Managing IT chaos starts with a library

Ohio State University is using the ITIL service-management framework to help IT maintain its customer focus and improve key operations.

chaos-ITIL-OhioWhen Bob Gribben, director of service operations in the Office of the CIO at Ohio State University, wants to rein in what he calls “the organized chaos that rules most [IT] organizations,” he turns to ITIL. More formally known as the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, ITIL is the most widely used IT service-management framework in the world and has helped Ohio State dramatically improve user satisfaction in its service desk and incident-management operations.

ITIL consists of five volumes of best-management practices that cover the life span of any IT service: strategy, design, transition, operation, and continual improvement. Now managed by Axelos, a joint venture between the British government and Capita, the library was initially developed more than 20 years ago by the UK’s Cabinet Office to improve organizational efficiency in its IT operations.

“ITIL is about best practices that have been tested but that also allow you to customize what you do—it’s not a cookie cutter,” said Gribben, noting that Ohio State’s ITIL experience goes back more than six-and-a-half years. “A lot of times, people look for a template that they can place on top of their department, follow certain steps, and things will get better. It’s not that.”

Any pain point in IT—how a service is delivered or provisioned, for instance—is a candidate for ITIL, says Gribben. “You use the library and its best practices to define what you’re trying to do, which will then help you set up your metrics,” he said. “It’ll help you design and create an actual repeatable process.”

Gribben advises using ITIL to make incremental improvements to an IT organization. “Don’t try to do everything all at once,” he wrote in a white paper about his experience at Ohio State. “Start with what is causing sleepless nights and go from there.”

In the case of Ohio State, the biggest pain point was incident management, which involves handling and resolving IT service problems reported by users. “The ITIL process takes you through a reusable set of procedures that allows you to get users up and running again,” said Gribben.

Given that most IT organizations have finite resources, ITIL prompts IT to prioritize incidents according to their impact on the campus as a whole. “Customers will call in to a help desk with a problem and think that their issue is number one,” said Gribben. “I agree with them: From a customer standpoint, their issue is number one and the help desk’s job is to make them feel as if they’re number one. From a true incident perspective, though, you prioritize it based on its impact and its urgency. By doing that, you can dedicate the resources needed to get a particular customer up and running.”

If one person is having trouble with e-mail, for instance, ITIL protocols might lead IT to address the problem immediately but assign perhaps only one person to the task. If the entire e-mail system were to fail, on the other hand, several teams from across the organization might be deployed immediately.

“In the second scenario, there’s money walking out the door because no one on campus can communicate,” explained Gribben. “The impact is higher so the urgency is higher. It’s easy to paint that picture for management when you put it into business terms. ITIL helps us prioritize all of that.”

In Gribben’s eyes, one of the biggest advantages of ITIL is that it pushes IT shops to focus on the needs of the customer. “IT gets a very bad rap because we tend to focus only on the technology,” he said. “If a customer can’t do something but the service is still operating in the background, for instance, an IT guy might say, ‘It’s still working.’ ITIL helps break down this mentality. In provisioning a service, everything is about allowing a customer to utilize it for value.”

The Importance of Process

ITIL also places great emphasis on creating predictable, consistent processes that are thoroughly documented. In today’s complex IT environment, small changes in one service can have unexpected ripple effects that can derail a host of other operations. Without knowing what changes were made and when, it can be extremely difficult to trace problems back to their origins. To help maintain and track these processes and changes, Gribben utilizes knowledge-management systems, often referred to as ticketing systems. “We write out our process, get agreement on it, and then build a tool around the defined process,” he said. “It’s documented, it’s reusable, and you can then teach people how to use the tool.”

In keeping with the best practices advocated by ITIL, Gribben ensures that every process has an owner, someone who is not only accountable for the process but who also has the power to make decisions on its behalf. “The process owner is the one who has the final say,” said Gribben. “It’s their job to say, ‘Yes, let’s move toward this, let’s build toward that, or this is where we find value.'”

The results of implementing ITIL at Ohio State speak for themselves. Since rolling out its incident-management, request-fulfillment, and knowledge-management processes, customer-satisfaction levels at Ohio State have risen from the 77 percent-79 percent range to 93 percent-94 percent, according to Help Desk Institute, a third-party monitor hired by the school. “We can attribute the improvement to the ease with which customers can get the services they need,” said Gribben.

Ultimately, Gribben attributes much of IT’s efficiency gains to ITIL’s relentless focus on creating repeatable processes. “I’m very fond of saying, ‘Work smart, not hard,'” he said. “If I can find a way to get the same results more easily—and I can keep repeating that process—then I’m going to keep doing that.”

Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor with eCampus News.

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