Watermelon SLAs – making sense of green and red alerts

Often IT SLAs don’t reflect the real service and service experience of users. They also aren’t focused enough on the business results

Green on the outside, but red on the inside – often IT service-level agreements (SLAs) don’t reflect the real service given, nor the service experienced by users.

They also aren’t focused enough on the business results and outcomes needed. How do we avoid this?

One of the big challenges for people in IT organisations is being able to set and measure meaningful and relevant performance targets and key performance indicators (KPIs).

It’s too easy to set up SLA metrics based around IT activities like telephone-support response, system availability and downtime, rather than agreeing realistic and useful measures of business value and success.

SLAs are, of course, very useful components of service delivery and management, although too often they are regarded as the de facto measures of overall service quality. 

This can lead to some self-deception for people working in IT departments, who see delivering green SLAs – hitting their targets – as equal to doing a good job when, in fact, there are still issues causing dissatisfaction for their users and customers.

SLAs should focus on customer needs

It’s a bit like watermelon – this looks to be a large, round and green object when, in fact, the green exterior is thin and hides a completely red fruit inside.

While IT teams think they are doing a great job hitting green targets, their customers view it quite differently and only see red. 

This is often the cause of some deep-seated distrust between IT organisations and their customers, particularly if the IT team blithely trumpet their success via reports that seem to make them look good.

While IT teams think they are doing a great job hitting green targets, their customers view it quite differently and only see red

Barclay Rae, ITSM expert

Too often the SLAs have been pulled out of the air by the IT department and bear little relation to the work of their customer.

As an example, many IT departments use availability as a key metric – this usually refers to system availability of an application and/or server and infrastructure. 

There is usually a high target percentage set, although this tends to ignore actual customer use. So the team may produce 99.6% availability of a system, but as a service the key question would still remain – when is the 0.4% downtime? 

It’s no use hitting high-percentage targets if downtime still causes problems. Focus is shifting from system uptime measurement to service performance – measuring key points when the service is actually needed by customers (the peak working hours between 2pm and 4pm, for example).

Also, IT people like to do cool, techie stuff and sometimes miss the focus on what their customers actually rely on to do their work. 

For example, a global headhunting company had invested in some new IT systems, yet when discussions were held on key business needs – which included email, Microsoft Office (to view CVs) and other standard packages – the IT department didn't consider them important, despite being essential areas that generated financial returns for the business.

Provide a business-focused service

So what do IT people need to do improve the quality of their targets, metrics and reports?

First, it’s essential to engage in discussions at a practical level with business customers. If there is going to be an SLA, the A (agreement) needs to be in place. 

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This doesn’t need to involve resolution times or systems availability. Rather, it should be a discussion around key business activities, as well as key people and teams – to ensure the needs are understood and met.

The other key area for improved SLAs is around the bundling of services, where systems and components are seen as part of a larger group of activities that make up the service. So availability at key times could comprise 20% of a service, support could also equal 20% and customer satisfaction could amount to 30%. 

Plus, it's useful to consider key metrics with the customer that can be used to confirm the overall success of the service delivery – so the key metric might be completion of a financial transaction at a specific time, or an overall process like bank account creation. This allows the customer to define what is important for them – not just what the IT team thinks.

So, for success, IT departments need to engage at a business level, build relationships and get real agreement with customers. They should think of systems and SLAs as components of a service – not the other way round. 

It requires a shift in focus to start thinking of services, rather than just systems.

Barclay Rae is an experienced ITSM leader who has worked on approximately 500 IT Service Management (ITSM) projects over the past 25 years and is well known as a speaker and commentator on all things ITSM.

He delivers strategic consulting and mentoring, as well as media analyst services to the ITSM industry. He created ITSMGoodness – a set of practical steps and guidelines for success.

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