by Mark Settle

Service management: lessons to be learned from the past

Aug 16, 20116 mins
IT LeadershipIT Strategy

I’m not the first commentator to draw comparisons between the military and corporate strategy and it’s often helpful to look at episodes from history to see how intricate plans on large undertakings can go wrong.

Bull Run was the first major battle of the American Civil War, taking place on July 21, 1861. What was expected to be an easy victory for the North became an embarrassing defeat because the army’s plans were unsuitable for the realities on the field.

The Union Army fielded a fighting force of 30,000 men consisting mostly of new recruits with 90 day enlistment periods.

They were supremely confident that they had the training, equipment and leadership needed to defeat the Confederate insurrectionists.

The confidence of the Northern troops was shared by members of Washington’s high society, many of whom had travelled to Bull Run to observe the battle.

The Northern battle plan called for a series of flanking maneuvers that required a high degree of coordination and synchronized timing. Unfortunately, the North was unable to execute its plan and the battle ended in a rout.

By 5PM Northern troops and spectators were streaming back to Washington as an unorganized mob seized by fear of being killed or captured.

The following day President Lincoln signed legislation authorizing the recruitment of 500,000 additional troops with enlistment periods up to three years.

Without implying any disrespect to the individuals who gave their lives in the pursuit of their beliefs at Bull Run, this whole affair strikes me as an eerie analogy to many of the service management campaigns I have witnessed in different IT organizations.

Service management is an overused term that can manifest itself in many different ways. Service management campaigns frequently focus on formalizing and extending existing ITIL practices.

In these instances, IT organizations seek to refine and enforce their internal procedures for managing incidents, problems, releases, service levels, infrastructure capacity and systems availability.

In other instances, service management campaigns are designed to implement fairly narrow and specific workflows that can be requested by individual employees.

IT organizations engaged in these types of initiatives frequently populate their company’s website with a wide variety of user-requested services for ordering mobile devices, obtaining access to systems and triggering customized reports.

The most ambitious service management initiatives seek to articulate the business capabilities enabled by IT systems through the creation of a business service catalog.

In these instances, the fundamental elements of the IT organization — applications, trouble tickets, enhancement requests, staff time and capital investments — are segregated into functional categories that reflect the company’s operating model, not IT’s internal operating model.

Business services such as sales, marketing, supply chain or customer support automation replace IT services such as application development, production support, information security and disaster recovery.

Service quality is expressed in terms of the functionality and resiliency of business capabilities, not the availability and utilization of technical systems.

Business service management initiatives frequently fail to achieve their initial objectives, even though they may be well intended and frequently inspired by lofty ideals.

In all-too-many cases, they end in a rout much like the Union retreat at Bull Run.

– The battle plan was drawn up in a short period of time – It was overly complex, particularly in light of the limited battlefield experience of the Union commanders – The drilling that had occurred on parade grounds in suburban DC failed to prepare the troops for the conditions that they encountered in the field – Communications across multiple levels of command under battlefield conditions was dreadfully inadequate, inconsistent and mistimed – The North had the men and equipment it needed to be successful but at the end of the day the Union commanders failed to put the right people in the right places at the right time

The similarities to failed service management campaigns are embarrassingly obvious.

Such crusades are typically launched with overly complicated plans requiring significant amounts of organizational coordination and synchronized changes to longstanding organizational practices.

The foot soldiers in these campaigns are frequently asked to leave their normal jobs for 90 to 120 days to implement plans largely designed by others.

They are given expensive new tools but the table top exercises conducted prior to the go live date can leave them woefully unprepared for the practical problems encountered during enterprise-wide implementations of new practices.

The leaders of service management initiatives are frequently self-confident zealots with strong personal beliefs in the righteousness of their cause and their own leadership capabilities.

They assure their company’s executives that the campaign will be an easy victory that will produce both short term and long term business benefits.

The Battle of Bull Run has several lessons to teach any IT organization seeking to introduce or enhance a service management framework.

IT organizations cannot develop service management aptitudes over short periods of time through one or two events.

A commitment to service management, in any of its varied forms, is a commitment to a new way of interacting with IT’s business clients as well as a new way of doing business internally among the technical tribes that make up any IT organization.

The IT industry is in the early stages of abandoning the own-and-operate model it has used in the past to deliver IT capabilities to its business clients.

We are migrating to a new model in which IT organizations will broker and integrate a variety of technical capabilities and present them to our clients as business services.

Future IT managers will integrate IT capabilities from systems that are owned and on-premise, owned and off-premise, not-owned and on-premise and not-owned and off-premise.

Frankly, our business clients don’t particularly care who owns the hardware and software in IT’s technical portfolio or where it is located. They simply want to buy business services, not IT capabilities.

Business service management competencies will be essential to successfully manage IT in the new broker-and-integrate world.

Getting from where we are today to where we need to be in the future will feel like a series of battles to most IT leadership teams.

To prepare for those battles, every IT executive should take a few minutes to reconsider the lessons of Bull Run.

Mark Settle is CIO at BMC Software and a former CIO for Visa International

Pic: terren in Virginiacc2.0