Do not follow prescribed frameworks blindly, says Aidan Lewes. Understand underlying principles and adapt methods for your business to maximise return on investment
The term best practice generally refers to the best possible way of doing something. It was popularised in the 1980s through Tom Peters’ books on business management, although there is some momentum behind using good practice as a preferred term, since it does not imply that no further innovation or revision is required.
Whichever term you prefer, the essence of the concept is about “an accepted way of doing things that works”.
The idea behind best practice is to create a specification for what is accepted by a wide community as being the best approach for any given situation. Then, one can compare job performance to these best practices and determine if either the job performance was lacking in quality, or if the specification for best practices needs updating to include the job performance being graded. Enterprises deploying systems based upon best practice will therefore, in theory, have an optimal solution.
However, although enterprises may have great similarities in terms of the functions that they need to perform, there is always going to be a wide spectrum of factors that are different from one enterprise to another. These will have a significant bearing upon the way in which an enterprise needs to implement a system in order to achieve success.
The truth is that best or good practice should not be seen as something that can be “implemented”. Each enterprise needs to fully understand the principles that underlie the approach, so that they can adapt and adopt them as appropriate for their enterprise. Just blindly following the documented way is no guarantee of success – indeed it is highly likely to lead to failure.
In the field of IT service management, the recognised best practice is documented in a set of volumes known as the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL). This is the accumulated, aggregated and filtered view of hundreds of practitioners of the processes they have implemented which have worked and delivered proven value.
And although the publications are formulated in the context of managing IT services, the processes that are defined are exactly the ones that are required for the effective management of any service. Like many other best practice approaches, ITIL has spread throughout the IT community worldwide and is now accepted universally.
Enterprises come to the realisation that they need to embrace such an approach in different ways. Sometimes the catalyst is external, sometimes from within.
In the case of IT service management, the drivers may come from the business side seeking a more consistent, higher quality and/or more cost-effective service, a need to meet regulatory compliance, or simply recognising that a competitor or peer is achieving more through such deployments.
Alternatively, the IT department itself may recognise that it needs to improve the quality of service – not least to protect itself from a knee-jerk outsourcing exercise.
The result will be some form of service improvement programme involving multiple and continuous communication, investment in education and training, and possibly consultancy and technology.
Service improvement programmes are invariably about culture change and, by and large, people do not like change, so it takes real management effort and commitment to see the programme through.
Altogether it can add up to a significant investment, so there needs to be a real return. This means that it is essential to define what you are trying to achieve and the benefits that will accrue, benchmark where you are at the outset, and develop a plan of how to make the journey.
As the programme unfolds, progress must be checked to ensure that the sought-for value is being delivered. That value must be expressed as a business value. Making a change that reduces costs in IT, but causes huge user dissatisfaction and delivers nothing extra, is highly unlikely to result in true, sustainable business value.
Enterprises seeking to measure the value need to think wider. What does reducing the number of repeat calls to the service desk translate to in increased productivity in the business? What competitive advantage is gained by introducing changes that work correctly, first time? What is the effect on customer retention of the service always being available when they want? Although identifying the value may be challenging, it most definitely should be there.
People often ask about the return on investment. In most cases, trying to measure the return on investment on a service improvement programme in isolation is pointless. The real long-term value is in the total return on investment achieved across all IT-related investments – including future developments that may not be on the drawing board yet.
Best practice is not a panacea or even a prescription for how to do something. Embracing best practice makes sense, not least because it provides a starting point and a framework for the development of the enterprise’s own systems. But use ITIL – and all best practice – wisely. As Oscar Wilde said, “Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools.”
Aidan Lawes is chief executive at the IT Service Management Forum