by Allen Bernard

Can Social Media Make ITSM Fun Again?

Jun 24, 20136 mins
BPM SystemsITILSystem Management

Social interfaces are changing the very nature of IT service management, with internal toolsets and icon-driven service platforms helping users and IT departments manage the extended enterprise.

In yet another example of consumer technology driving enterprise IT innovation, IT Service Management (ITSM) vendors are embracing Facebook-like social interfaces in order to connect customers with their constituents—employees, customers, partners and suppliers—in ways that fundamentally change the nature and meaning of service management.

“Like so many things today, it’s being driven by the end user&hellup;comfortable with Facebook or Twitter or IM or Skype,” says George Spalding, vice president of ITSM consultancy Pink Elephant and co-author of the ITIL V3 Continual Service Improvement core volume. “If IT blocks them, which some organizations do, then IT is viewed as the Luddites.”

Longtime service desk players such as ServiceNow, BMC Software and FrontRange, as well as newcomers such as ITinvolve, are leveraging not just social interfaces but the entire concept of social to let people interact with IT and, in some cases, the rest of the organization. This Web 3.0 interaction—Web 2.0 plus social media—is something portals, FAQ pages and self-service Intranet sites could never do.

BMC, which rolled out its social ITSM platform, MyIT, in April, is betting that people will embrace object-orientated interfaces that literally use floor plans and maps to guide them. If a printer, copier or projector is having problems, for example, users can touch its icon on their iOS device (Android support is coming this summer), and up pops a list of action items such as “call service desk” or “get information about device.” Whatever information—or people—the organization wants attached to a particular point of interest is what users will see.

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MyIT can also include location-aware services: Which conference rooms are free, where to find a particular ECG machine in a hospital, as well as whether it’s in use, down for maintenance or on lease, or, for the Department of Defense, where a tank is hiding, says Jason Frye, CTO of Mobility for BMC.

The whole idea is to improve efficiency by reducing friction between users and the services they need to do their jobs, he says. “We pull together a whole series of discrete items and put them together for end users,” he says.

ITinvolve also leans on the concept of objects to provide users with interactivity at the point of need. “The measurement of the value of this kind of approach to IT is around end-user satisfaction and the ability to proactively address end-user issues,” CEO and cofounder Logan Wray says. “When people…follow an object in ITinvolve, they opt into all of the process activities that may impact that object.”

Social ITSM Captures, Shares Knowledge

In older, ITIL-based ITSM environments, a configuration management database (CMDB) is often employed to connect assets to the underlying processes they depend on. This approach is great as long as the CMDB stays up to date, which is rare, and you care about only things, not the people that have to use them.

Social ITSM is not only about bringing together these two worlds. It’s also about capturing and sharing knowledge across the organization. If Eric, for example, seems to always have answers to common Windows issues, then social ITSM will capture that knowledge (provided people contact Eric via the platform, not by tapping him on the shoulder).

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This does two things. It helps people resolve issues in the way they feel most comfortable—by talking to Eric instead of the service desk, which is more common than you’d like to think—and it lets IT uncover heretofore unknown repositories of knowledge inside and outside the organization.

Basically, says Pink’s Spalding, this is crowdsourcing. “If IT monitors the social channels, then IT can provide the answers,” he says. “If there is an expert out there who’s giving good information and they happen to work for our company, then maybe we also want to bring that expert into the fold.”

Vendors such as FrontRange are extending their service management offerings outside the firewall by including a company’s customers. One client, a large energy company, uses FrontRange as a customer service and interaction tool inside gas stations in 1,100 newly opened marketplaces.

In doing so, says Kevin Smith, vice president and GM of FrontRange’s Cloud business unit, incident management becomes case management and change management becomes managing changes. “It’s making it more for the masses beyond IT,” he says, but the core processes, which have been proven to work, remain consistent.

While social ITSM is more than just a new bolt-on interface, it doesn’t change in any fundamental way how problems or incidents are handled on the back end. It may change how you learn about them or what knowledge base you use to find the answers (think SharePoint), but you’re still working with ITIL and COBIT and all the rest, Spalding says.

BMC’s Frye says more companies began using ITSM tools to serve their customers about five years ago, before social media took off. “Social has helped accelerate that adoption. It did not create it.”

Biggest Social ITSM Challenge: Information Overload

This is all very nice, says Mac McConnell, vice president of marketing of BonitaSoft, an open source BPM provider. But, as with all things new, there’s a caveat emptor: If you let it, social can proliferate and become just one more channel in which information and knowledge becomes siloed. It reminds McConnell of the days of wikis, Intranets and forums. “Nobody knew where to get the information.” (For its part, BonitaSoft doesn’t offer a social interface with its product, as SoftwareAG and other BPM vendors do, but it does integrate with platforms such as Yammer, Chatter and Facebook.)

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Lately companies have been bringing Microsoft SharePoint Server to the mix, too. The popular collaboration tool has become its own data repository and, as a result, yet another data store. Instead of making collaboration easier, it’s one more channel to manage.

Still, the idea of social isn’t going to go away. The interfaces are too well ingrained in how people communicate now that it only makes sense to bring them into the enterprise. Configured correctly, the problems this approach can potentially solve far outweigh any drawbacks—at least for now.

Social does give “pulse” to an organization, McConnell says, but there’s always a danger that adding social to SMS, IM, email, telephone and Chatter conversations will only complicate communication.

“[Say], six months later, I remember a conversation with a colleague,” McConnell says. “Where do I go to find out what we discussed? Now I have to check out seven different areas to do that.”

Allen Bernard is a Columbus, Ohio-based writer who covers IT management and the integration of technology into the enterprise. You can reach him via email or follow him on Twitter @allen_bernard1. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.