Bill Willis was looking for a better way to talk with his customers. As deputy CIO of North Carolina, he needed to know if his organization was doing a good job serving IT users in state government and which aspects of its services needed improvement. But pinning down the facts wasn't easy.
"I was getting overwhelmed by anecdotes," Willis recalled. "I can't fix those. But I can fix numbers."
In 2004, as North Carolina started moving from an agency-based IT structure toward an enterprise operation, the demand for a common language and a set of metrics, grew ever clearer. It's one of the major reasons the state launched a program to deploy the framework called the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL).
Today, the state's Office of Information Technology Services (ITS) is in the midst of a three-phase ITIL implementation. In June, Pink Elephant, an ITIL consultancy in Richmond, Calif. and Burlington, Ontario, gave North Carolina its 2006 award for ITIL Project of the Year.
ITIL is a set of best practices for IT service management, which was developed in the 1980s by the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency , a UK agency now called the Office of Government Commerce. Contained in a series of books, ITIL offers guidelines for providing high-quality IT services using standard processes and establishing measurable performance goals.
When a service organization lacks well defined processes, a problem that takes 10 minutes to resolve on Tuesday, for example, might take an hour and a half on Friday, said Joe Lithgo, director of the operational excellence program at ITS. Or a call for help with a balky PC might get passed like a hot potato from one technical group to the next.
"The ultimate point is to make sure that the computer is restored to normal service operation within the time required, as specified by the established service level," Lithgo said. And the principle of adhering to specification applies not just to troubleshooting, but also to a whole range of service categories, such as configuring systems, introducing changes in technology and installing new releases. "The point is to make IT more responsive to the business and more in line with the business needs."
Lithgo learned about ITIL in early 2004 at a conference in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the IT Services Management Forum. At the time, he was chief operating officer of ITS, which was planning to procure a tool to help refine its incident management and change management processes. Since those are two areas that ITIL addresses, "It was a natural fit," he said.
That same year, Willis became the state's deputy CIO. He arrived with recent ITIL experience. As vice president of global IT for the UK-based communications company Cable and Wireless, he had sponsored a large ITIL project that covered 14 countries. "So we were immediate allies," said Lithgo, who heads the state's ITIL initiative.
In late 2004, ITS established a formal ITIL program. It issued RFPs for training and implementation services and started to benchmark its service activities. In 2005, ITS started training staff in the fundamentals of ITIL, formed a steering committee and created an advisory group, which included the CIOs of various state agencies.
The bulk of the project focuses on three phases of process design. North Carolina completed phase one in 2006, using the ITIL framework to design processes for managing incidents, problems, changes and service levels.
Phase two, scheduled to wind up at the end of this year, covers release management and configuration management, plus some upgrades to help desk policies and procedures. Phase three, covering capacity management, availability management and some upgrades based on the latest release of ITIL, will start early next year.
To illustrate how these processes work, Lithgo described the set that covers
incident management. Those processes assign priorities to different kinds of service interruptions, spell out who must respond to each kind and specify how fast they must respond. Also, under the new regime, the service desk monitors incidents to make sure that response teams meet the standards. "We're putting out reports twice a day for any incidents that we're in danger of breaching," Lithgo said. "The service owners get copies of that report, and they get escalated internally before we breach them."
Each month, a team examines a report on any service breaches that slipped through the safety net, to see if they indicate a trend. If they do, the team tries to figure out the root cause.
One key to the project's success so far has been that each process design team includes people who actually use the processes, Lithgo said. "This wasn't a couple of managers going off in a corner and designing it and saying, 'Thou shalt do it this way.'" Another key was that leaders in the operating divisions assigned their best talent to the project, he said.
Still, an ITIL project, like any initiative that introduces change, will spark some resistance. "You're disrupting comfort zones. You're changing roles in various ways," Lithgo said.
Some employees embrace the new career opportunities that an ITIL implementation presents, while others resent the disruption.
"There'll be some tense months up front," Lithgo said. But issues get resolved as the project unfolds. "Sometimes it takes training, or there may be months when you have some metrics that don't look so good, or some meetings that can be uncomfortable. But we move past that."
With phase one complete, ITS already has gained significant benefits from ITIL. "Overall agency productivity improved 20 percent. Service desk productivity improved 30 percent with no increase in staff," Lithgo said.
Thanks to this rise in efficiency, the state is saving money. The average cost to resolve an incident has dropped from $1,300 to $750, Willis said. "That's $1.4 million a year in lower resources to resolve incidents, because we're doing it faster, cleaner, with less confusion."
North Carolina's IT professionals also are putting out fewer fires. In the past, only 26 percent of changes ITS made to IT systems were carried out according to a plan, Willis said. The rest were emergency changes made at the last minute. As of July, ITS was planning 76 percent of its system changes in advance. As a result, it was making 99 percent of those changes successfully the first time around, compared to 49 percent before the ITIL implementation.
In addition, technicians are resolving incidents faster. "If you'd looked a year ago, you'd have seen 200 to 300 tickets open more than seven days," Willis said. But a recent report found only 11 trouble tickets open one week after the initial complaint. "Things aren't falling through the cracks as much," he said.
North Carolina still has a way to go in sharpening its service performance, Willis said. Using the metrics it has developed with help from ITIL, the organization continually benchmarks itself against its peers to find specific areas it needs to improve. Having this data available makes a big difference.
"Instead of managing by organizational line and turf, you're managing by numbers. You're going from unmeasured -- and to some significant extent, therefore, unmanaged -- to measured and managed," Willis said. "In a consolidation, or in a large organization with delivery goals that change, all of those things are great. They make for very productive discussions."
Contributing Writer Merrill Douglas is based in upstate New York. She specializes in applications of information technology.