Nottingham Building Society is in the process of adopting a business-oriented approach to service level management, which will link the performance of IT systems and services directly to business activities.
The decision to move in this direction was taken by IT director Jack Cutts, who was taken on by the firm about two-and-a-half years ago to update its core mortgage systems.
Initial work involved stabilising existing systems before undertaking a complete IT infrastructure refresh, which included introducing systems management products for the first time.
"There was no monitoring in the organisation at all, so the only time we knew there was an issue was when users or customers told us. But we've got finite resources to spend on IT and we wanted to move the balance away from support-and-fix to adding value. So we felt that the more proactive we could be about things, the more effective that shift would be," Cutts says.
As a result the building society, which employs more than 500 staff, rolled out service level management (SLM) applications from Nimsoft and built a graphical dashboard to pictorially represent 12 monitoring areas, one of which included the firms 32 branches.
The next stage in the process, however, will be to introduce business-driven service level agreements (SLAs) based on asking senior business managers 10 key questions about how they wish their IT services to be delivered. Topics will include 'are the right systems available when you need them to be?' and 'are support staff courteous?'.
Cutts explains the rationale, "If I ask the head of marketing, for example, are you happy with your systems being available 99.99 per cent of the time, they'll probably say 'yes'. But if I say 'so it's OK if I take the system down every 13 days for an hour at 12pm?', they're not likely to be so happy."
The problem with SLAs in this context, he says, is that they "sometimes drive the wrong behaviours and if they're too top level, they could be causing customer dissatisfaction." This is not least because "if you ask the business what level of availability they want, they won't necessarily understand the question. So you can pick something that makes you look successful, but that takes away trust".
Moreover, he adds, while "you can create statistics to prove anything, it doesn't mean you're providing a good service or that the customer thinks you're doing a good job". As a result, the questions are intended to act as a discussion point to enable "each department to create their own way of assessing whether we are doing a good job".
"We have numbers around things like availability to help them make the call, but sometimes it's the softer stuff that you don't get to hear about. So if we're getting six out of 10 from one department, we can ask them what their issues are and drive up the SLAs as they become more focused and targeted," Cutts explains.
The openness of the discussion process, he believes, will, in turn, help to create better relationships between the business and IT. "If they're consistently giving you a low mark, they have to justify that, but if they mark us 10 out of 10 each time, they can't really complain. But it's not about a numbers game, it's about making things better," he says.
Cutts warns, however, that it is only possible to adopt such an approach if the IT department is providing a good basic service and has suitable monitoring tools in place. He also believes that the IT team needs to be provided with incentives to carry through on any changes.
"I'm putting SLA performance into my personal objectives and that of my team because if they're not linked in, there's no reason to engage. It shows my real commitment to this approach as I don't feel that you can do this kind of thing half-heartedly," he concludes.