Contributing writer

5 ITSM hurdles and how to overcome them

Feb 24, 2022

Doing too much too fast, under-communicating, failing to focus on the business… as with so many IT initiatives these common mistakes can undermine ITSM effectiveness.

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Done right, IT service management (ITSM) reduces IT asset and management costs, increases employee productivity and satisfaction, and gives management insights into how IT resources are being used to help the business.

ITSM is the policies and procedures for designing and delivering IT services to end users. It extends beyond IT support or help desk to all the monitoring, management, and troubleshooting needed to consistently improve IT services to meet the needs of the business.

Effective ITSM requires, among other things, identifying which technology components such as servers and databases support which applications, properly documenting that knowledge and fine-tuning support processes. Over time, as these relationships and dependencies become more complex, ITSM can become overly expensive and too focused on technology rather than the business.

Here are some common ways ITSM can go wrong and how to avoid them.

Boiling the ocean

“Don’t do too much too fast,” says Christian Hjortkjær, head of IT asset and service management at Copenhagen Airport. Using ServiceNow’s ITSM platform, “We started out with core ITSM, such as incident management and change management” but limited their use to platforms such as laptops and software. The airport then slowly expanded ITSM to other services such as the ordering of access cards and parking permits. “Had we offered all the services from the beginning we would have failed miserably because it requires time and resources.”

Creating a knowledge base for users was another area where “we have been overly ambitious,” he says, failing to put in place proper processes to upgrade and maintain it.  Sifting through inaccuracies and outdated information can require time and effort to correct when remediating problems, says Hjortkjær.

“Start small with core functions and review them on a regular basis. Ensure these feel part of the culture of your IT organization before jumping to advanced activities such as AI,” says Chris Matchett, a senior research director at Gartner. Document and optimize processes before automating them, he suggests. “If the process is fundamentally broken then automation can only give you the wrong outcome again and again.”

One of the first steps for Hjortkjær was leveraging ServiceNow to create a common data source, commonly referred to as a configuration management database (CMDB), “with well-documented links to business applications. Use of the CMDB to track, for example, which services are dependent on which servers helps the IT staff determine which outages are most critical, to begin recovering them, and to quickly notify users of those applications about the issue,” he says.

Customers using the ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) framework for ITSM should be sure to create a clear, well-defined IT service catalog and management processes says Rubén Ávila Calvo, CTO at inspection and testing company Applus.  ITIL “implies that you have a clear definition of processes, roles, and responsibilities where each stage is properly documented, responsibilities are clear, and there’s a procedure in place that ensures the service is delivered with a committed SLA [service level agreement]. Failing to provide this can lead to higher costs and lower-quality service as service issues are routed to the wrong staff,” he says.

Cecile Blackburn, global end user services lead at agricultural chemicals firm Corteva, remembers one weekend when a user support ticket was routed to a support team that did not work over the weekend, rather than to the team that did. “We really disrupted the business because of the difficulty of equating” the business service with the IT components providing that service, she says.

Neglecting the business 

It’s tempting to focus on the “IT” in ITSM, but its real aim is to deliver business services. Failing to design ITSM with the business in mind, and to describe its benefits in business terms, reduces adoption and makes using it more confusing for the business.

“If I sit in the business I don’t really care how many incidents IT has had,” says Hjortkjær. “All I care about is my application, how many incidents does my application have, and how did I resolve them?” He can only provide meaningful reports to the CEO “if I can link my incidents to the correct configuration item, which is then connected to the correct business application” and put in context of how those services help improve airport operations.  

A challenge Corteva has addressed using ServiceNow ITSM is how to connect disparate IT components, so that the application owner doesn’t have “to chase server, database, and firewall teams just to build an application to deliver to the business. That means lots of wasted time. There are delays in getting tickets logged and delays in finding out how to solve the problem,” says Kshitij Bahadur, enterprise service integration lead at Corteva.

Eugene Mejia, deputy chief technology officer of the town of Gilbert, Arizona, and his team made improving the experience for the town’s 1,600 employees a key business driver for its ITSM efforts. He and the IT leadership team use monthly employee surveys to measure their success at developing features such as the quality of Web interfaces and mobile apps to facilitate remote work. They use Cisco Unified Communications Manager and Webex Contact Center to manage call queues for service requests and troubleshooting.

Such a focus on employee experience is “very compelling” for C-level executives who must fund ITSM, says Forrester analyst Will McKeon-White.  

Failing to communicate

Unclear communication makes it far more difficult to explain the value of ITSM to the business, to properly organize ITSM efforts, to set expectations for its deployment and to secure proper funding for it.  

Hjortkjær suggests using the CMDB to map IT components to business applications, assign ownership of those applications to both IT and business sponsors, and ask those sponsors to explain the role of each application to the business, as well as how best to use it and eventually when to replace it.

Thomas Smith, director of telecommunications and IT support at funeral goods and services provider Service Corp. International, recommends being candid about schedules. “One of the biggest mistakes we made in the past, and still make, is to say `We’re going to get it done in three months.’ Four months later, everyone is still hoping for three months,” he says. Understand any deficiencies in your ITSM tool or services, he recommends, “and tell the business process owners `We have a plan to address it.’”

Calvo says the terms of SLAs, such as those it created using BMC’s Helix ITSM platform, can help set expectations and reduce frustration from users who “think everything should be solved ASAP.”

Clear communication can also help business owners agree on when when customization is worth the future maintenance headaches it creates, says  McKeon-White. “Everyone is trying to meet the organization’s needs in the way they understand. But they may not be aligned to things like customer outcomes, reduced risk management, and so on,” he says.  

It is also necessary, says Smith, to specifically define what users need in ITSM support tools such as the Ivanti Neurons for ITSM platform he used. This may include, for example, “What a user is seeing on their W-9 form, in a benefits interface on the web, or what they mean by `the screen keeps crashing,’” he says. Such requirements may be difficult to nail down because, for example, “an HR staff member may not understand the difference berween an incident and a service request.” He consults with IT and business users to share terms and definitions to ensure everyone understands what each requirement means and have agreed on their priority.


McKeon-White calls over-customization one of the biggest challenges he sees in ITSM projects. Customers modify ITSM systems “for what they feel are legitimate reasons,” he says. As more changes are made to the system and the employees who made those changes leave the company over time, “it’s impossible to reconstruct what changes were made or why, making the ITSM system harder to manage and upgrade…. The problem is less each individual function that is customized, but how all those customizations work together,” he says. Because of the number and complexity of interactions among the components in an ITSM platform, he says, “If you want to change anything you can’t, because if you touch one thing it will break something else.”

Bahadur agrees, saying that often “various IT teams establish their own support practices—and some more robust than the others.” He recommends resisting pressure to implement these processes as exceptions. “One day you may realize that you have more exceptions that you can handle, and the tool has been customized so much that it becomes difficult to maintain.”

“Rather than do a lot of customization, we want to use as many workflows out of the box as we can and change our processes and workflows,” says Mejia, because the creators of ITIL  and ITSM tools “are the experts.”

Firing and forgetting

ITSM cannot be fully implemented as a time-limited project,” says Matchett. Failing to provide ongoing management and training can reduce ITSM effectiveness, especially as business requirements and the ITSM tool itself changes, he says.

Most ITSM tools are offered as software-as-a-service, meaning the software provider rather than the customer maintains the underlying infrastructure. However, says McKeon-White, customers should plan for “one or two people to do ongoing optimization, whether serving customers, improving resiliency, reducing change risks, better incident management processes, making sure everyone who helps resolve the problem gets all the right information and understanding the state of work in progress.”

Hjortkjær says ITSM requires continuous education for users in new processes, especially when moving to more advanced platforms. These can “demonstrate the cool features, the fancy features, the impacts ITSM can apply to your daily work, from dashboards to reports to shortcuts … (the) many ways you can set up your ITSM screen to make you more productive and help you in your daily work.”

As with so many IT initiatives, service management works best when it is designed around business needs, its values are clearly communicated, it does not incur long-term hidden technical debt, and it is properly managed over time.