By Mathew Schwartz
Is it time to run IT like a business?
Instead of providing the same level of service to everyone, many
executives would prefer to see their technology pros provide more
high-quality, business-focused services – and charge for actual
But to run IT like a business, “you need to understand who your customers are, and what services you are providing to these customers to help them achieve their objectives,” says Evelyn Hubbert, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. “Without this, it’s very difficult to improve processes that define how to deliver and support these IT services.”
Accordingly, some organizations have been pursuing ITIL to help them define and deliver more customer-focused (aka business-focused) services, and to create the associated service catalogs – lists of standard services available, including their cost. At the same time, a related role has been emerging to manage the design, release, maintenance and quality of these services: the service catalog manager.
A service catalog, according to ITSM Portal, is “a database or structured document with information about all live IT services, including those available for deployment.” That may sound simple, but building, maintaining and “selling” these service catalogs takes a diverse business/IT skill set.
Among other things, you’ll need “a customer focus with strong organizational, project management, and conceptual design skills to lead multidisciplinary teams,” says Hubbert. Communication, negotiation and financial skills are also key. Business units, after all, must want to purchase specific services on offer.
Creating the IT Storefront
When service catalogs work well, they provide IT with a way to sell tiered services and charge for actual usage. But “if they have obscure, very technically focused services,” expect businesspeople to question why they should pay, says Lisa Erickson-Harris, research director of IT finance for Enterprise Management Associates in Boulder, Colo.
So rather than building hundreds of services, focus on maintaining a core group that are mission-critical and business-focused. One way to do this is to identify your organization’s primary mission – perhaps business development, the customer service frontline, product rollout – and then target the first group of services accordingly.
Not every organization stands to benefit from using service catalogs. One IT manager at a midsize business, for example, says that she’s avoided them because “the IT group pays for everything and the dollars are allocated out at the end of the year based on headcount, regardless of services utilized.” In other words, no financial incentive currently exists for the IT group to invest in service catalogs to recoup costs.
In contrast, the centralized IT group at her previous company, which supported 20,000 employees, did “offer basic services and then gold/silver/bronze levels based on what the business unit was willing to pay.”
The State of Service Catalogs
Is service catalog management a hot job? EMA’s Erickson-Harris cautions that many organizations have hit the pause button. “If we rewound to maybe three years ago, the service catalog was becoming a really hot area, right on the heels of the ITIL CMDB (configuration management database).” But when the economy tanked, many organizations put their catalogs on hold.
Currently, most organizations are focusing on “low-hanging fruit” such as “service desk, IT financial planning, cost modeling, financial transparency,” and in some cases, chargebacks, she says. In contrast, “the service catalog is much more strategic,” because it gives IT visibility into the value that it’s providing to an organization.
Preparing for Service Catalogs
On the other hand, Erickson-Harris predicts service catalogs are due for a comeback, perhaps in 2011. So if the position – a blend of business and financial acumen, with a strong service focus and IT smarts – interests, master the related skills now. “If professionals wait until they know it’s a hot area, and then backtrack to make sure their skills match, they’re too late.”
Mat Schwartz is a business and technology writer in Pennsylvania.