Implementing ITIL

The state of Michigan's gradual rollout of ITIL's best practices has eased growing pains.

How do you convince your network and IT professionals to adopt "best practices" when they think they already have them? Simply, selectively, realistically and patiently, says Robert McDonough, IT manager for process development and support for the state of Michigan in Lansing.

"There's only so much change you can inflict on folks at any one time," McDonough says.

Last January, the state's 2,000-person IT department began using parts of the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL). ITIL is a set of best practices meant to ease IT management  pain by creating uniform, well-documented processes for tasks such as problem identification and resolution, hardware or network changes, software updates and disaster recovery.

But ITIL lacks a set of best practices for its own adoption, so McDonough's team worked out their own.

"We were trying to change the culture," he says. "We started out with the idea of learning a common language [for IT processes]. That let us insert ITIL in a manageable way."

Cataloging change

"Too often, IT departments become their own worst enemies," McDonough says. "Something breaks and we fix it, and then that fix breaks something else. We wanted to formalize the process so we're not trying to upgrade a server at the same time someone else is trying to back it up."

The Michigan team found in one case that on-call staff were repeatedly - albeit promptly and efficiently - fixing a server that consistently lost connectivity during the night, which pushed up the state's overtime bill. But because there was no consistent way to capture this data and identify a persistent problem, the root cause of the disconnections was never addressed.

ITIL-based problem resolution identified the cause and created a permanent fix. The state is saving thousands of dollars just in this one case, McDonough says. As yet, there's no overall savings estimates, but ITIL has dramatically reduced the number of changes gone bad. All changes now are scheduled and visible, and changes are only approved if they have a "back-out plan" - a process for restoring the system to its original state if the change fails for any reason.

Because ITIL focuses on best practices, it lends itself to an approach of small steps. One of McDonough's first small steps was forming a cross-disciplinary team of IT workers. The goal was to create what he calls a "consistent baseline" - a standard description of the current processes in the IT department. He focused on incidents or events that affect the quality of a given IT service, such as e-mail, and on problems, which ITIL defines as a recurring incident patterns.

"ITIL will say, 'Here are the best practices for organizing this process, here's what you need, who you need, and here's how information should flow between the various people and groups,'" says Jean-Pierre Garbani, vice president at Forrester Research. "You can start with this and then adopt or adapt ITIL to other processes in the IT group."

The ITIL terminology gave the Michigan team a common language and set of concepts, which was the foundation for the next step: looking at the gap between current practices for a given process and those ITIL recommends.

Adopting ITIL calls for realism and diplomacy. "You're asking someone to work differently," says Loy Allen, leader of global infrastructure services consulting for Perot Systems. "This isn't just about processes and tools, but the people who use them. That's almost always the most challenging part."

To deal with that challenge, McDonough's group came up with the idea first of "ITIL Lite" and then "ITIL Ultralite."

In both cases, the idea was to take the ITIL elements most relevant to the state IT group's challenges - incident, problem and change management. "We wanted to avoid push back," McDonough says.

So for example, instead of collecting all the data for an ITIL "problem record," the Michigan record has just three parts: description of the incident, results of the root cause analysis and the proposed solution. Rolling out Ultralite went smoothly, and the team has added more elements so that the IT department is now almost at the Lite version. This brings in a greater emphasis on configuration management.

High-level help

Winning high-level support is a vital part of a successful and sustained ITIL implementation, says Steve Day, a business development manager at Pink Elephant, an ITIL consultancy. "We get the executives in a room on Day 1 and tell them what we're doing, and why, to get their buy-in," he says.

For McDonough, that level of backing coalesced near the end of the three-month rollout. The ITIL team built some Web pages that showed a status board of all IT incidents reported, the completed and pending responses, and the status and schedule of all changes. These pages are the heart of the ITIL-inspired daily 7:30 a.m. conference call. "A lot of problems can be resolved right there," McDonough says.

Operations staff select a subset of the key changes that need to be seen by executive management outside the IT group and move these to a separate Web board, with summaries written plainly for a non-technical audience. Sometimes, that audience includes the governor.

Persuading IT to embrace ITIL can build on existing strengths in existing processes and professionalism. "There is no view in the ITIL community that 'it's all ITIL or nothing,'" says James Kerrigan, business development manager for FoxIT, a consulting company that also specializes in service management. "Strong existing processes can be plugged into ITIL."

So can strong IT staff. "These folks are very interested in delivering good service to their clients," McDonough says. "Telling them 'you guys aren't doing a good job' just won't cut it. You sell ITIL in those terms: to bring better value to the client or customer."

ITIL adoption

Learn more about this topic

American ITIL: Best practices win converts

The IT Infrastructure Library, a set of management best practices that has long been popular in Europe, finally is starting to make waves in the U.S. Network World, 08/30/04.

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