To achieve joined-up IT, Unilever decided on the challenging solution of implementing ITIL across the global business. Helen Beckett discovers the secrets of Unilever’s successful integration.
ITIL has come of age and is making the leap from being a clutch of worthy standards to a practical tool for delivering IT efficiently. While ITIL stands for IT Infrastructure Library, its reach is more profound than its name suggests, and enthusiasts say it changes organisations too.
Consumer goods company Unilever is busy finalising its worldwide implementation of ITIL to enable a move from federated to centralised IT. Earlier this year the Anglo Dutch firm reported a 6% increase in net profits for its first quarter, despite having made shock profit warnings in 2004.
The turnaround follows a switch in strategy from autonomous businesses selling their own products, to regional business units doing a portfolio sell. “The only way to achieve one view of the new mega business was to have one view of the supporting IT infrastructure,” says Geoff Thirlwall, vice-president of IT services at Unilever Europe.
ITIL, a toolkit of processes defined for IT service management and delivery, was adopted as it enabled a joined-up approach instead of servicing IT from silos.
The extent of the challenge of integrating IT was not underestimated, however. “Unilever is comprised of a group of brands and previously inclined to the federated model, where individual companies were supported by their own IT,” says Julie-Alison Murray, programme manager for Prism, the Unilever project to standardise and deliver business processes.
But the potential rewards were too great too ignore. “There was the opportunity to be more efficient in IT departments by working in a common manner. A regional supply chain increases purchasing power for example,” says Murray.
Also, the ability to deliver a consistent service across the entire business and identify hotspots depends upon using consistent language and a single framework, says Thirlwall.
Prism was the outcome of these deliberations, and the project eventually went on to be joint winner of the Project of the Year Award at the itSMF Awards in November 2005.
The project’s initial goals, however, were to design and implement six integrated processes across the organisation, enabling IT to deliver common, affordable, consistent, reliable and scalable services to the business. “ITIL was a great place to start,” says Murray.
After meeting other ITIL users at the IT Service Management forums, however, Unilever realised that successful ITIL implementation depended upon the ability to change behaviour.
“It is not about writing and implementing processes, but about changing the way that people work,” says Murray. This would not be achieved by incremental or organic change, but by strong leadership. Murray’s trump card was therefore to have the buy-in of the global CIO.
At the launch of Prism, Murray arrived armed with a video of global CIO Neil Cameron, who explained why the programme was important to the future of Unilever and why everyone needed to play their part.
“Some people came to the meeting with a look on their face of ‘I’ll see if it is for me’ and, after hearing the CIO’s message left knowing it was going to happen,” Murray says. To remove any lingering doubts, Cameron made every regional vice-president accountable for the roll out of Prism.
Picking the right people to champion the change programme was also essential. “It might have seemed logical to use process specialists to lead the project given it was a project about processes. In fact, the people found to be most suitable were senior, very respected and big personalities.” The process experts in turn became Prism team leaders in territories.
Customising ITIL for Prism proved straightforward. Although government methods such as Prince2 have the reputation for being heavy-duty tomes, the ITIL templates were succinct, says Murray. “It was not overly complicated and we did not have to strip much out. We had to strip out our own processes though.”
Unilever was using a mix of methods including ISO 9000, different versions of ITIL and proprietary methods.
However out-of-the-box the ITIL processes, they were useless until they were designed, or adapted to Unilever. This entailed agreeing what constituted a ‘configuration item’ and the policies that would evoke different actions within the process.
“For example, we had to decide whether configuration items existed at server, component or service level,” says Murray.
A server can be logged as a single logical item or as its various multiple components such as hard drives and software, for example.
Unilever decided to create configuration items at server level with components of the server as attributes. These configuration items are then linked through “relationships” to each other to define systems and services.
These conversations entailed “leaving all baggage at the door”, but were essential to provide the context for the processes. Simplicity was the key. “You are more likely to have a successful configuration management database if you keep it simple – once you gain maturity it becomes possible to expand it,” says Murray.
Crucially, the processes had to be designed to achieve level four of the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) from Carnegie Mellon University, which specifies integration. Unilever deemed that it needed to reach level four compliance by the end of 2006, an upgrade of at least one level from Unilever’s existing performance.
This goal was not driven by commercial considerations so much as the need to have a professional framework in place, according to Thirlwall. CMM provides an external benchmark for measuring the performance of processes.
“The IT function needs to run to professional standards in the same way that our accounts department does. This is not an optional extra – it is a minimum professional standard.”
Clear communication was again important as the company moved to the more global model and different cultures were exposed to each other.
Murray had seen the potential for misunderstanding on an earlier centralisation project. “The North Americans and British are very different even though they use the same language.”
Spotting and bridging the differences that exist in a diverse organisation was an early and major task. Unilever brought in external consultants Pink Roccade and Pink Elephant at the outset to do “gap analysis”.
“Some big things came out of this – most important of which was that the lack of a common service management toolset was a real inhibitor,” says Murray.
At the time, different varieties of system management were deployed around the organisation, including different versions of Remedy, Hewlett-Packard’s Openview and homemade tool cobbled out of Excel and other databases.
“Even the different versions of Remedy were not capable of joining up because they had been so configured,” says Murray.
Because Remedy was widely known and deployed, Unilever had no hesitation in selecting it as the ITIL-ready management tool. The steering board of Prism made the important decision that Remedy should not be used to police the use of the processes, but to support people in their new working practices.
“Even if procedures are locked down people can find ways of breaking them,” says Murray.
Furthermore, “locking down” calls for greater configuration makes upgrades more difficult. “As much as possible we wanted to keep it out of the box,” says Murray.
For that reason, the only processes that are now locked down are the ones approved by auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers, that relate to finance and audit trails for Sarbanes-Oxley compliance.
To date, Prism has been rolled out across Unilever business units in Europe, North America and the Middle East and Asia. Latin America uses the same processes, but they are managed through Siebel because of an existing outsourcing arrangement. However, when that territory needs to link into anything global, staff simply plug into Remedy, says Murray.
Cost savings within regions accompany the more mature processes, says Thirlwall. “There is cost avoidance on information lifecycle management. Buying hardware in advance means it can be purchased at a better price.”
Similarly, since IT functions can be supported on a global scale, capacity management can be done on a grander scale, rather than project by project, which also brings economies.
ITIL has exceeded Unilever’s expectations in the scope and vision it brings. “The biggest misunderstanding about ITIL is created by the second ‘I’ for infrastructure,” says Thirlwall.
ITIL goes beyond infrastructure and reaches to application development and support. “It is about end-to-end, but it means effectiveness has to be designed in at the outset.”
Think of ITIL as being about better system and service management and it becomes confined to how you run a helpdesk. However, Unilever has found that ITIL can enable an announcement of the sale of a frozen food company in Germany to be made with greater confidence.
This broadness calls for new behaviours and skills from IT staff around the world. “You start to understand how service delivery and problem management affects everyone – and this broadens your thinking beyond the traditional service silos,” says Thirlwall.
For example, when the IT department builds a SAP system, it is thinking not just about programming interfaces, but about disaster recovery and responsiveness from the outset.
In practical terms, this means that IT departments previously focused on technology have been reorganised to deal with issues such as capacity and availability.
“In the past a team may have been responsible for maintaining Wintel or Unix platforms – now a capacity team will deal with the two,” says Thirlwall.
The toughest part of Prism was managing heavy-duty change within a given resource. “You have to do your day job at the same time –and stay within budget,” says Thirlwall. Implementing ITIL as a project was essential to ensure it happened, but now it is a way of life.
What is prism?
Prism is a set of common processes and practices for Unilever IT for six areas: incident, problem, change, configuration, release and service level management. Prism has also supported legislative compliance regulations by ensuring all processes are Sarbanes-Oxley compliant.
What is ITIL?
The IT Infrastructure Library is a series of documents used to aid the implementation of a framework for IT service management. The framework is customisable and defines how service management is applied within an organisation.
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This was first published in August 2006