Achieving IT Process Nirvana with ITIL

Does your company tap the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL)? Organizations are increasingly embracing ITIL, a pragmatically focused IT framework, to improve the efficiency of their IT operations while reducing IT costs. Learn how ITIL can help your organization.

By Mathew Schwartz


Would you like to improve your organization’s IT service and support efficiency, reduce costs, better know which applications or systems to keep or retire, and ensure employees only make authorized changes to IT systems?

Driven by such concerns, one U.S.-based options-trading company decided to implement the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a framework which helps organizations improve their IT operations. Now, about nine months into the ITIL implementation, the firm has already streamlined various IT processes and can better track IT problems, approvals and changes – down to individual IT assets, such as servers. This helps staff investigate any IT problem the firm cares about “because it will cost us money if we don’t handle it in a proactive manner,” says the company’s head of software development, speaking on condition of anonymity because the firm¿s IT practices are a competitive secret.

What’s next in its ITIL implementation? He says “at some point we want to say, ‘For a certain series of issues, we’ve spent 100 consulting hours – so why are we spending so much money, and how might we lower the cost of IT service?'”

The financial firm isn’t alone in its pursuit of ITIL to answer such questions. Increasingly, organizations are turning to IT frameworks to refine their existing IT change, release, incident, and service level processes. As Forrester Research analyst Alex Cullan notes, “the efficient and effective delivery of IT services is an obvious goal for every organization, and process models, such as the one documented by ITIL, provide a set of common definitions and descriptions that can be used as a starting point for an improvement program.”

All told, companies can select from a variety of IT governance, operations, or control frameworks, including ITIL, COBIT (control objectives for information and related technology); various controls and frameworks from the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission (COSO), and Six Sigma. Yet according to a recent survey of which IT best practice frameworks over 100 companies are pursuing, ITIL was the favorite by two to one, with COBIT and Six Sigma tying for second place.

Improving IT Operations

What accounts for ITIL’s popularity? “Partially it’s because it works; the disciplines ITIL covers come from over 20 years of experience, from the mainframe on down,¿ says Andi Mann, a senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, which conducted the survey.

Unlike many frameworks which focus on higher-level governance issues, ITIL has a more nuts-and-bolts goal: specifically to improve “IT service, stability, and availability,” says Mann. The framework does this by helping companies manage all of their IT-related incidents, changes, configurations, and service levels. Take change management: “It gives you a closed-loop change management process, to ensure the changes are authorized, and that they happen as they’re meant to happen, so you always know the status of items, and that you’re only acting on authorized change,” he says.

Pursuing ITIL helps companies automate and improve existing IT processes, decrease management requirements, provide better service, reduce costs, and redirect staff toward activities that generate more revenue. Companies can use ITIL to manage almost any IT activity, from changing custom-built application source code and updating the client builds used to image new PCs, to altering IT policies and procedures and migrating servers to a new operating system.

Some companies are also utilizing ITIL to help comply with various regulations. Under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, for example, some public companies must guarantee the integrity of their financial data. As a result, many have begun using ITIL to put controls in place to ensure, for starters, that developers only make approved and audited code changes to the applications and databases storing the company¿s financial information.

Overcoming ITIL Challenges

What types of challenges will organizations face when attempting to implement ITIL? According to a Forrester Research survey of 62 European firms that pursued ITIL, the top three challenges encountered during implementation were internal resistance to change (52 percent), business units and internal staff not being prepared for the change (29 percent), and related costs scuttling the project (11 percent). Notably, one in five firms reported encountering no significant challenges.

Regardless, all ITIL implementations do require a serious investment in time, money and training, and they won¿t happen overnight, especially because the framework is “descriptive, not prescriptive,” says Mann. In other words, ITIL offers suggestions, without telling companies exactly what to do. “It nudges you in the right direction, but ultimately it’s your environment and tools which will actually shape what the implementation will look like,” says the head of software development at the aforementioned financial firm.

Some Business Rationale Required

Of course, typically something about a particular IT environment drives companies towards ITIL in the first place. “If something is going to happen, it¿s probably by need – or at least we find that in financial services,” he says. For example, his firm began pursuing ITIL after adopting source code management software which offers ITIL-friendly templates. Beyond just improving source code control, however, the company’s ultimate goal is to better manage all IT assets, provide faster service, and decrease IT costs.

The firm’s secret for ITIL success – as with so many IT projects – has been strong backing from IT leaders, and a focus on the small operational changes needed today to achieve larger business goals in the future. “Someone has to really believe in a ‘we want to know everything that¿s changing in the environment, and we want traceability around that,'” he says. In addition, “you have to be extremely diligent in not only supporting the tools, but also the people and training aspect, and be prepared to do that for a really long period of time.”

Mathew Schwartz writes about business and technology from Pennsylvania.