust as network operations manager Bill Sheaffer thought it should be. Phoenix Contact, which has its U.S. base in Harrisburg, Pa., employs 500 workers domestically, including 20 in its IT department.

"We were looking for best practices around our service desk and a good framework," Sheaffer said. "Like a mechanic who never fixes his own car, we always get to our stuff last."

After training three managers in Foundation last year, the remaining Phoenix IT staff will undergo ITIL training this summer. To help offset costs, the company received state technology funds, a viable option for many companies to explore as city, state and regional entities compete to attract and retain industry.

Sheaffer said executive buy-in is vital to gain support and funding for ITIL initiatives. Once ITIL concepts take hold, projects should be adapted to the ITIL framework, instead of altering the framework to fit the project.

"When you talk about ITIL, you can't think about the way you do things now," Sheaffer said. "If you do, you'll wind up with a combination of ITIL and the way you do it now, and you won't be any better off."

Matt Bolch is a contributing writer based in Atlanta. He can be reached at mbolch@mindspring.com. Let us know what you think of this tip; email editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.

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