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Making practice perfect in IT service delivery

The north, south, east and west of service delivery

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Workshop The adage “Do as I say, not as I do” is nowhere more true than in delivering effective IT services.

Bookshelves are full of guidance, and indeed, frameworks such as the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) go into considerable depth to explain the whys and wherefores of service delivery best practice.

If it’s all so hard to do however, what are the features that distinguish better IT organisations from the also-rans?

Over the past few years we’ve been researching this question and there is no simple answer. We’re wary of media-friendly ‘celebrity CIO’ types – folks like Paul Coby at BA for example - whose IT organisations seem unable to do any wrong. An amalgam of many research studies suggests that a small proportion of organisations have what we might call ‘front foot IT departments’ – these are the ones for whom new initiatives just work, who are viewed as delivering business advantage by their organisations, and who will inevitably be coaxed by vendors into being case studies whenever a new technology comes to market.

Those in charge of the vast majority of IT organisations work far from the speaker circuit. IT is rarely broken – only a minority really are fire fighting, and the majority are getting just on with the job – dealing with unexpected requirements and challenges, at the same time as keeping the lights on. Every now and then a more significant initiative will take root – we’ve heard a lot recently about server consolidation-through-virtualisation projects for example. In the majority of cases however, changes are more low-key and incremental.

Against this background it is difficult to see practical ways to improve day-to-day operations. All is not lost, however, as we also identified some common principles that don’t require either months-long training courses or business consultants to deliver. The principles can be seen as top/bottom/left/right, or to spice them up a little, the north, south, east and west of service delivery.

At the northernmost point sits senior IT management: the lesson we have learned consistently from our research is the importance of viewing IT as a portfolio of services, rather than an ensemble of systems. To start, you need only to know what’s in your portfolio, who’s using it and what the expectations are. “Simples,” as the meerkat says. Things start to get more complicated when you ask questions like what’s the cost of each service, and what benefit does it deliver to the organisation. However the ‘portfolio’ principle usually leads to more straightforward prioritisation of services, business case development, operational reporting and so on, than thinking in technology terms alone.

Down in the south, we have the people dealing with IT from day to day. We have no evidence that organisational IT is going to change any time soon – storage people will still be storage people, apps managers will manage apps, and so on. What we have identified is the importance of cross-training and skills sharing between different specialisations, for example, getting the storage team up to speed on security challenges, or the networking group more familiar with application requirements.

“Dual skilled” staff is more useful, and more straightforward to consider than the flawed nirvana of multi-skilled teams – IT is just too technically complex, and people are too slow to change, for that.

To the west we have the technology itself. Fundamentally, if you don’t know you’ve got it, you can’t manage it very well – a straightforward exercise (which you may have been putting off, come on admit it) is to review what kit you have out there, what’s running on what and who is using it, versions and dependencies, licensing and so on. Best practices and tools do exist to help make this job easier, but even if tools aren’t available it remains important to keep an up to date picture of what you have.

Finally, in the east we get to the sharp end of IT itself – the point at which IT meets the user. We may obsess about technical gubbins, but from the business user’s perspective IT is little more than a screen, keyboard and phone, and a number to call if something goes wrong. Get these bits wrong and it doesn’t matter how good your storage subsystems are, people will still have a less than favourable perception of IT. I used to do this job, and I know how frustrating it can be to work long hours and still be perceived as providing a poor service. Just as in retail however, IT needs to grit its teeth and say “the customer is always right” however much it grates – and ensure that the ‘user experience’ is as good as it can be, from delivering the right information in the right way, to getting the right staff and support processes in place.

The majority of us may be a long way from celebrity IT status. However, while attaining ITIL level 3 may appear out of reach, there’s still plenty that can be done to make things better in terms of how IT is done, and run, on a day to day basis. If you have any practical tips of your own, we’d love to hear them. ®

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