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Digitisation propels the service management desk beyond internal support

The IT service desk is set to break out as businesses expand their digital ambitions with software-powered services

There used to be an advert in the late 1990s in which a company’s e-commerce site failed and the CEO asks: "Who is responsible?" Website failures – such as the spikes that occur during peak sales promotion periods – are a way of life for IT people; but their lives are about to get altogether more complicated – especially when, as businesses launch more digital services, those services impinge on traditional IT.

An IT service management (ITSM) strategy, working in the IT infrastructure library (ITIL) service framework, is somewhat constrained in modern business, where employees increasingly use their own devices and software is built around microservices, cloud services and DevOps.

Speaking at the ITSM Leadership Council in July, Mark Hall, director of global IT operations at Aviva, said there had never been a greater need for ITSM. "The shape, role and boundaries of ITSM are no longer clear nor is its relationship to a changing world," he said.

According to Hall, IT support needs to act more rapidly than ever before to satisfy customer demand, with less formal process and more interaction and collaboration with a broad range of partners and stakeholders.

Chris Williams, director of service management at EE, says: "As well as traditional skills, we need ‘solutions integrators’ and great communicators. We need people with a deep understanding of the commercial aspects of the businesses we support, who are highly adaptive and can predict the rapidly evolving environment we work in. This means we need to radically change the way we identify talent, recruit and develop our people."

The challenge of the internet of things

When the business starts exposing internal systems to the outside world or develops digital services, it has the potential to touch back-end systems and can expose back-office IT. For instance, unless a businesses explicitly chooses not to offer support for the open data and APIs it publishes, third-party developers and data aggregators will expect support.

The business needs to consider how the role of the helpdesk will change. As more consumer devices ship with IP connectivity, how quickly will tech support be able to answer questions related to the highly heterogeneous environment in people’s homes?

For example, while Philips provides its own software and hub for its Hue lighting range, there are third-party apps and services such as IFTTT – a web-based service that allows users to create chains of simple conditional statements, which are triggered based on changes to other web services – that enable them to be used in ways the original equipment manufacturer may not have even considered.

Aligning service delivery and business

Chris Pick is president of the Technology Business Management (TBM) Council, a trade association which began three and a half years ago with the goal of developing standards to enable IT to collaborate better with the business.

He says: "CIOs implement ITIL and service delivery – but we feel there is a fundamental disconnect between IT and the business partners." The TBM council noticed the metrics IT departments use to manage internal workings is divorced from language the business easily understands.

"Fundamentally IT is regarded as a black box which operates in a completely opaque way. Money goes in and you don’t understand the value that comes out," says Pick.

Instead, IT departments need to re-organise themselves, from focusing on a plan-build-run technique of working to extending IT services to business partners, says Pick. “You want to drive technology out into the business.”

He argues that the IT department often does not know the cost of running the service. The CIO and IT department need to relate the delivery of IT services to business outcomes. Pick adds: "Cost, quality and value are the trade-offs."

There is a general consensus among industry experts that IT service management cannot keep pace with today’s business demands. Gartner research fellow Steve Prentice says: "There is an evolution happening in traditional IT." While IT used to be managed and progressed at a steady pace, that pace has accelerated.

"A year is a lifetime. The old approaches worked well and gave stability; but now you have to keep the old systems running and you need to support a new app on iPhone and Galaxy S6. This is a challenge to most organisations."

The answer, to employ Gartner’s terminology, is “bimodal thinking”. Prentice says: "You may have a bug in a 15-year-old mainframe system or a user coming along and saying: ‘I have just upgraded the firmware on my Samsung Galaxy S5.’"

The latter forces IT to think on the fly. “The user has an expectation you will actually fix the problem. If you don’t have an amicable response, the user dismisses the value of the IT organisation and that will drive shadow IT,” says Prentice.

Similarly, supporting the internet of things (IoT) will pose new challenges in terms of technical support (see panel on next page).

It is a challenge that not only affects the way IT supports internal staff, but also customers and business partners who access the IT systems. An e-commerce site helpdesk might help customers place orders with expertise in the merchandise. But to provide technical support for the equipment a customer uses to access the website requires an altogether different mindset: For example, the app may not work on older iPhones or Android devices.

Monitoring to improve service

The quality assurance team, testers and developers have an arsenal of tools to target coding bugs, but bug-fixing is not normally part of the ITSM process. Analyst Forrester recommends linking ITSM tools to defect-tracking tools.

"When the service is released to production, you should log any issues in the ITSM tool as incidents or, if repeated, problems. The details on what was happening at the time of the incident should be automatically logged in the defect-tracking system for application developers to easily track and fix the defect, without waiting for operations professionals to formally pass on the incident," Forrester analyst Amy DeMartine wrote in the report, Gear up for modern service delivery.

The platform in use at the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has undergone a major shift, from being organised around products, to one where the technology team can share the know-how across products – and this shift has changed the way products are supported and improved.

Sharon Cooper, CIO at the BMJ, says: "In terms of digitisation, we are in a good place. We have a process in place that works, allowing us to deliver a lot of change and product development." For example, she says one of the products BMJ launched this year took 10 weeks to release: "A year ago it would have taken us 12 months," she says.

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Monitoring its applications gives the BMJ a way to prioritise software fixes and updates. "By being more proactive we can see things are going wrong before customers tell us something is wrong, which allows us to be much more efficient," Cooper adds.

Among the tools the BMJ uses is AppDynamics, which helps the organisation monitor the performance of the products it develops. Cooper says: "AppDynamics tells us what’s going on and where we should be tuning. It gives us the insight to make evidence-based decisions."

The BMJ also uses such proactive monitoring to prioritise software projects. Cooper says: "AppDynamics can be shared among non-technical people, to help analyse application traffic in real time, giving us the ability to decide how our applications should be developed."

The evolution of ITSM

In the past IT helpdesks dealt with known assets: Desktop PCs, servers, user configurations and so on. When the IT service management desk took a call, it had a grasp of the environment causing the problem. But, as the IT Service Management Forum (ITSMF) recognises, today there are just too many devices for such certainty. Organisations that have tried to govern and control the IT environment now need to make sure they can provide support for every type of device.

Clearly this is impractical and needs a rethink. It is a similar story with software. The concept of a management system that logs all application configurations deployed looks antiquated in the fast-paced world of continuous development and agile project management. Hybrid cloud applications and the use of microservices makes IT infrastructure more of a challenge to manage than in the past.

As TBM’s Pick warns, CIOs will need to determine the cost of operating IT services as the business becomes more digitised and starts consuming IT services to drive new business initiatives.

This was first published in September 2015

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