ITIL deeds don't go unpunished

Of carts and horses

Warning: roadworks

It shouldn't be a surprise as to why IT's automation needs often fall to the bottom of the stack: because most companies are not in the technology business, investments in people, processes, or technologies that are designed to improve IT only show up as expenses on the bottom line. And so while IT is the organization that is responsible for helping the rest of the business adopt various automated solutions, IT often goes begging when it comes to investing in its own operational improvements.

That, in a large part, explains the 20-year "overnight success" of ITIL. Conceived as a framework for codifying what IT actually does for a living, the latest revisions of ITIL describe a service lifecycle that provides opportunity for IT to operate more like a services business that develops, markets, and delivers those services to the enterprise as a whole. In other words, it's supposed to elevate areas that used to pass for "help desk" and "systems management" into conversations that could migrate from middle manager to C-level.

Or at least that's what it's supposed to be cracked up to being. If you codify what an IT service is, then define the actions that are involved with every step in its lifecycle, you have the outlines for a business process that could be made repeatable. And as you codify processes, you gain opportunities to attach more consistent metrics that track performance.

We've studied ITIL and have spoken with organizations on their rationale for adoption. Although the hammer of regulatory compliance might look to be the obvious impetus (e.g. if you are concerned about regulations covering corporate governance or protecting the sanctity of customer identity, you want audit trails that include data center operation), we also found that scenarios such as corporate restructuring or merger and acquisition also played a hand. At an ITIL forum convened by IDC in New York last week, we found that was exactly the case for Motorola, Toyota Financial Services, and for Hospital Corp. of America - each of whom sat on a panel to reflect on their experiences.

They spoke of establishing change advisory boards to cut down on the incidence of unexpected changes (that tend to break systems), formalizing all service requests (to reduce common practices of buttonholing), reporting structures (which, not surprisingly for different organizations, varied widely), and what to put in your Configuration Management Database (CMDB) that is stipulated by the ITIL framework as the definitive store defining what you are running and how you are running it.

But we also came across comments that, for all its lofty goals, suggest ITIL could wind up erecting new silos for an initiative that was supposed to break them down. One attendee, from a major investment bank, was concerned that with adoption of the framework would come pressure for certifications that would wind up pigeonholing professionals into discrete tasks, a la Frederick Taylor. Another mused about excessive reliance on arbitrary metrics for the sake of metrics, because that is what looks good in management presentations. Others questioned the idea of whether initiatives, such as adding a change advisory board or adding a layer of what were, in effect, "account representatives" between IT and the various business operating units it solves, would in turn create new layers of bureaucracy.

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